Shadow Government

WikiLeaks only interested in damaging U.S. foreign policy

The latest dump of classified information stolen from the U.S. government is extraordinarily damaging to U.S. national security, but not in the way that WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, apparently intended. (If the summer leak was a gusher what does that make this latest round, a tsunami?)

Assange is a garden-variety anti-American who believes that the United States is a malevolent actor which engages in all sorts of shameful secret activities that, if revealed, would discredit all aspects of American power. Prior to earlier dumps of classified material, Assange claimed that the secret files would document massive war crimes by the United States. They did not.

Based on the depictions of the cables in the media (the New York Times coverage begins here, the Guardian coverage begins here, and Der Spiegel's coverage begins here, it appears the same thing is true for this latest batch. The media apparently found no instances of shameful behavior -- I am assuming that if they had done so, they would have led with those stories. Instead, the cables document that American diplomats have been doing what they are supposed to be doing: collecting information, reporting their opinions and insights back to headquarters, and trying to build international cooperation in pursuit of core American foreign-policy goals.

The cables document that diplomats often relay information that would be, well, undiplomatic to say publicly. Diplomats often get foreign interlocutors to be more candid when they believe their discussions will remain confidential. Diplomats also opine on a range of topics -- the limitations of current lines of U.S. policy or the weaknesses of allies -- that would compromise an administration's effectiveness if shared with a general audience, but not because the views were dishonorable, or indicated that the United States was engaged in reprehensible behavior.

Assange's damage to the United States is not in what he discovered about the past, but rather in the peril he has placed our diplomats, our friends and partners, and our policies in the future. The massive security breach has made every bilateral relationship more difficult and likely lowered the quality of diplomatic reporting. Will our interlocutors be as candid now that they have seen what happens? Ironically, Assange's attack on our diplomats has meant that our statecraft may be more dependent on cruder instruments of state power, especially brute force. (Elsewhere on FP, Dan Drezner reads the situation just as I do and notes one further likely result: an uptick in intelligence failures as the bureaucracy responds by stove piping information to prevent future espionage of this sort.)

If WikiLeaks had uncovered evidence of gross misdeeds, I suppose reasonable people could debate the balance of interests the dump might have served. Outlandish claims to the contrary notwithstanding, the leaks have done nothing of the sort. Instead, they have damaged the United States and in doing so achieved no higher purpose than the damage they have done. To fervent anti-Americans, weakening the United States is an end unto itself.

In wartime, we should expect enemies to seek to damage us in this way. How will President Obama respond to an enemy attack of this sort?

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Shouts and whispers at the Defense Ministerial of the Americas

Nobody should have been surprised when Bolivian President Evo Morales opened the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas (CDMA) in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on Nov. 22 with a one-hour stem-winder against the United States. Given his commitment to leftist populism, it would have been out of character for him to ignore his radical support base or sponsors in Cuba and Venezuela. Still, the conference was not a disaster.

In the end, ministers agreed to support a system of tracking expenditures on conventional arms in both the United Nations and the Organization of American States, to develop cooperative mechanisms to speed military aid to civil authorities in disaster response, and strengthen civilian competency in managing defense ministries. Moreover, they declined to approve Bolivia's motions condemning the United States.

Despite opportunities for incendiary rhetoric, such meetings let senior leaders talk one-on-one with counterparts about issues of mutual interest. Often, the most useful gatherings are not the droning plenaries filled with long speeches, but pull-asides outside the main hall in which decision-makers share private concerns. Since so many of these can't possibly take place through individual travels to Washington or in foreign capitals, it makes sense to take advantage of the proximity that a summit brings.

In unscripted encounters, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates undoubtedly got ear loads on a variety of sensitive topics. He also had several chances to urge agreement on matters important to the United States: counternarcotics, curbing unnecessary weapons purchases, boosting cooperation in disaster response, and strengthening the competency of civilians now working in most of the hemisphere's defense ministries -- much of which made it into the final declaration.

On all sides, participants had time to meet on specific bilateral matters, or to debate such topics as defense spending, donor-recipient relationships, and whether defense and public security missions should be combined or exist as separate functions. These conversations aid mutual awareness and often influence policy-making in neighboring capitals.

What to make of the hosts? Bolivia volunteered to hold an upcoming CDMA during the 2006 ministerial in Managua, and delegations at the eighth conference in Banff, Canada accepted its offer. Shortly thereafter, Morales cooled relations with the United States and set the stage for a tense summit by arbitrarily ejecting U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg. Still, Defense Minister Ruben Saavedra reportedly said that Bolivia wanted to improve security ties with the United States in the run-up to this year's meeting.

Thinking otherwise, President Morales began by charging that Washington had instigated coups in Bolivia, Venezuela, Honduras, and Ecuador. He called a U.S. congressman critical of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez an assassin and stated that Latin America didn't need economic aid if it involved the kind of market reforms advocated by the International Monetary Fund.

Vice President Alvaro García Linera closed the conference calling for the creation of a unified Latin American state from Mexico to Argentina to blunt the influence of Canada and the United States, as well as the establishment of a Latin American military school and separate military doctrine -- presumably reflecting Venezuelan and Cuban models.

If creating a ruckus defines success, Morales won -- judging by all of the column inches devoted to his remarks. But his was a political rant that didn't match the conference purpose, the demeanor of many of the Bolivian organizers, or the viewpoints of all participants. His one substantive input, on eliminating bank secrecy laws to target narcotics-related money laundering, failed to move.

García's statements suggested a cultural confrontation not terribly relevant to the region's more democratic governments in this era of global interdependence. They seemed uninformed given that most countries have military or police schools that already partner with neighbors and extra-hemispheric players in offering and receiving exchanges and assistance. Nor did they square with U.S. policy encouraging Latin American allies to develop leadership and self-sufficiency in security matters.

Perhaps 15 years ago, the creators of the CDMA process may have contemplated a forum that might include testy members and even hosts whose inputs would be contentious. After all, dissent helps guard against complacency and can focus participants on tasks at hand. And so it may have been that while shouts made headlines, quiet discussions were able to move the agenda forward.

Defense ministers who gathered in Santa Cruz this past week should feel proud they opted for cooperation over division. The citizens of their countries are better off for it.

AIZAR RALDES/AFP/Getty Images