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No Top Secrets, but Damaging Nonetheless

The dump of U.S. diplomatic cables reveals few deep secrets but may bury diplomatic trust in the short run.

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Inter Press Service

While the massive dump of some 250,000 internal U.S. diplomatic communications by Wikileaks includes none marked "top secret", their dissemination is already causing considerable embarrassment and may well inflict longer-term damage on Washington's foreign relations.

Most analysts here said the initial exposure of nearly 250 of the documents – or only about one-thousandth of the total cache – contained no major surprises for those who follow U.S. foreign policy closely.

"Much of what we have seen thus far confirms more than it informs," wrote Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and a former senior diplomat in the two Bush administrations, on CFR's website Monday.

"We are not surprised to read U.S. diplomatic cables reporting that corruption in Afghanistan is rampant; that prominent Sunni Arab leaders are more worried about Iran and its nuclear programme than they are about Israel; that it has been difficult to get other governments to accept Guantanamo detainees; that Syria's government maintains close ties to Hezbollah despite assurances to the contrary; or that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a man of questionable character," he wrote.

Haass's colleague, CFR vice president James Lindsay, noted that U.S. citizens could take some comfort from the revelation in many of the cables that Washington's private messages to foreign leaders were generally not so different from its public statements.

"We now have proof that in many instances U.S. diplomats said the same things in private that they have said in public," he wrote in an on-line chat hosted by the Washington Post Monday afternoon. He conceded, however, that some of the cables will undoubtedly cause "heartburn" in Washington.

Among these, most significantly, were the disclosure that Washington has secretly tried – so far without apparent success – to persuade the Pakistani government to move some of its fissile material from the country; an admission by Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in January this year that he had just lied to parliament that his forces had conducted strikes against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula when, in fact, they were undertaken by U.S.-controlled pilotless aircraft; and serial complaints about Qatar's alleged failure to cooperate in U.S. counterterrorism efforts.

In addition, the disclosures that have received the most attention in media here – that a number of senior Sunni Arab leaders, among them Saudi King Abdullah, reportedly have appealed privately to their U.S. interlocutors at various times in recent years for military strikes, if necessary, against Iran to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon – are likely to cause serious embarrassment to their regimes, which have publicly warned against any move that could lead to war.

The contradiction between these leaders' private and public stances could provoke considerable consternation – and perhaps more – across the Arab world. According to the latest edition of the 10-year-old Arab Public Opinion poll published here in August, nearly four in five respondents said they supported Iran's right to pursue its nuclear programme, and nearly six in 10 said they believed Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons could lead to a "more positive" outcome in the Middle East.

The survey covered Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan, the three countries where support for Iran's programme was highest, as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where support was lower.

"Will this great transgression of the private/public divide in Arab politics create a moment of reckoning in which the Arab public finally asserts itself?" asked Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University, in his blog on foreignpolicy.com Monday. "Or will it be one in which Arab leaders finally stop deferring to Arab public opinion and start acting out on their private beliefs?"

"Thus far, most of the mainstream Arab media seems to be either ignoring the Wikileaks revelations or else reporting it in generalities, i.e. reporting that it's happening but not the details in the cables," he went on. "I imagine there are some pretty tense scenes in Arab newsrooms right now, as they try to figure out how to cover the news within their political constraints."

In the meantime, the leaks themselves are likely to make communication between U.S. diplomats and Arab leaders considerably more difficult, according to ret. Amb. Charles Freeman, Jr., who represented Washington in Riyadh during the 1991 Gulf War.

"It will be a long time before anyone in the region will speak candidly to an American official. If you cannot speak in confidence with someone, you will not speak to them," he told IPS, adding that the exposure of the apparent hypocrisy among Arab leaders could well enhance Iran's position and prestige there.

Indeed, circumspection in communications with U.S. diplomats is likely to become the norm in many of the world's capitals, at least in the short term, according to most observers, who pointed out that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's announcement that she has directed that strong measures be taken "so this kind of breach does not ever happen again" is unlikely to reassure many of its interlocutors.

That will also likely be particularly true in light of yet another damaging disclosure contained in the documents: that State Department officials have been under orders since 2008 to gather credit-card, frequent-flier, telephone numbers and other personal information regarding foreign and United Nations officials – a task normally reserved for the intelligence community.

CFR's Haass suggested the loss of confidence that Washington can protect its secrets could in fact be among the most damaging of the "longer-term" consequences of the latest Wikileaks dump.

"Foreign governments may think twice before sharing their secrets or even their candid judgments with American counterparts lest they read about them on the Internet. And American diplomats may be less willing to commit their thoughts to paper. Such reticence will deprive policymakers of an important source of information and make decisionmaking more ad hoc and less systematic than it needs to be," he observed.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com.

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