Day: December 1, 2010

Let’s whack them

Got to love the neocons. They are outraged by Wikileaks and by the Obama administration’s response. William Kristol challenges President Obama with a series of questions:

Why not use our various assets to harass, snatch or neutralize Julian Assange and his collaborators, wherever they are? Why can’t we disrupt and destroy WikiLeaks in both cyberspace and physical space, to the extent possible? Why can’t we warn others of repercussions from assisting this criminal enterprise hostile to the United States?

Of course the irony here is that perhaps the top beneficiary so far from this batch of documents has been the neocons’ number one project: strengthening Israel’s position on stopping the Iranian nuclear program. In the cables from the Ankara, Amman, Cairo, Ryadh, and several embassies in Europe there is a strong and unambiguous consensus that Iran is isolated in its position. This has been reported for some time in the press, but the press reports have not always been consistent or clear. The raw language from so many foreign leaders disclosed in these cables now sends an unmistakable signal to Tehran and seriously limits Iran’s room for maneuvering here. It also almost certainly lowers the risk of Iranian miscalculation (i.e., that they can play different regional and international actors off of one another and avoid serious repercussions for continuing their program). It’s clear the Saudis and other Gulf States are serious in their objections and may well acquiesce to an Israeli strike , there is no room for Tehran to leverage Turkey, both Egypt and Turkey are aggressively working to pull Syria away from Iran, and the Russians can’t be counted upon. Furthermore, the Israelis and others now have a comprehensive, and open record of Arab and European positions that they can exploit for stronger action against Iran.

It’s probably too early to see any indication of the diplomatic implications of all of this next week when Iran and the EU resume nuclear talks. But, the release of the documents, despite the various embarrassments and other damages, does have the potential to alter the strategy and outcome of diplomacy on this. Through a new blend of pressure and engagement, we may be able to resolve this without war.

If that happens, Kristol and company may want to thank Assange and Wikileaks before they “whack” them.

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Why Wikileaks Matters

The initial release of a mere 291 out of 251,287 diplomatic cables has generated a predictable buzz on the blogosphere and established media outlets. Pundits have quickly maneuvered into standard structural roles in relation to the content of the leaked documents: the ho-hum nothing-to-see-here-move-it-along dismisser, the passionate defender, the morally outraged diplomat, etc. What seems to be missing is an analysis of this phenomenon as a form of global politics.

In order to understand why Wikileaks is significant, it is important to realize that the organization is not particularly concerned about specific current issues like the war in Afghanistan or Iraq, much less the tense standoff in Korea. Hence the content of the diplomatic cables or military reports is only instrumental. Assange diagnoses a broader “problem” with complex organizations than current events — namely authoritarian tendencies and hypocrisy — and formulates a (Rooseveltian?) strategy for attacking them. The most intelligent analysis of Assange’s thinking is offered in a blog post by Zunguzungu (I would recommend reading that article before proceeding with this one). Briefly stated: The circulation of relatively unsecured diplomatic cables or field reports is the way in which the state as a complex organization is able to think. The aim of Wikileaks is precisely to force the state to tighten the circulation of information as a mechanism to retard the operation of the (authoritarian or nominally liberal) state. The US and all other states are likely to react in precisely the way that Assange’s organization hopes they will. So the goal is not just about the US although the US is a powerful instrument to effect the type of “regime change” that Assange champions.

The ability of a tiny organization which is only four years old to gain such leverage against the entire system of states is impressive (although not unprecedented in an age of global militancy). That the overwhelming majority of states will fall into the trap set for them is also a sign shrewd analysis and strategic brilliance regardless of how one assesses the potential moral and political implications of the leaked documents. Since it is already known that the next target is the finance industry, the potential to continue challenging the international order is in no way a spent force.

What is most stunning is that the actual techniques used are not highly sophisticated. Many of us possess sufficient technical knowledge to create similar websites and repeat the phenomenon if we want to.  And it is quite likely that even if Assange and his organization are taken off-line, others copycat individuals/ organizations will emerge. (In fact, in the “private sphere” the battle for forced transparency is already being carried out by social networking sites on a daily basis). The critical element is actually not the technology but the willingness and confidence of individuals to leak/post documents. If organizations tighten their information sharing to the point that it is no longer possible to leak documents, then Assange would reason that he has succeeded in retarding the targeted organization’s ability to think.

The ideology that motivates Assange is remarkably similar to Faisal Devji’s explication of the motivation of contemporary global militants in his book The Terrorist in Search of Humanity. Assange does not criticize states and corporations from an external and coherent alternate ideology. Rather, he seeks to hold these organizations to their own rhetoric or to expose their authoritarian tendencies and degrade their ability to function. There is something remarkably naive in this outlook but it needs to be taken seriously nonetheless.

A related issue is that Wikileaks itself evades definition and categorization.  What is Wikileaks? Is it essentially an individual or a collective of anarchists and whistle-blowers? A website or a journalistic organization? Is it a criminal conspiracy?  Is it a source or a conduit?  Where is Wikileaks? Perhaps it should not be a surprise to see new actors emerge on the global stage which defy easy classification and location precisely so that they can more effectively challenge the existing international order.

I doubt that Wikileaks will achieve the ultimate “regime change” it seeks — anymore than global militants will institute a new caliphate. However, Wikileaks does herald another mode of challenging existing structures of governance which will likely become an enduring feature of global politics.

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