Monday, December 6, 2010

When leaks expose a giant's helplessness

Dec 6, 2010

The real damage from leaked cables: sense of US inability to act

By Chua Chin Hon

WHATEVER you make of the value of the secret diplomatic cables being released by WikiLeaks, it is painfully clear that United States diplomacy will be set back for years.

With a quarter of a million once-private documents going public in the coming days, weeks and months, American diplomats are going to have a tough time regaining the trust of their foreign counterparts and the leaders of those countries.

The difficulties will be particularly pronounced in East Asia and the Middle East, where affairs of the state are conducted strictly behind closed doors. In these regions, discretion and secrecy are not optional but mandatory in diplomatic exchanges.

As one incredulous diplomat put it to me earlier last week: 'This is just unbelievable. You can't imagine the amount of distrust and suspicion that will go on in future meetings.'

But as damaging as the whole episode has been - or will be - it does not fundamentally alter the calculus that informs most countries' interaction with Washington.

Nor does it change the fact that the US is still the 800-pound gorilla of global diplomacy and politics.

The roads to peace in the Middle East, global climate change legislation, and action on Iran and North Korea's nuclear ambition all pass through Washington, DC.

In other words, countries around the world will still have to consult and deal with American diplomats, scandal or no scandal.

But any serious diplomat or policymaker must surely be asking himself or herself this: How long will this status quo last, given the worrying list of things gone wrong in the US these days?

Even if you don't buy all that talk about the supposed 'American decline', it is honestly hard to look at the back-to-back crises of the last two years - financial meltdown, rocky elections, political gridlock, disastrous oil spill, anaemic recovery, skyrocketing deficits, unprecedented loss of state secrets and so on - and still remain sanguine about the future of American leadership.

This ultimately is the real damage from WikiLeaks: a hardening of the perception of American helplessness against existing problems and unpredictable new challenges.

Many will argue that this is too pessimistic a view. Surely the US, having survived difficult times in the past such as the Great Depression, the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War, will bounce back again strongly.

I have no doubt that the US, given its embarrassment of resources and talent, will do just that if it puts its mind to it.

But that's precisely the problem. The country's leaders appear incapable of focusing on the big challenges these days, and seem more interested in distractions, elections and partisan warfare.
This mood was well captured in a satirical column by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently, in which he imagined what a 'WikiLeaked' diplomatic note written by the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC might look like.

In the tongue-in-cheek article, he wrote about how the Chinese secretly gloated while watching the US work itself into a froth over pat-downs at airports and frivolous arguments about why America is an 'exceptional' country.

'There is a wilful self-destructiveness in the air here as if America has all the time and money in the world for petty politics,' Mr Friedman wrote in his imagined role as a Chinese diplomat.

'It means America will do nothing serious to fix its structural problems: a ballooning deficit, declining educational performance, crumbling infrastructure and diminished immigration of new talent... In sum, things are going well for China in America.'

As with all good satire, there is more than an element of truth behind the article.

Take the example of the current political battle du jour in the US Congress over tax cuts and ratification of a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.

The real end game behind the tussle does not appear to be what's needed for the country, but how best to weaken President Barack Obama's hand before the 2012 election.

Mr Obama himself is not beyond blame. Some of the more surprising 'insider' revelations of late, to me at least, came not from WikiLeaks, but a series of new books about his first 18 months in office.

For instance, they revealed that he stubbornly pushed ahead with ambitious health-care reforms despite advice from nearly all of his principal advisers to hold off and focus on the economy.

Inexplicably, Mr Obama also devoted months of precious time in his first year to the arcane details of the nuclear treaty with Russia while job creation continued to be anaemic, and as his rivals appeared to gain the upper hand in an ugly debate over health-care reforms.

'Obama spends about half his time on foreign affairs, which drives (former White House chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel crazy,' author Richard Wolffe quoted a senior security aide saying in his book Revival: The Struggle For Survival Inside The Obama White House.

Did Mr Obama miscalculate badly, or is his remedy for the country's problems so complex as to be beyond the comprehension of most people?

To anxious American jobseekers, who have just been hit with the grim news that unemployment has crept back up to 9.8 per cent, this must seem a bigger mystery than the contents of WikiLeaks' vault.

[I am wondering if Obama is good for the US after all. If his presence is divisive, if he causes the hidden racism to fight his presidency, if he is unable to draw support because his opponents only see his colour, then he is president before his time.

The US probably won't go belly up overnight. But the things that need to be done are not being done, while the things that will rip that country apart are being entrenched and institutionalised. Tactics that work won't be tossed away unless someone learns to disarm them. So the Republicans will obstruct when they are not in power, and destruct when they are, while the Democrats will be more consistent. They will be ineffective when they are not in majority, and ineffective when they are.]

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