U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had the unenviable task this week of calling her counterparts in world capitals to tell them the bad news: Thousands of secret cables documenting their private views, as well as the uncomfortably candid assessments of U.S. diplomats, were about to be dumped into the public arena thanks to WikiLeaks, the self-styled global whistle-blower website.
With revelations ranging from Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s penchant for Ukrainian nurses to Saudi King Abdullah’s exhortation to “Cut the head off the snake” in Iran, the documents make for far more titillating reading than WikiLeaks’ previous efforts, which consisted mainly of hard-to-parse raw reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. This time, U.S. officials were sharing their unvarnished views of American allies and adversaries alike, often in colorful, gripping prose.
Although the documents contain few bombshell revelations, commentators were quick to pronounce disaster. German magazine Der Spiegel described the leaks as “no less than a political meltdown for United States foreign policy.” The Guardian newspaper declared a “global diplomatic crisis.” The Drudge Report ran a banner headline screaming “CYBER MONDAY NIGHTMARE.” And Clinton herself warned ominously that the disclosures would put U.S. sources at risk and “tear at the fabric of the proper function of responsible government.”
But is WikiLeaks’ new data dump really so damaging? According to Mitchell Reiss, a former head of policy planning at the State Department, “It’s obviously an embarrassment” for the United States, but one that is “unlikely to do long-term damage.” Not only was there “little news” in the cables, he said, but reporters are exaggerating their importance to U.S. policymakers — “nobody has time to read that stuff” anyway.
There’s no question, however, that Clinton’s job just got a lot harder in the short term. As Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, puts it, “A man might say things to his wife about his mother-in-law that he would be horrified to hear her repeat to her mother and the doing of which might even put great strain on his marriage.” In that spirit, here are 10 foreign-policy relationships that just got a little more awkward
The leaks: U.S. diplomats made harsh assessments of Turkey’s ongoing drift away from the United States under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, from one cable’s depiction of current Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu exerting an “exceptionally dangerous” Islamist influence on the prime minister to another dismissing Davutoglu as “lost in neo-Ottoman Islamist fantasies.” U.S. diplomats had unkind words for Erdogan himself, portrayed as “thin-skinned,” unrelentingly hostile to Israel and possessed of “unbridled ambition stemming from the belief God has anointed him to lead Turkey” and “an authoritarian loner streak.”
The fallout: Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), said “the Turks are going absolutely wild” over the revelations, with the lively Turkish media seizing upon the most sensational details. Joshua Walker, of the German Marshall Fund, said the leaks “come at the worst possible moment in U.S.-Turkish relations,” with trust at an all-time low following Turkey’s vote against U.N. sanctions on Iran and the angry Turkish response to the Gaza flotilla incident in May, when nine Turkish citizens were killed by Israeli troops. And with an election coming up in 2011, “Erdogan’s going to mine gold on this,” added Cook — likely by distancing himself further from the United States.
The leaks: The first batch of documents is heavily focused on Iran, most spectacularly via the blunt observations of Arab leaders who are growing increasingly alarmed about Tehran’s growing influence. Not only does Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah call repeatedly for the United States to attack Iran, but so do King Hamad of Bahrain and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi, who at one point compares Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler. Other Arab leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, seem content to call the Iranians liars.
The fallout: Iran is obviously not a U.S. ally, but the leaks nonetheless complicate American efforts to persuade Tehran to come clean about its nuclear program. Karim Sadjadpour, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said it would be “doubly difficult to compel Iran to agree to meaningful and binding nuclear compromises” in the wake of the WikiLeaks disclosures, which will feed both Iranian leaders’ sense of their own importance and their conviction that the Obama administration was never serious about engagement. It will also reinforce Iran’s deep mistrust of its Arab neighbors, he said. Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, agreed that the leaks would “absolutely” make it harder to squeeze the Iranians. “They believe themselves to have an upper hand now,” she noted, with the U.S. diplomatic strategy on full display, “and they are not necessarily wrong.” Ahmadinejad himself has already weighed in, dismissing the disclosures as an American plot
The leaks: No documents from Islamabad have yet been released, but news outlets have already detailed several juicy tidbits from the cable traffic. The New York Times reported Sunday that sensitive U.S. efforts to remove highly enriched uranium from Pakistan had run into stiff Pakistani opposition, with one Pakistani official telling then U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson, “[I]f the local media got word of the fuel removal, ‘they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.'” Another cable quotes Saudi King Abdullah ripping Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. “When the head is rotten,” he said, “it affects the whole body.” (Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed bin Zayed was somewhat more charitable, describing Zardari as “dirty but not dangerous.”)
