Voice

The Sunshine Policy

The United States has quietly asked allies like Yemen and Pakistan for some extraordinary favors in its war on terrorism. Is it really so terrible if WikiLeaks forces them to explain those demands?

The most delicious aspect of the WikiLeaks cables is overhearing Mommy and Daddy gossip about the neighbors: Qaddafi's a nut, Prince Andrew a boor, Sarkozy a megalomaniac, and so on. Of course, we already knew all that -- and the fact that we did has given rise to the dismissive reception of the documents in some parts of the commentariat. In the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg writes that because the cables offer "no grand revelations of epic lying, deceit, or criminality," the chief lesson we draw from them is that "the private face of American foreign policy looks pretty much like its public face."

That may be broadly true, but the "public face" of U.S. diplomacy does not include the following, from Sept. 6, 2009: "President Saleh pledged unfettered access to Yemen's national territory for U.S. counterterrorism operations." Or this, from a conversation in January between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and then-Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus: "Saleh rejected the General's proposal to have USG personnel armed with direct-feed intelligence present inside the area of CT operations, but agreed to have U.S. fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory ready to engage AQAP should actionable intelligence become available." (USG is U.S. government, CT refers to counterterrorism, while AQAP stands for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.)

"Unfettered access" -- that's quite a surrender of the sovereign authority that ex-colonies usually defend with furious passion. The documents show us that Saleh got a good deal for his open-door policy, as U.S. intelligence chief John Brennan, his interlocutor for the September 2009 conversation, arrived with a personal letter from President Barack Obama apparently pledging economic aid as well as an invitation to come to the White House -- "the prize he has been chasing after for months," according to the cable, signed by then-U.S. Ambassador Stephen Seche.

If Yemen were a democracy, Saleh would be in big trouble for letting those bombers lurk at the border in exchange for a photo-op. Of course, it's not. But the United States enjoys similar, if less sweeping, arrangements with democracies as well and will almost certainly be seeking to make more of them in future.

The supreme example of this sort of transaction is, of course, Pakistan, where military and civilian leaders have pretended for years to protest U.S. drone strikes in North and South Waziristan which, in fact, they have fully accepted. This cover, too, has now been blown. In an August 2008 cable, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is quoted as saying, "I don't care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We'll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it." More damaging still, the cables reveal that Pakistan has approved the deployment of small units of American forces on the ground. An inflamed sensitivity over alleged "neocolonialism" has made Pakistan one of the world's most anti-American countries. So far, critics have focused their contempt on Pakistan's politicians rather than on the American presence, but political leaders have generally been able to redirect this venom toward the United States. Good luck with that now.

So yes, it may well be true -- and it would be a relief to know it -- that U.S. diplomats no longer routinely engage in epic lying, deceit, and criminality, as perhaps they did during the Cold War. But the war on terror has its own diplomatic exigencies, and the WikiLeaks cables remind us of the extraordinary demands that American officials now make of U.S. allies. Those allies accommodate American demands out of self-interest, of course: Cables printed by the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, but not yet released by WikiLeaks, disclose that in 2008 Lebanon asked to have American spy planes conduct surveillance of Hezbollah at a time when the Shiite group threatened to overrun the state. But the Lebanese people would have been shocked to hear of Operation Cedar Sweep, as it was picturesquely known, and the revelation has already produced an outcry.

Operation Cedar Sweep took place during President George W. Bush's administration, which was hardly known for respecting the sovereignty concerns of other countries (see: extraordinary rendition). Obama's administration prides itself on its respect for international law and global public opinion, but the sort of consensual infringement of sovereign authority described in the cables has been a growth industry under Obama, as the examples of Pakistan and Yemen attest. And we are sure to learn a great deal more about such practices, in Southeast Asia and West Africa as well as in the Middle East, as more cables come to light.

The exposure in the 1970s of the CIA's dirty tricks put an end to at least some of the epic lying and criminality of the Cold War. I imagine that Julian Assange and his fellow leakers hope that the leaked cables will have the same effect on clandestine American patrolling of Middle Eastern airspace, not to mention on the widening practice of drone warfare. Should we make this analogy ourselves? Should we recoil from these practices, too? I do think there's a case to be made, moral as well as pragmatic, against assassination-by-drone. I don't buy it, but I may be wrong. But if, as is often said, the United States should not be fighting terrorism with battalions of soldiers occupying foreign territory, then it must do so with small numbers of intelligence and special-operations forces and manned and unmanned aircraft. What's the alternative? Homeland security?

