December 6, 2010 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Forget about Leaks, the Real Problem is Slipshod Diplomacy

IN a democracy, the occasional leak is inevitable. The only way to prevent leaks is to conduct no diplomacy and share no information, and that is a cure worse than the disease. But few leaks are as big, or as damaging, as the tens of thousands of US State Department cables that scandal-mongering Australian activist Julian Assange has dumped into the public domain.
The irony is that the leaks are not damaging because of what they reveal. The cables, for example, show that Saudi Arabia is far more concerned about the Iranian nuclear programme than it is with the fate of the Palestinians. This should shock only those who are resolutely ignorant about the realities of the Middle East.

The cables reveal that administration officials have concluded that North Korea has helped Iran's missile programme. Back in 2002, George W. Bush was mocked when he said that North Korea and Iran were part of an axis of evil. Today, their collaboration is acknowledged even by the Obama administration.

And the cables show that Russia had been engaged in a campaign of subversion and sabotage against Georgia that began in 2004, long before the 2008 war. In a secret briefing to US officials last January, a Spanish prosecutor described Russia as a "mafia state". To anyone who has paid the slightest attention to Russia's bullying treatment of its neighbors, or the 2006 assassination of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London, this is not news.

What is news is how the Obama administration, and the US news media, have responded to the leaks. Or, rather, how they have not responded.

The administration has successfully pressured to stop hosting the WikiLeaks site. With journalists all over the world salivating at the thought of the next release, that is a closing of the barn door triumph if ever there was one.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been pressed into duty to start apologising to leaders the world over, but it seems unlikely that Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King – who according to the cables raised "great concerns" over David Cameron's "lack of experience" – is going to want to kiss and make up.

US Attorney General Eric Holder says America is conducting "an active, criminal investigation," but so far, progress has been slow at best. After expressing generic "concern" in July, President Obama has said nothing of substance about the case. And, by and large, the media has followed his lead and focused all their attention on the supposedly stunning secrets the cables reveal.

But that is missing the point. The WikiLeaks case is to the Obama administration what the relentless leaks on Iraq were to the Bush administration. What all these leaks, collectively, reveal is that too many US officials are no longer conducting themselves as professionals.

If you work in the government, and you disagree with a policy, you have only two honorable choices: follow the policy and keep your mouth shut, or resign and speak out. Over the past decade, US officials – and in particular the State Department and the intelligence services – have cultivated a third way, an ethic of irresponsible leaking.

Of course, there are leaks and there are leaks. When the leaks offer a chance to hurt a Republican, the media salivates, denounces the administration's failure, and demands resignations. When the leaks hurt a Democrat, the media emphasises the fun of revealing secrets and fails to connect the dots. And there are a lot of dots to connect.

What does it say about the Obama administration's eagerness to conclude a nuclear deal with Russia that the WikiLeaks cables emphasise Russia's role in proliferating missile technology, and describe it as a "kleptocracy"? What does it say about the "reset" policy with Russia that Russia has directed car bombs and missile attacks against Georgia? What does it say that no one in the region shares the Administration's obsession with Israeli settlements, and the Palestinians, as the key to peace in the Middle East?

But the problem is not, simply, that the Obama administration's foreign policy is based on hopes, wishes, and fantasies. That is sad, but it is not news. There was no need for secret cables to reveal that Russia has links with arms smugglers, that Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan is a difficult ally, or that the US Embassy regarded Gordon Brown as a "disaster". That latter observation falls into category of an obvious truth.

What is news is that, when confronted by an ongoing series of huge leaks, the administration has responded feebly, belatedly, and with fire focused on Assange. Make no mistake: Assange is indeed, as Hillary Clinton has said, an enemy of responsible government, with an understanding of freedom of the Press and of the principles of diplomacy that would disgrace a child. And if it does not unnecessarily impede vital co-operation, there is nothing wrong with tightening up security procedures.

But Assange is not the main problem. Without professionalism, no security procedures can work. The main problem is the repeated failures of professionalism in the US foreign policy establishment that have made Assange possible. These failures that will only make life for the many true professionals in the government even harder, encourage everyone involved to evade uncomfortable realities, and reduce the chances that the truths revealed by the WikiLeaks cables will find expression in US foreign policy.

The US will never be able to sustain a serious, professional foreign policy without serious, professional diplomats. While the substance of the latest leaks may provide cheer for conservatives, these breaches of confidence, extending through administrations of all political stripes, are bad news for all Americans who believe their country needs, and deserves, a foreign policy establishment worthy of the nation's confidence.
Ted R Bromund is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Yorkshire Post