The fallout: U.S.-Pakistani relations were already troubled enough, and WikiLeaks won’t help. Already, the Pakistani press is buzzing with angry speculation about the document trove’s contents. An article Monday in Dawn, a top English-language newspaper, described a briefing in which a “top Pakistani military official” reportedly described his country as America’s “most bullied ally” and said the “real aim of U.S. strategy is to de-nuclearize Pakistan.” And that was before the WikiLeaks revelations. Both sides are trying to contain the damage: Patterson’s replacement, Cameron Munter, published an unusual op-ed in the News condemning the release, and Pakistan’s gregarious ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani, tweeted, “Publishing stolen confidential internal communications makes diplomacy tough. Life goes on :)” — but their jobs are about to get much tougher
The leaks: In a meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, then the head of Central Command, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed to a U.S. proposal to switch from using cruise missiles to smart bombs to hit al Qaeda targets. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh said, while his deputy prime minister joked that he had just “lied” to parliament by saying that the Yemeni government was responsible for recent airstrikes. Saleh also joked of Djiboutian President Ismail Guelleh, “I don’t care if he smuggles whiskey into Yemen — provided it’s good whiskey.”
The fallout: U.S. officials had already complained of getting little help on terrorism from Saleh, who is more concerned about a Shiite rebellion in the north and a burgeoning separatist movement in the south than he is about al Qaeda. The price of cooperation just got higher. As Richard Haass, the president of CFR, writes of Yemen, with characteristic understatement, “the leadership there might well feel the need to distance itself from the United States.” Just last week, a Yemeni minister dismissed the al Qaeda threat and said the country did not need outside help to combat terrorism. “If we count terrorism victims in Yemen in the last decade, they will not reach 3 percent of the victims in the 9/11 attack,” the minister said. “So why all the fuss about terrorism in Yemen?”
The leaks: In multiple conversations, Egyptian national security advisor Omar Suleiman tells his U.S. interlocutors that Egypt is making earnest efforts to contain Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, and combat smuggling in its Gaza stronghold. Another says President Hosni Mubarak “hates Hamas” and “has a visceral hatred” of Iran. “They are big, fat liars,” Mubarak is quoted as saying of the Iranians in one cable. Elsewhere, Suleiman boasts of his ability to run agents against Iran who “will do what we ask.”
The fallout: Michele Dunne, a former U.S. official who edits the Arab Reform Bulletin, did not see a diplomatic crisis brewing, but worried the cables would “confirm what Egyptians suspect” about their government’s dealings with Israel and the United States. Multiple analysts pointed out that U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey seemed to take an unduly solicitous view of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, whom she describes as “smart” and “urbane” in one cable. “She’s probably the only person who thinks that,” CFR’s Cook said. The documents could also complicate Egypt’s attempts to position itself as an honest broker between Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, though both Mubarak and Suleiman come across as pessimistic about its mediation efforts anyway
The leaks: Qatar, a small Persian Gulf state with outsized ambitions, figures surprisingly prominently in the WikiLeaks cables. Not only are Qatari leaders found sharing candid views of Iranian officials (“They lie to us and we lie to them” and “we’re not friends”), but other Gulf states rip Qatar, which hosts the controversial Al Jazeera satellite network, as untrustworthy and unduly friendly toward Iran and terrorist groups. The Qataris give as good as they get. In one meeting, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani gives an extended lecture about how Egypt “has no end game” in Middle East peace talks because “serving as broker of the talks is Egypt’s only business interest with the U.S.” He also jokes at one point of telling Mubarak “we would stop Al Jazeera for a year” if the Egyptian president agreed to cut a peace deal during that time period.
The fallout: It won’t come as a shock to Qatari leaders that their stances are often unpopular in the region, but the emir has already had to do damage control, making a surprise trip Monday to Cairo to smooth things over with Mubarak. More problematic for Doha is the apparent U.S. view that it is the Middle East’s “worst” counterterrorism partner, seen as too close to Hamas and “hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the U.S. and provoking reprisals” — though the Qataris are probably happy to get some distance from Washington. One conspiratorial Qatari analyst was quoted Monday saying, “It’s all deliberate. We can clearly see through the ploy. The idea of the so-called leaks is to further intensify tension between Iran and [Arab Gulf countries].”