The real question, then, is what to do when these operations become matters of public knowledge, as we can now be sure they will. Both the U.S. and host governments will have to do a much better job of explaining to their citizens why these forces serve local interests as well as American ones. The Pakistani government has so far refused to take this risky step; now it may have to. Given the low credibility of the United States in the Islamic world, the burden of explanation will fall on countries like Pakistan, Lebanon, the Philippines, and Indonesia. (Rulers in the Persian Gulf and the Arab world have the advantage of being answerable to no one.)

Is it possible to honestly engage these publics on cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism efforts? When I was in Mali in 2007, I was told that President Amadou Toumani Toure had publicly acknowledged the presence of a handful of American forces hunting for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and that the forces had even been featured, positively, on local television. This was possible because Mali was a democracy, because citizens genuinely feared Islamist extremism, and because the United States is much more popular in West Africa than in the Arab world. It will, of course, be much harder to make the case in places where the United States is feared and loathed.

Everyone wonders how WikiLeaks will change the world. Will diplomacy become impracticable in an age when everyone everywhere knows everything? That seems unlikely, but the possibility that any given assessment or policy could become known will hugely increase the cost of doing something that must remain hidden. This, in turn, will put a premium on being able to publicly justify and explain what you're doing. Would that be such a terrible outcome?

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

The Land of No Good Options

The WikiLeaks cables show a U.S. diplomatic corps adept at diagnosing the big problems of American foreign policy -- and a country hopeless at solving them.

When I arrive in a foreign country to write a piece, I ask journalistic colleagues, NGO types, and whatnot which diplomats are worth talking to. If it's a country in the developing world, I usually get directed to the embassy of the ex-colonial master and often to the Brits, even outside the Commonwealth. (British diplomats have a reputation for acumen which might mostly have to do with their accent and air of amused detachment.) As for the United States, people will say, "There's a political attaché who's been here for years and really gets around." What about the ambassador? "Only if you feel the need to touch base." The feeling is that the U.S. ambassador is so swaddled in security and bureaucracy, so restricted to the la-di-da realms of the country, that he or she might as well be living in the clouds.

WikiLeaks has done U.S. ambassadors a favor by allowing us to read their homework. And it turns out that there's more to be said for the privileged perch they occupy than I had realized. None of the cables I've read so far sound like George Kennan, much less John Quincy Adams, whose dispatches from the Court of Prussia at the turn of the 19th century were devoured back home, including by President George Washington in retirement; either U.S. diplomacy no longer attracts literary intellectuals, or they keep it to themselves. But they do show a high level of clarity, of analytical rigor, even occasionally of amused detachment.

The chief flaw the embassy officials exhibit in the documents is one to which journalists, too, are very much prone: the tendency to give too much credence to the people you like. The diplomats in Tbilisi who, as the New York Times points out, swallowed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's version of the 2008 war with Russia whole, may have been guilty of believing what they wished to be true. So, in a very different way, was the departing U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, Christopher Dell, who in 2007 optimistically predicted President Robert Mugabe's impending demise. But none (so far) are clueless; as yet there's no Ellsworth Bunker reporting from Saigon on the battle for hearts and minds. The cables may have the unexpected effect of countering the stereotype of diplomats as lickspittles with a mastery of etiquette.

I can think of no better example than Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan until this past October. Patterson was a career diplomat; I first met her when she was acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2004 to 2005, and then again in Pakistan in 2008. Our conversation in New York had been notably bland, and in Islamabad she seemed quite comfortable defending -- off the record, of course -- the George W. Bush administration's unwavering support for Gen. Pervez Musharraf in the midst of massive demonstrations calling for civilian democratic government, a policy that had come to seem increasingly tone-deaf.

Why expect otherwise? The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, like most U.S. embassies in trouble spots, is a big, ugly installation (an earlier iteration had been bombed) located on a lonely road behind a series of gates. Security was so tight that I had to provide, in advance, my cab driver's name and license number. Diplomats only ventured out in convoys. Patterson, in short, operated from a bubble.

