Why are diplomatic cables secret at all? It's a fair question to ask as we assess the WikiLeaks disclosures and the damage they may do. Overall, there are very few surprises in these cables. Anyone who regularly reads this newspaper, follows congressional debates, or watches cable news will know that there is tension between the United States and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, that the Arabs want us to stand up to Iran, that Fatah hates Hamas, and that we are having trouble getting countries to accept the people we want to release from Guantanamo.
Huge numbers of embassy cables are labeled "unclassified" or "limited official use" and deal with mundane matters. But the WikiLeaks trove shows why the State Department insists that some must be "confidential" or "secret," a higher classification: They contain descriptions of American strategies and bargaining positions, or frank assessments of foreign leaders and regimes with which we must still work.
While British diplomatic telegrams are far better at poison-pen portraits (and are generally better written), these State Department messages do contain some admirably tough evaluations. Reading Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tell the French that "Russian democracy has disappeared and the government was an oligarchy run by the security services" is an example, and it is reassuring to know he speaks so candidly to our allies.
The WikiLeaks cables so far released also show how U.S. ambassadors vary in quality. Ambassador James Jeffrey's analysis of Turkey's new foreign policy is sharp and well written. Ambassador Hugo Llorens's message from Honduras about the June 2009 overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya reveals how the Obama administration blundered into backing an ally of Hugo Chavez against the Honduran people's unified desire to throw the bum out.
In most cases, cables are marked secret not because the U.S. requires it but because those speaking to us—the foreign leaders across the table—do. They are not keeping secrets from us, but from two other groups: their enemies and their subjects.
Regarding their enemies, foreign leaders need secrecy for self-protection. The weak plead with us to save them, but to their enemies they also plead—that they are not enemies, that they too dislike the Americans, that they all have common interests, and so on. The WikiLeaks disclosures make that game harder now.
We find the king of Bahrain telling American officials privately that the Iranian nuclear program "must be stopped," while in public he carefully avoids any comment that might anger Iran's aggressive leaders. The ayatollahs may have suspected what the king, a Sunni, was saying in private. Now they know, and they may decide to create trouble between him and his restive Shiite-majority population. The danger and possible damage are clear.
The second and most important reason foreign leaders ask for secrecy is that they are protecting themselves from their own populations. Dictators and authoritarians don't tell their people the truths they tell us; their public speeches are meant to manipulate, not to inform. Instead of educating their citizens, as one might have to do in a democracy, they posture and preen on state-owned television stations and in state-controlled newspapers. Their approach is striking: Tell the truth to foreigners but not to your own population.
So in Yemen, for example, we see President Ali Abdullah Saleh discussing action against al Qaeda and insisting, "We'll continue to say the bombs are ours not yours." He is seeking to avoid the charge that he is cooperating with a foreign, non-Muslim power which is killing Yemenis, that he is handing his country over to the infidels.
Cables reporting on U.S.-German, U.S.-French, or U.S.-Canadian consultations are different—those governments say to their parliaments what they say to us. A leaked report of a conversation about Germany's possible indictment of CIA agents is embarrassing neither to Washington nor Berlin. U.S. and German officials discussed their respective interests, including how public opinion and elected legislators may react. In a conversation with our deputy ambassador, the German deputy national security adviser "also cited intense pressure from the Bundestag and the German media. The German federal Government must consider the 'entire political context,'" he concluded. That's how foreign policy is made in a democracy.
The juicy leaks rarely involve our democratic allies, but rather countries in which free elections, free speech and a free press don't exist. There, public affairs may be discussed candidly only in the royal palace or the U.S. Embassy—behind closed doors, to be protected in a secret cable.
So the WikiLeaks disclosures make interesting reading in London, Ottawa and Tokyo, but in the capitals of some weak and undemocratic American allies they are a very unpleasant surprise. We can easily denounce the gap between private and public discourse in such countries, and the lack of real public debate on key security issues. But when we consider the identities of some of the people they fear—the ayatollahs in Tehran, terrorists in Hamas and Hezbollah, al Qaeda itself—we see that the WikiLeaks disclosures are less likely to promote more open government than to give aid and comfort to the enemy.
Mr. Abrams served as an assistant secretary of state from 1981 to 1989 and as a deputy national security adviser from 2005 to 2009.
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