We are shocked, shocked by the statements of the obvious contained in many of the 250,000 secret cables that Julian Assange released Sunday on Wikileaks. While I might not endorse the conclusion of my friend and co-author David Samuels that Assange should be awarded the Pulitzer for his internet revelations about American foreign policy (I'm told only American citizens are eligible), it's hard to argue that Americans will be horrified by evidence that diplomats say one thing publicly about both foes and allies, and another altogether in private.
Ok. Maybe American diplomats should have thought twice in e-mailed diplomatic cables before calling Vladimir Putin Russia's "Alpha Dog" or Germany's Angela Merkel a leader who "avoids risk and is seldom creative" – though Americans following foreign affairs might think that obvious.
And maybe the GOP's Rep. Peter King (N.Y), who will soon head the House's Homeland Security committee, is right to worry about the impact of the War on Terror by the disclosure that Yemen has been covering up American air strikes on Al Qaeda-aligned militants in his country, or that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's deputy joked about lying to Yemen's parliament about that subterfuge. Ouch. But did those Yemeni parliamentarians really believe that Yemeni rather than American drones were targeting suicide bombers and terrorist plotters in their country?
Or, on terrorist funding, is anyone shocked that American diplomats think that Saudi money, despite efforts by Riyadh to reign in public and private giving to Al Qaeda and other militants, remains a major source of funding for terrorist groups? Are such revelations, as Italy's foreign minister called them, the "9/11 of international diplomacy"? Nah.
Consider the Middle East, or specifically, what to do about Iran's nuclear program. Unless you have lived on a distant planet, you might have suspected that Arab leaders (or even American diplomats, for that matter) might privately favor military action against Iran's nuclear facilities, but be unwilling to endorse strikes in public. Should we be stunned by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah's repeated plea to Washington to strike Iran, or "cut off the head of the snake" while there is "still time"? Is American national policy undermined by the disclosure that Washington persuaded Saudi Arabia to promise China a guaranteed source of energy if it would join in pressuring Iran?
Nor is it a shocker that Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, referred to Iran as an "existential threat" and was worried about getting "caught in the crossfire" if Israel or the U.S. provoke Teheran. Nor is it stunning that Prince Zayed warned against the dangers of "appeasing Iran" because "Ahmadinejad (Iran's Holocaust and homosexual denying president) is Hitler." In an earlier conversation Bin Zayed urged Washington to consider sending ground forces into Iran if air strikes alone could not "take out" Iranian nuclear targets. Given similar public statements by the UAE's energetic ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, they should have anticipated his boss's concern.
Why should Americans not know that Arab states, often at the top level, have been urging Washington to take military or other drastic action against Iran, while they publicly oppose such action? As Foreign Minister of Qatar is famously quoted as saying: "They (the Iranians) lie to us and we lie to them."
Nor should we be shocked that Israel and its Arab neighbors agree on the danger posed by an Iran with nuclear weapons, or that Ehud Barak, a former Israeli prime minister and its current defense minister warned his American counterparts, according to a a June, 2009 cable, that there was a "window between 6 and 18 months from now in which stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might still be viable." After that, he was quoted as saying, a military solution would produce "unacceptable collateral damage." Senior Israelis have not exactly kept their concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions a secret.
Would Americans really be shaken to learn that Washington has tried to engage with Iran knowing that such efforts would probably fail? Or that it has continued to give Teheran some slack in its public utterances, while privately preparing and distributing alternative pressure strategies?
Would Americans faint dead away to learn that Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa accused Iran of being the source of "much of the trouble in both Iraq and Afghanistan," or that he also endorsed military action to end their nuclear program? "The danger of letting it [the program] go on is greater than the danger of stopping it."
Why shouldn't Americans know that U.S. diplomats believe that China and Russia have both helped Iran's and North Korea's long-range missile programs? Or that Obama's diplomats, despite the president's soaring rhetoric about the benefits of engagement, describe the militant Islamist tendencies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as "very dangerous." Given what daily newspapers have been reporting, is it really a stunner that many U.S. diplomats see Turkey as unreliable? Or that the Turkish leadership is said to be divided? Or that some diplomats think that Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has little grasp of politics beyond Ankara?
Senator Joe Liberman warns that Assange will have "blood on his hands" because of the unauthorized disclosures. He claims that the leaks represent a "shared threat to collective international security." Ditto, outgoing Republican of Michigan Pete Hoekstra, who asserted that the cables' disclosure "undermine U.S. national security and damage our foreign policy." Not to be outdone, the Obama administration has denounced Wikleaks for publishing the 250,000 cables as well.
Foreign policy experts will be poring over these documents for weeks. Maybe some truly damaging disclosures lie ahead. WikiLeaks' recent disclosure of field reports from Afghanistan and Iraq did potentially compromise sources and methods and endanger those who cooperated with the U.S. That was truly reckless. But will any American who reads newspapers, watches news, and pays attention to foreign policy be stunned by these "revelations"? Embarrass diplomats, they surely will. Endanger them? Not so far.
The disclosures will make it harder for Arab governments to blame Israel for its dire warnings about Iran's quest for a nuclear bomb, or claim they had nothing to do with efforts to stiffen sanctions and ratchet up pressure on Iran if Teheran refuses to abandon its current course.
They also show that diplomats of all stripes and persuasion, including Americans, occasionally indulge in diplomatic double speak. Tell us something we don't know.