The leaks: One sensational cable signed by U.S. Ambassador Gene Cretz made global headlines for its salacious and bizarre details about Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, who seems to have a taste for Ukrainian nurses. “He also appears to have an intense dislike or fear of staying on upper floors, reportedly prefers not to fly over water, and seems to enjoy horse racing and flamenco dancing,” Cretz writes. Referring to Qaddafi’s nurse and frequent traveling companion Galyna Kolotnytska, Cretz relays, “Some embassy contacts have claimed that Qadhafi and the 38 year-old Kolotnytska have a romantic relationship.”
The fallout: Life in Tripoli may get a little uncomfortable for Cretz, Dunne says, but the Libyans will probably shrug off the memo because “in the end he argues for taking Qaddafi seriously.” She added, “This can’t be a shock to them that people raise their eyebrows at some of Qaddafi’s behavior.” Dunne hadn’t seen allegations that Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam had provoked a showdown with the United States over the remains of its nuclear program, however, which may prove more harmful to bilateral relations. Qaddafi abandoned Libya’s weapons of mass destruction programs in 2003 under heavy U.S. and international pressure and has moved erratically to improve relations with the West. In general, “Libyans feel underappreciated and under-rewarded for what they thought they gave up,” she observed
The leaks: Some of the most quotable lines in the documents come from King Abdullah, the aging Saudi monarch, whom one cable describes as “a wry and forthright interlocutor.” As noted earlier, the king is deeply hostile to Iran, and repeatedly urges the United States to stop dithering and get on with the bombing. In one meeting, the king recounts his conversation with Manouchehr Mottaki, in which he told the Iranian foreign minister: “You as Persians have no business meddling in Arab matters.” In another, he denounces Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as a liar who doesn’t keep his commitments. “I don’t trust this man,” Abdullah says of Maliki, “He’s an Iranian agent.”
The fallout: The famously opaque Saudis may be uncomfortable with the public airing of their king’s hawkish thoughts about Iran, as well as his generally warm tone toward the United States, but there’s nothing too damning here. “It’s not exactly a news flash that they believe Iran has hostile intentions,” Maloney, the Brookings expert, said of Gulf leaders, who are buying billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. weapons for that very reason. “If you get the Iranian write-ups you probably get Arabs saying bad stuff about the United States,” she noted. And unlike the smaller Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia has the regional heft to withstand any serious blowback. Over the long term, however, Maloney worries that the leaks will “erode some trust in our competence, trust in our reliability” among the Gulf Arab states. “Arab leaders are always going to second-guess themselves now.”
THE UNITED NATIONS
The leaks: In what is widely being seen as a dangerous blurring of the line between traditional diplomacy and intelligence work, the State Department has asked its diplomats to obtain “credit card and frequent-flier numbers, work schedules and other personal information of foreign dignitaries,” according to the New York Times’ reporting on multiple cables dating back to 2008. A directive signed by Secretary Clinton outlines a sweeping array of “reporting and collection needs” ranging from frequent-flyer account numbers to “biometric information on ranking North Korean diplomats.”
The fallout: This one could leave a mark, informed observers say, despite Foggy Bottom’s protestations of innocence. Neumann, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, asked in a New York Times interview “whether the person could do this responsibly without getting us into trouble.” Carne Ross, a former British diplomat, told Foreign Policy that while it’s hardly news that countries spy on one another in Turtle Bay, “Diplomats may think twice before sharing confidences with U.S. diplomats — at least until WikiLeaks is forgotten.” The United Nations says it is following up “in our own appropriate manner.
The leaks: The latest batch of cables to hit the wires concerns the mysterious regime of Kim Jong Il, which David Sanger of the New York Times bills as “long on educated guesses and short on facts, illustrating why their subject is known as the Black Hole of Asia.” In a recent cable sure to set off alarm bells in Pyongyang, one South Korean diplomat predicts that Kim’s regime will collapse “two to three years” after his death and that future Chinese leaders will grow “comfortable with a reunited Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a benign alliance.” Another finds a senior Chinese official describing North Korea as a “spoiled child.”
The fallout: Like Iran, North Korea is no friend of the United States — and these disclosures are not likely to change the Dear Leader’s view of his American enemy much. But they might well sow distrust among China, South Korea, and the United States, three key players with competing interests on the Korean peninsula. One cable sure to raise eyebrows in Beijing finds a South Korean official ripping Chinese envoy Wu Dawei as the “most incompetent official in China” who “knows nothing about North Korea, nothing about non-proliferation.” The disclosures also reveal how little even China knows about its supposed ally’s nuclear program — raising questions about the Obama administration’s strategy of relying on Beijing to bring Pyongyang to heel. And they are likely to convince North Korea’s deeply paranoid and isolated regime that it can trust no one, not even its so-called Chinese friends, and certainly not a South Korean government bent on regime change.