Wikileaks: Bumpy ride ahead for US diplomats

War Logs website that organised some of the earlier Wikileaks Wikileaks has previously released documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

Red faces in Washington? Well yes, almost certainly, and probably in a significant number of other capitals too, not least in the Middle East where a series of leaders and senior figures in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi are quoted as urging Washington to bomb Iran's nuclear programme.

This avalanche of cables from the internal, supposedly secure e-mail switching system linking US embassies abroad with the state department and Pentagon in Washington is a nightmare for US diplomacy.

A White House statement noted in response that by its very nature, "field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information". It goes on: "It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions."

That may all be true. But world leaders do not expect to have their private conversations with US officials or candid assessments of their capabilities and peculiarities publicised for all to see.

This is a security breach of the highest order and if there is not to be at least a temporary uneasiness between US diplomats and foreign governments - especially friendly governments - then the US is going to have to convince its allies that a breach like this will not happen again.

There is a terrible irony here since this centralised method of exchanging key diplomatic communications was instituted as part of the efforts in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to get different parts of the US government machine talking to each other better.

Gold mine

Another embarrassing story is that which suggests that US officials crossed the line from diplomacy to spying in gathering all sorts of travel data about senior United Nations officials, the UN's communications systems and so on.

Here, too, not terribly surprising. Yes, it's a fact: most governments, if they have the resources and indeed the perceived need, spy upon all sorts of other countries and organisations, friendly or otherwise. But here again, seeing it all in stark print on your breakfast newspaper does not make comfortable reading.

Wikileaks

  • Whistle-blowing website with a reputation for publishing sensitive material
  • Run by Julian Assange, a secretive Australian with a background in computer network hacking
  • Released 90,000 secret US records of US military incidents about the war in Afghanistan and 400,000 similar documents on Iraq
  • Also posted video showing US helicopter killing 12 people - including two journalists - in Baghdad in 2007
  • Other controversial postings include screenshots of the e-mail inbox and address book of US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin

In terms of policy, there is little in this first batch of stories that is especially new.

Take the allegations that Iran and North Korea have collaborated on missile programmes, for example. This has been the conventional view of many ballistic missile experts for a long time now. I have been briefed by senior US officials myself and given substantially the same line.

But this horde of documents is going to prove a gold mine for academic research.

Serious scholars of foreign policy will be able to have something of an inside track on US diplomacy for the years covered by these cables, at least in terms of being able to monitor some of the inputs coming into the foreign policy-making process.

The New York Times coverage has already been able to piece together a fascinating study of the twists and turns of US policy towards Iran and how this relates to Saudi-China relations - guaranteed oil deliveries were offered if Beijing cut its links with Tehran - and the US-Russia debate on missile defence.

The goal for the Americans in both cases was to get Moscow and Beijing on board to back tougher sanctions against Iran.

More to come

However, while fascinating, there's no game-changer so far - nothing where we believed that US policy was X and it has actually turned out to be Y.

Are there any shadowy groups, for example, that America publicly refuses to speak to but is actually having some kind of dialogue with below the radar? So far, at least, there is nothing like that.

But it's all embarrassing enough.

Consider the Gulf revelations. Everyone believed that many Arab leaders wanted Iran taken down a peg or two. But seeing it in black and white may leave them with some uneasy domestic questions to answer.

Public opinion in many Arab countries is rather more sympathetic to the Iranians than are their leaders - the proverbial "Arab street" seeing Iran often as a rather more active champion of causes like that of the Palestinians.

This, though, is only batch one of several days' worth of stories. Unflattering comments about Britain's new Prime Minister David Cameron are promised for a future revelation as, too, are "claims of inappropriate behaviour" by a member of Britain's Royal Family.

But most of the red faces will still be in Washington. It's time for US diplomats to buckle up tight and prepare for a bumpy ride ahead.

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