Dennis And The Dictator

Former NBA player and walking tattoo billboard Dennis Rodman is back in North Korea. This time Rodman is leading a group of former NBA players who will play a basketball game today, apparently to celebrate the birthday of North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un.

Rodman says the dictator is a great friend and that he is on a “basketball diplomacy” mission, similar to the trip of the U.S. table tennis team to China that helped to thaw relations between those two countries during the Nixon Administration. (The U.S. says Rodman isn’t representing this country, in case you’re wondering.)

For somebody who professes such aspirations, Rodman is a pretty crappy diplomat. During an interview, he made comments about Kenneth Bae, an American who worked as a tour operator in North Korea, was arrested on charges of attempting to overthrow the government, was sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp, and apparently has suffered significant health problems since then. Rodman was asked whether he would speak to Kim Jong-un about Bae, reacted with anger, and asked the interviewer if he knew why Bae was imprisoned and what he had done in North Korea — comments that Bae’s family and others have interpreted as suggesting that Bae did something wrong and deserves his treatment.

It’s not surprising that Rodman would go back to North Korea. During his NBA days he grew accustomed to celebrity status, after his retirement he went through the mill of professional wrestling and bad reality TV shows, and he continues to crave the spotlight. Now, the only way anyone pays attention to him is when he goes to visit brutal dictators who lead a destitute and starving nation — and he’s apparently willing to pay that price. I wonder, however, why any other self-respecting former NBA players would participate in Rodman’s folly. After all, Kim Jong-un is regarded as so unbalanced that some news media found plausible an apparently satirical claim that he had his uncle torn apart by a pack of 120 dogs. Why would anyone voluntarily travel to a benighted land and put themselves under the complete control of an absolute dictator who clearly does not feel constrained by principles of international law or human decency?

Why The Wikileaks Incident Matters

I haven’t read all of the cables and reports that were part of the Wikileaks disclosures — has anyone? — but I don’t think you need to do so to recognize that the disclosures could easily have a devastating impact on the United States and its interests and actions abroad.

Secrecy and discretion are crucial to successful diplomacy.  The United States is a global citizen that has relations with virtually every country in the world, and it needs to have candid and accurate information on which to define and structure those relations.  It’s much easier to negotiate if you know what the other side is really after, and it’s impossible to negotiate if the other side knows your cards.  Furthermore, once confidentiality is breached and confidential sources are revealed it is extraordinarily difficult to rebuild the trust needed to get candid information.  Reporters understand this.  They will go to jail before revealing information about confidential sources because they know that if they disclose a source’s identity they probably won’t have any more confidential sources.

Thanks to the Wikileaks disclosures, the foreign sources who previously provided us with frank assessments of their leaders on promise of confidentiality are not likely to be so frank going forward, if they even talk to us at all.  As a result, in the future the United States probably will be acting on less information than it has had in the past — and in the world of diplomacy, knowledge is power.

Although a lot of attention has been focused on Julian Assange, the creepy Wikileaks founder, I think the real focus should be on how so many confidential diplomatic cables have been compromised.  The United States can’t control the actions of wild cards like Assange, but it can control who gets access to secret communications and therefore is in a position to leak them.  If, as some suspect, a low-level employee is responsible for most or all of the latest leaks, that indicates that the system needs to be radically changed.  Although 9/11 taught us that a free exchange of information among government agencies may be essential to connecting the dots and foiling terrorist plots, that does not mean that every flunky with access to a secure system should be able to read and download every cable being sent using that system.

The State Department security people dropped the ball in this instance, and their failure poses an additional danger.  The Wikileaks incident makes our security seem inept, ineptitude suggests weakness, and weakness invites attack.