Did the WikiLeaked State Department cables that described Tunisia's deposed leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali as the head of a corrupt police state play any role in encouraging the democratic uprising against him -- and thus spark the wave of protests now spreading across Egypt?
I asked our experts at Human Rights Watch to canvass their sources in the country, and the consensus was that while Tunisians didn't need American diplomats to tell them how bad their government was, the cables did have an impact. The candid appraisal of Ben Ali by U.S. diplomats showed Tunisians that the rottenness of the regime was obvious not just to them but to the whole world -- and that it was a source of shame for Tunisia on an international stage. The cables also contradicted the prevailing view among Tunisians that Washington would back Ben Ali to the bloody end, giving them added impetus to take to the streets. They further delegitimized the Tunisian leader and boosted the morale of his opponents at a pivotal moment in the drama that unfolded over the last few weeks.
This point might not be worth dwelling on, except that it suggests something interesting about how the United States, and the State Department in particular, approaches the challenge of promoting human rights and democracy in countries like Tunisia. Consider the following proposition: None of the decent, principled, conscientious, but behind-the-scenes efforts the State Department made in recent years to persuade the Tunisian government to relax its authoritarian grip -- mostly through diplomatic démarches and meetings with top Tunisian officials -- had any significant impact on the Ben Ali regime's behavior or increased the likelihood of democratic change. Nor did the many quiet U.S. programs of outreach to Tunisian society, cultural exchanges and the like, even if Tunisians appreciated them and they will bear fruit as the country democratizes.
Instead, the one thing that did seem to have some impact was a public statement exposing what the United States really thought about the Ben Ali regime: a statement that was vivid, honest, raw, undiplomatic, extremely well-timed -- and completely inadvertent.
Had anyone at the State Department proposed deliberately making a statement along the lines of what appears in the cables, they would have been booted out of Foggy Bottom as quickly as you can say "we value our multifaceted relationship with the GOT." Most State Department professionals have long believed that explicit public criticism of repressive governments does little more than make the critic feel good. They argue that real progress toward ending human rights abuses or corruption in countries with which the United States has important relationships, like Egypt or Pakistan or Indonesia, is more likely to come when such problems are raised behind closed doors.
Indeed, one of the most delightful ironies of the leaked Tunisia cables is that they make precisely this argument. One missive -- after laying out more juicy details about how and why Ben Ali had "lost touch with the Tunisian people" (the very commentary that, when publicly revealed, actually seemed to affect the situation on the ground) -- concluded that the U.S. should "dial back the public criticism" and replace it with "frequent high-level private candor."
At least in Tunisia, the State Department did not disavow its condemnation of the Ben Ali government after its publication. Elsewhere, officials rushed to deny the obvious. In Sri Lanka, a leaked embassy cable "revealed" the supposedly stunning insight that the country's leaders can't be counted on to prosecute those who committed war crimes in their recently ended fight with the Tamil Tiger rebels, since the leaders were themselves responsible for those crimes. This only confirmed what everyone knew the U.S. government knew about Sri Lanka. Yet the U.S. Embassy in Colombo issued a public statement trying to take it back.
American diplomats have many reasons to avoid saying publicly what they think privately about their less savory partners. An obvious and logical one is that they want to preserve relationships that are necessary to advance other U.S. goals -- securing Egypt's support for the Middle East peace process, for example, or shoring up Ethiopia's cooperation in fighting terrorism, or getting Kyrgyzstan's assent to hosting a U.S. military base.