What if the big message of the WikiLeaks cables is that there is no message?
Neil Sheehan, the legendary reporter who acquired the Pentagon Papers for the New York Times, tells us that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who had commissioned that history of the Vietnam War, declined to read it. Perhaps the task itself was forbidding: 1.5 million words of historical narrative and a million words of documents. Then again, McNamara had had a seat at the table; he knew the history inside out; he had experienced the full range of attitudes toward that divisive war; he had been a booster of the effort and had turned against it. He needed no classified documents to tell him about the great debacle he had helped bring about.
Most of us who turned to the WikiLeaks documents flooding out over the Internet in recent months don't have McNamara's privileged attitude toward official paper. We approach the cable traffic from Ankara and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi with a certain kind of deference. At a minimum, there is the understandable urge to look in on those encrypted emails, and there is no denying the voyeuristic satisfaction of catching the mighty as they make bargains behind closed doors. That sense of satisfaction is doubtless compounded for those in closed societies who are being let in on the secret dealings and private language of their rulers. The Pax Americana bulks large in the consciousness of politically active populations the world over. And there is a measure of popular glee at being able to eavesdrop on what the Americans think of the local strongman.
Libyans already know plenty about Muammar al-Qaddafi. They have endured his erratic tyranny and bizarre showmanship for more than four decades. Still, they can savor what these U.S. diplomats write about his flamenco dancing and Botox use. Yemenis know all too well the cunning of the despot in their midst. Grant them a moment of satisfaction as they are treated to a vignette of their ruler telling Gen. David Petraeus that the U.S. drone attacks in Yemen present no problems for local politics. You have to hand it to the Yemeni dictator: Where most rulers brag about the efficiency of their regimes, he warns U.S. diplomats that his country is on the verge of becoming another Somalia, the prospect of catastrophic failure an inducement for outside powers to pour more treasure into Yemen.
In the West, however, the response is -- or may eventually end up being -- closer to McNamara's: Why study what we already know? No one needed WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, to convey the depth of the animus of the Sunni Arab regimes to the Iranian theocracy, their fear of the Shiite in their midst. Ever since U.S. forces struck into Iraq in 2003, the neighboring Arab regimes have dreaded this new Iraq and viewed the American project as a war of folly that handed Iraq to Iran. We now have dated and signed documents to confirm that, though it's nothing new.
When the Pakistan documents came out, there was the "discovery" that America had been played by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, that the men of the ISI took America's coin at the same time that they did business with the Taliban. That knowledge has long been an open secret, and Robert Gates, the prudent defense secretary, was quick to state that no "sensitive intelligence sources and methods" had been compromised by that flood of documents, that they were, in the main, about "tactical military operations." After the thrill of outing the ISI, the documents slipped into a great void, where they are likely to remain. It's hard to see historians writing great works of diplomatic history out of such material.
Sure, the American empire that Assange and his like detest has been embarrassed. The secretary of state had to travel to far-flung countries to apologize for these disclosures -- the apology tour, as she dubbed her recent travel. But there is something about our culture today, about the ceaseless chatter on the Internet, that will soften the blow. In this culture, little is remembered or retained. The Bolsheviks genuinely embarrassed Britain and France in 1917 when they opened the czarist archives and revealed the secrets of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, an accord between these two powers to divide the Middle East between them when the Great War ground to a halt. But we're beyond embarrassment now. Our culture trivializes history: It turns it into gossip, and gossip is short-lived. Already, as I write, the WikiLeaks revelations seem ever more trivial despite the massive scale of the disclosures. Pity the publisher who gave Assange a huge advance for a tell-all book. By the time the book sees the light of day, I hazard to predict few will pay it serious attention.
In Barry Unsworth's exquisite novel, Pascali's Island, Basil Pascali, a petty informer on a small Greek island in the final days of the Ottoman Empire, had reported on his neighbors for 20 years, sending a steady stream of dispatches to the authorities in Constantinople. Now the empire is coming apart, and an Englishman disturbing the peace and the monotony of the place strips Pascali of the faint illusion that his work mattered. "Imagine the paperwork," says the Englishman. But Pascali had harbored doubts of his own. "He was right, Excellency," he writes to the sultan. "I knew it then, as I know it now. My reports have not been read. Worse, they have not been kept." Our world differs, of course. These messages will be kept, but they are both massive and frivolous at the same time, and they are, most of them, certain to go unread.