And yet it turns out you can learn a lot in a bubble. On Sept. 23, 2009, Patterson sent a cable in response to an inquiry from an unspecified source in the National Security Council. The debate over AfPak strategy inside the White House was then at its height. The military brass were pushing a full-bore counterinsurgency strategy calling for 40,000 troops; Vice President Joe Biden and other senior officials were arguing for a more modest program of counterterrorism in Afghanistan paired with a much greater focus on Pakistan. It wouldn't work, Patterson said: "It is not/not possible [the double "not" appears to be a peculiar convention of the diplomatic cable] to counter Al Qaeda in Pakistan absent a comprehensive strategy that 1) addresses the interlinked Taliban threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2) brings about stable, civilian government in Afghanistan, and 3) reexamines the broader role of India in the region."

Pakistan's fears of India's ambitions in Afghanistan, "justified or not," Patterson wrote, meant that it would not tolerate any vacuum in Kabul that could be filled by a pro-Indian regime. "General Kayani," she wrote, referring to Pakistan's army chief and effective ruler, "has been utterly frank about Pakistan's position on this. In such a scenario, the Pakistan establishment will dramatically increase support for Taliban groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan." Patterson cautioned that "discussion of deadlines, downsizing of the American military presence or even a denial of the additional troops reportedly to be requested by Gen. McChrystal" could trigger this response.

Patterson also signed a cable from January of that year, when Biden, then vice president-elect, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) came to Islamabad for a heart-to-heart with Kayani. Patterson recounted Kayani's reassurances of support that U.S. counterterrorism efforts; he just needed more money to take on the insurgents. In answer to a blunt question from Biden, Kayani and Pakistani intelligence chief Ahmed Shuja Pasha promised to take on the Pakistani Taliban first, and then the Afghan branch. "[They insisted that] nobody was protecting the bad guys Graham said that he would support development assistance to Pakistan, but needed to know that the aid would produce a change in Pakistani behavior. Kayani replied that Pakistan and the U.S. had a convergence of interests."

This was an important meeting, for it may have helped persuade Biden that the United States could make more headway in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. The cable makes no judgment about Kayani's sincerity, perhaps because diplomats are disinclined to report that the local strongman has pulled the wool over the eyes of two visiting senior statesmen. But at least by September, Patterson knew that Kayani had been telling his visitors what they came to hear. "There is," she wrote in the later cable, "no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance levels in any field as sufficient compensation for abandoning support to these groups, which it sees as an important part of its national security apparatus against India." Patterson suggested that the United States seek to lower tensions between India and Pakistan and use its civilian aid to "extend the writ of the Pakistani state into the FATA" -- the frontier area where the extremists seek sanctuary -- "in such a way that the Taliban can no longer offer effective protection to Al Qaeda from Pakistan's own security and law enforcement agencies in these areas."

Of course, saying that the United States must help Pakistan create legitimate governance in the frontier region and must help Afghanistan do so all over the country is useful advice only if it's possible. And in fact later that fall, Patterson's counterpart in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry would write a memo of his own arguing that such a strategy almost certainly wouldn't work. He appears to have been absolutely right. Nor have U.S. aid efforts made much headway in FATA so far, though Patterson was careful to warn in the September cable that doing so would "require a multi-year, multi-agency effort." The embassy in Pakistan didn't, and perhaps couldn't, supply the White House with a better answer; rather, the cables may have forced policymakers to think twice about the appealingly modest alternative Biden and others were proposing.

You can imagine Obama reading the Patterson cable, smacking his forehead and saying, "So I can't go small, like Joe wants, but I'm not convinced I can win by going big. What do I do?" In the end, Obama tried to square the circle by limiting the goal of the war in Afghanistan to "disrupting, dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda and its extremist allies" rather than crushing the Taliban; accepting that the central threat was not Afghanistan but Pakistan; but nevertheless ordering in 30,000 more troops and the ambitious civilian effort required to bring "stable civilian government to Afghanistan." Maybe he heard Patterson's message.

The WikiLeaks documents in general show that U.S. diplomats are quite adroit at analyzing problems like this, ones that their government turns out to be unable to resolve. This shouldn't come as shocking news, but I suppose it would to Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, who must have thought that the documents would expose American imbecility, or hegemony, or both. He has, at any rate, probably done a good deal less damage than he had hoped.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images