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What We Learn From WikiLeaks: Media Paint Flattering Picture of US Diplomacy

In U.S. elite media, the main revelation of the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables is that the U.S. government conducts its foreign policy in a largely admirable fashion. Fareed Zakaria, Time (12/2/10):

In U.S. elite media, the main revelation of the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables is that the U.S. government conducts its foreign policy in a largely admirable fashion.

Fareed Zakaria, Time (12/2/10):

“The WikiLeaks documents, by contrast [to the Pentagon Papers], show Washington pursuing privately pretty much the policies it has articulated publicly. Whether on Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan or North Korea, the cables confirm what we know to be U.S. foreign policy. And often this foreign policy is concerned with broader regional security, not narrow American interests. Ambassadors are not caught pushing other countries in order to make deals secretly to strengthen the U.S., but rather to solve festering problems.”

David Sanger, New York Times (12/5/10):

“While WikiLeaks made the trove available with the intention of exposing United States duplicity, what struck many readers was that American diplomacy looked rather impressive. The day-by-day record showed diplomats trying their hardest behind closed doors to defuse some of the world’s thorniest conflicts, but also assembling a Plan B.”

David Brooks, New York Times (11/30/10):
“Despite the imaginings of people like Assange, the conversation revealed in the cables is not devious and nefarious. The private conversation is similar to the public conversation, except maybe more admirable.”

New York Times editorial (11/30/10):

“But what struck us, and reassured us, about the latest trove of classified documents released by WikiLeaks was the absence of any real skullduggery. After years of revelations about the Bush administration’s abuses—including the use of torture and kidnappings—much of the Obama administration’s diplomatic wheeling and dealing is appropriate and, at times, downright skillful.”

Christopher Dickey and Andrew Bast, Newsweek (12/13/10):

“One of the great ironies of the latest WikiLeaks dump, in fact, is that the industrial quantities of pilfered State Department documents actually show American diplomats doing their jobs the way diplomats should, and doing them very well indeed. When the cables detail corruption at the top of the Afghan government, the Saudi king’s desire to be rid of the Iranian threat, the personality quirks of European leaders or the state of the Russian mafiacracy, the reporting is very much in line with what the press has already told the public. There’s no big disconnect about the facts; no evidence—in the recent cables at least—that the United States government is trying to deceive the public or itself.”

Bob Garfield, NPR’s On the Media (12/3/10):

“The stories so far have been revealing but unsurprising, it seems to me, and not especially indicting. It’s made me wonder whether WikiLeaks is a legitimate whistleblower in this case or just a looter. Has Julian Assange shed light here with the release of 253,000 cables or has he just smashed a very big store window?”

Anne Applebaum, Washington Post (12/7/10):

“By now, I think we have learned that Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has vast ambitions. Among them is the end of American government as we know it. On his website he describes the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables in dramatic and sinister terms, evoking the lost ideals of George Washington and claiming that they demonstrate a profound gap between the United States’ “public persona and what it says behind closed doors.” Alas, the cables don’t live up to that promise. On the contrary—as others have noted—they show that U.S. diplomats pursue pretty much the same goals in private as they do in public, albeit using more caustic language.”

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These conclusions represent an extraordinarily narrow reading of the WikiLeaks cables, of which about 1,000 have been released (contrary to constant media claims that the website has already released 250,000 cables). Some of the more explosive revelations, unflattering to U.S. policymakers, have received less attention in U.S. corporate media. Among the revelations that, by any sensible reading, show U.S. diplomatic efforts of considerable concern:

—The U.S. attempted to prevent German authorities from acting on arrest warrants against 13 CIA officers who were instrumental in the abduction and subsequent torture of German citizen Khaled El-Masri (Scott Horton,, 11/29/10; New York Times, 12/9/10).

—The U.S. worked to obstruct Spanish government investigations into the killing of a Spanish journalist in Iraq by U.S. forces, the use of Spanish airfields for the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” program and torture of Spanish detainees at Guantánamo (El Pais, 12/2/10; Scott Horton,, 12/1/10).

—WikiLeaks coverage has often emphasized that Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh reassured U.S. officials that he would claim U.S. military airstrikes in his country were the work of Yemeni forces. But as Justin Elliot pointed out (Salon, 12/7/10), the United States has long denied carrying out airstrikes in the country at all. The secret attacks have killed scores of civilians.

—According to the cables, U.S. Special Forces are actively conducting operations inside Pakistan, despite repeated government denials (Jeremy Scahill, Nation, 12/1/10).

—The U.S. ambassador to Honduras concluded that the 2009 removal of president Manuel Zelaya was indeed a coup, and that backers of this action provided no compelling evidence to support their legal claims (Robert Naiman, Just Foreign Policy, 11/29/10). Despite the conclusions reached in the cable, official U.S. statements remained ambiguous. If the Obama administration had reached the same conclusion in public as was made in the cable, the outcome of the coup might have been very different.

—The U.S. secured a secret agreement with Britain to allow U.S. bases on British soil to stockpile cluster bombs, circumventing a treaty signed by Britain. The U.S. also discouraged other countries from working to ban the weapons, which have devastating effects on civilian populations (Guardian, 12/1/10).

—The U.S. engaged in an array of tactics to undermine opposition to U.S. climate change policies, including bribes and surveillance (Guardian, 12/3/10).

—U.S. diplomats in Georgia were uncritical of that country’s claims about Russian interference, a dispute that eventually led to a brief war (New York Times, 12/2/10). U.S. officials “appeared to set aside skepticism and embrace Georgian versions of important and disputed events….as the region slipped toward war, sources outside the Georgian government were played down or not included in important cables. Official Georgian versions of events were passed to Washington largely unchallenged.”

—U.S. officials put forward sketchy intelligence as proof that Iran had secured 19 long-range missiles from North Korea—claims that were treated as fact by the New York Times, which subsequently walked back its credulous reporting (FAIR Activism Update, 12/3/10)

All of these examples—an incomplete tally of the important revelations in the cables thus far—would suggest that there is plenty in the WikiLeaks releases that does not reflect particularly well on U.S. policymakers.

In its “Note to Readers” explaining their decision to publish stories about the cables, the New York Times (11/29/10) told readers that “the documents serve an important public interest, illuminating the goals, successes, compromises and frustrations of American diplomacy.”

The paper went on:
“But the more important reason to publish these articles is that the cables tell the unvarnished story of how the government makes its biggest decisions, the decisions that cost the country most heavily in lives and money. They shed light on the motivations—and, in some cases, duplicity—of allies on the receiving end of American courtship and foreign aid. They illuminate the diplomacy surrounding two current wars and several countries, like Pakistan and Yemen, where American military involvement is growing.”

The “duplicity” of other countries can be illuminated by the cables, while the U.S.’s secret wars are evidence of “diplomacy.” That principle would seem to be guiding the way many U.S. outlets are interpretating the WikiLeaks revelations.