In Tehran, there is a small gift shop in the southeast corner of the old U.S. Embassy (the famous "Den of Spies," as it has been known since being converted to a Revolutionary Guards base after the 1979 revolution). Among the many less than enticing items it sells, next to gruesome postcards of "martyrs" from the Iran-Iraq War, is a bound set of reprinted U.S. diplomatic documents. Embassy staff shredded the documents frantically while the building was being overrun, but to no avail. Ayatollah Khomeini's volunteers laboriously pieced together the shredded cables the old-fashioned way, with tape, perhaps crying out "Aha!" every now and then when something incriminating turned up -- say, a memo revealing that the United States was sending the shah even more military equipment. The result, however, is an anthology of turgid, less-than-thrilling bureaucratese. When I visited a year ago, the copies sat dusty on the shelves.
The 2011 wave of Arab revolutions has its own tranche of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, though in the present case, they have come largely as prologue to revolution rather than as epilogue. Their only direct role in the revolutions was to provide further proof of the profligacy and corruption of erstwhile Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and perhaps also some measure of reassurance that the United States, too, knew he was a thief and scoundrel. Even the most cynical critics of the United States haven't found much in the WikiLeaks cables to condemn it. The cables are dutiful, intelligent, and maybe a tad officious. They are not prescient, but then again who was? Of the hundreds of cables leaked from Cairo, Tunis, and Tripoli, not one predicts imminent collapse, nor anything beyond a slow, eventual (if not untroubled) transition of power.
So the obvious question is: What has the State Department been up to all these years? And have these cables, leaked with such fanfare, been rendered moot by the revolutions? The impression that emerges from reviewing the cables now is not so much that the revolutions have rendered them dull and obsolete, but that they have rendered the United States itself -- and its gradualist approach -- dull and obsolete. U.S. diplomats cared about all the right things, but apparently had no power to make them happen because their perceived clout wasn't enough to persuade anyone to reform. Or, alternately, they understood the fault lines, but diplomatic imperatives forced them to keep relationships intact, instead of proceeding on a course of marginal, linear improvements. In any case, their approach did remarkably little. The authors of the cables don't sound like agents of a superpower. They sound like Canadians, with better access.
The questions the diplomats asked are obvious and hoary: What comes next after the current generation of Arab autocrats? How can we maintain relations between Foggy Bottom and the politicians and military men who might plausibly take power? These concerns are not just realpolitik, either. The diplomats meet with and express dignified concern for members of democracy and civil society groups, and they correctly detect and diagnose outrages like police brutality and brazen corruption that are corroding the authority of their partner governments. But now that we know the fate of Ben Ali and Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak, the cables read as a catalog of failed overtures and suggestions, ultimately ineffectual, to get these leaders to reform fast enough to avoid revolution. Cables from places like Libya, Bahrain, and Oman were even less urgent about the need for democratic and popular reforms, though perhaps merely because none of those places ever had much democracy activism in the first place.
The problem was not one of knowledge. Diplomats knew perfectly well that Egypt and Tunisia had huge long-term troubles, and in the former case they repeatedly identify many of the exact grievances of the Tahrir protesters as flashpoints for future dispute. They knew that lack of democratic reform was a major issue, and the cables show a touching concern for "democracy promotion" and progress of human rights groups, including those with Islamist inclinations. In Tunisia, they urged "a strong focus on democratic reform and respect for human rights," but with the caveat that "Major change in Tunisia will have to wait for Ben Ali's departure."