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Saturday, December 04, 2010
There have been various suggestions as to what to do to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, after a week in which his revelations have severely embarrassed US diplomacy. Tom Flanagan, a former aide to the Canadian prime minister, called for his assassination, and then regretted his glib remark. Mike Huckabee said that those found guilty of leaking the cables should be executed for putting national security at risk. You would expect a future Republican presidential candidate to say that. But a Democrat administration is close behind. A team from the justice department and the Pentagon are exploring whether to charge Mr Assange under the Espionage Act. The US attorney general, Eric Holder, has said this is not sabre-rattling. Are they all about to turn into minions of which Richard Nixon would have been proud?
More insidious than that was the complacent yawn emanating from from sections of the liberal commentariat for which freedom of information is a given. So what's new about the Gulf Arab Sunnis wanting America or Israel to bomb Iran, or Colonel Gaddafi's taste for blonde Ukrainian nurses, or Nicolas Sarkozy being described as mercurial and authoritarian, they sneer. Maybe for them, nothing is new. Would that we all could be so wise. But for large areas of the world which do not have the luxury of being able to criticise their governments, the revelations about the private thoughts of their own leaders are important.
The yawners from Primrose Hill or inside the Beltway forget that when WikiLeaks exposed high-level corruption in Kenya, toxic waste in Africa and all manner of nefarious deeds in the former Soviet bloc, they applauded it. They hailed the whistleblowers as brave democrats. But when the alleged leaker comes from within their own ranks – in this case a 23-year-old US military intelligence analyst, Bradley Manning, who now faces 52 years in prison – then it is a different matter: it is treason, a threat to national security. Close WikiLeaks down, run it off the internet, the cry goes up. All it takes is one call from Joe Lieberman, the chairman of the Senate committee on homeland security, and internet hosting providers buckle at the knees. Yesterday the French joined in. Viewed from China, which has been lectured for censoring the internet, this reaction must seem … very Chinese. Let's face it. In these cold December days, there is nothing more warming than a witch-hunt.
The cables are more than just embarrassing. They reveal the gap that has opened in some parts of the world, like Yemen, between Hillary Clinton's stated aims to fight terrorism and spread democracy around the world, and the means her country uses to do this. In Yemen's case, US air strikes against al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula in December 2009 killed dozens of civilians along with wanted jihadis. The means to the end involves dealing with Yemen's "bizarre and petulant" president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who told General David Petraeus, then head of US Central Command, that he and his ministers would continue to lie to their country that American bombs were theirs. If anything will turn Yemen into a facsimile of the tribal belt in Pakistan, this will. Saleh has warned that his country is on the brink of becoming Somalia.
There are no easy ways of combating an organisation which recruited Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who tried to blow up a Dutch passenger plane over Detroit. But each time Tomahawks are used to swat a fly, they stir up a hornet's nest. Each time the US goes to the aid of a weak state, it somehow manages to weaken it further. And each time it listens to the likes of President Saleh, it gets it wrong. If US diplomats come out of the WikiLeaks saga in good shape, some of the policies they help form do not. And no one should be yawning about that.