The power behind the US curtain

By Philip J. Cunningham (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-12-16 08:02
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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange remains committed to sharing and publishing secret US diplomatic cables, despite condemnation from Washington and threats from outraged politicians.

From what documents have been made public to date, it looks like the messy work of diplomacy as usual. As veteran whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg said on TV program Democracy Now, the material comes from a database which has been given a security classification so low in the hierarchy of US intelligence briefings that he wouldn't even have bothered to look at such cable summaries when he worked as a mid-level intelligence analyst, because of the priority accorded to truly secretive and sensitive documents.

That's not to say the data trove is irrelevant; it is the sort of raw material that makes diplomats cringe and historians rather intrigued. It is a random, grab-bag snapshot of official US thinking about friends and enemies, diplomatic challenges past and present. It has shed rather more humiliation than light, sort of like a bathroom stall being suddenly kicked open.

The unflattering material ranges from sordid to insightful, from Machiavellian finesse to blunt bullying, but it's the methods of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's State Department, which calls on diplomats to cull biometric data and engage in virtual stalking, that really raises eyebrows.

Much of the information is awkward but not at all secret, rather like transcripts of friends talking about friends behind their backs. Some of the "statecraft" described in the data has an odor of hypocrisy and deception, but what foreign ministry could survive without a certain amount of double-speak?

In due time, the sheer volume of data to come may help better determine whether the US government has so lost sight of its espoused ideals as to allow deception, petty thuggery and double standards to be the new norm.

The US State Department is quick to perceive skullduggery when dealing with others but it apparently cannot see the same in its own behavior.

What can be said about the US frittering away diplomatic goodwill and twisting arms to get allies like Belgium to accept token pariah prisoners from Guantanamo, or to pressure Germany to hush up and halt legal proceedings against illegal extraordinary renditions?

Is that the kind of wheeling and dealing the world's so-called beacon of democracy engages in? If it is so, it is not just petty but pathetic.

The supposed horror of the unveiled secrets does not begin to compare to the public and documented horrors of aerial bombing, the near-daily use of which has left the US' reputation tarnished and tattered in a way no piece of paper could hope to achieve.

What the data dump offers is a compelling view of the world as seen from Foggy Bottom, the State Department's home base in Washington. It's a Manichean view that reduces planet Earth to a giant game board of friends and enemies, informants and subjects.

Historians know well that the US has never been half as idealistic as it likes to see itself; it takes a certain amount of over-arching ego and sustained brutality to seize and secure a continental land mass, however sparsely populated it might have been when the great American experiment got started.

But the US was, and still is, in a much-diminished sense, a beacon for immigrants fleeing oppression or simply seeking economic opportunity. The spirit invoked by the Statue of Liberty, embracing the poor and huddled masses, still shines brighter than all the lights in New York City, but somewhere during the transition from an ordinary nation to an over-extended military power, the US lost touch with its better angels and set itself on the road to being the new Rome.

In doing so, the US lost what high moral ground it might have possessed after liberating Europe from Nazism and got stuck in a series of murky quagmires and armed interventions that have lead to the slippery slope it treads today.

There's a temptation to date the fork in the road to the back room machinations in 2000 that put George W. Bush in the White House, though the roots of imperial rot go back much further, back to bombs over Belgrade, bombs over Hanoi, bombs over Pyongyang and of course, back to the terrible juncture when the US, victory almost at hand, needlessly dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

The massive leak of documents, only a portion of which is already in plain view, may one day be seen as a moment in Uncle Sam's imperial history akin to the denouement in the Hollywood classic, The Wizard of Oz, when little dog Toto pulls back the curtain on the control room, revealing that the Wizard is not only less omniscient and powerful than was previously believed, but is something of a sham.

The author is a visiting fellow in the East Asia Program, Cornell University, New York.

The power behind the US curtain