Diplomats have often been disparaged as honest men sent abroad to lie for the good of their countries. If the plethora of disloyal, dangerous attacks launched by WikiLeaks continues and if the Obama Administration cannot stanch the bleeding, foreign officials and U.S. diplomats will soon find it just as likely that they must also lie to Washington.
WikiLeaks promises to release thousands of cables from U.S. embassies in the Americas, although only a few cables appear noteworthy. They reflect the states of mind of some members of our diplomatic corps, intelligence analysts, and security and consular officers. Many are routinely unexceptional, although they have been portrayed in the press as lurid or sensational.
A significant cable is the July 24, 2009, dispatch from U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens to the Department of State. It strongly states his and the embassy’s view of the June 2009 removal of President Manuel Zelaya. Llorens denounces the events as an “illegal” coup and in essence backed Zelaya’s right to return to power. Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro made the same points. The Ambassador argued his brief weeks after the U.S. had launched a mediation process between Zelaya and the interim government of Roberto Micheletti under the auspices of Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. The embassy was seeking to refute a legal brief prepared by the congressional research report, and dissemination of this view likely hardened Zelaya’s resistance. Interestingly, Llorens remains at post in Tegucigalpa despite his strongly held views regarding the “illegality” of Zelaya’s removal. The July cable shows an Administration working in cross-cutting directions.
In other cases, hard truths are plainly spoken. In Paris, a French diplomat recognizes that Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is taking “one of the richest countries in Latin America and turning it into another Zimbabwe.” Reports from Caracas provided a better look at the intelligence, espionage, and security underside of the Venezuela–Cuba alliance and the security threats it poses to U.S. personnel operating overseas.
From Buenos Aires—where Christina Fernandez de Kirchner and her late husband and former President Nestor Kirchner have installed a new version of Peronist populism, spiced generously with anti-Americanism—we learn that the Kirchners are “extremely thin-skinned and intolerant of perceived criticism.”
Too much is being made over a low-level inquiry regarding President Fernandez de Kirchner’s mental health, a question of value when assessing foreign leadership but scarcely the type of inquiry that rises to the attention of the Secretary of State.
That Brazil inclines to soft-pedal terrorism should be no surprise, as it attempts to downplay potential terrorism threads running through its territory. Yet President Lula da Silva’s affections for Iran are front-page news.
From Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a leaked cable points out that President Rene Preval was considered “indispensible but difficult … and a chameleon personality,” an evaluation that appears accurate in the aftermath of the January 13 earthquake.
The challenge of modern U.S. statecraft is to take facts (however inconvenient), a knowledge of personalities (normal or abnormal), and experienced judgments and sober reflections rendered in a confidential manner to make the best policy choices that advance U.S. national interests and protect U.S. security.
The latest round of leaks will have a chilling effect on U.S. diplomacy. It will make friends less candid. (Our enemies already let us know what they think in public and bury their misdeeds in the dungeon of secrecy.) It will make U.S. diplomats hide their sources or hedge their statements, over-classify reports, or increasingly stove-pipe information.
While the Obama Administration may harbor deep affection for Woodrow Wilson’s demand for “open diplomacy,” a real and very dangerous world requires strong action against those who violate U.S. laws. As for Latin America, the weak hand of the Obama Administration in the Americas just became even weaker.