These reports raise obvious questions about the real cause of the Benghazi attack and whether the Obama Administration, the U.S. State Department, and the intelligence community ignored clear danger signs — or even explicit advance warnings — about the security situation in Libya. These questions can’t be adequately answered by spin-oriented flacks like White House press secretary Jay Carney. Instead, those questions need to be asked, in a public forum, and answered under oath by knowledgeable Administration officials whose jobs involve collecting intelligence, ensuring that our diplomatic outposts are adequately safeguarded, and communicating with host countries about embassy security. We deserve to know how this fiasco happened.
According to a federal database, the American embassy in Paris spent more than $8,300 on Dreams From My Father in French. Embassies in Indonesia, Turkey, and South Korea made similar purchases. The embassy in Egypt led the way, spending a whopping $37,000 on copies of Dreams From My Father. According to a State Department spokesman, diplomats “often use books to engage key audiences in discussions of foreign policy” and he notes that “[t]he structure and the presidency of the United States is an integral component of representing the United States overseas.” He says the books stock “information resource centers” that are located around the world and include books about U.S. culture, history and values, and that the State Department also provides “key library collections with books about the United States.”
Sorry, I don’t buy it. I’m not suggesting the President had anything to do with this — I think it’s an example of bureaucrats using discretionary spending to curry favor with their political appointee bosses. Could it really be true that Americans conduct diplomacy by handing foreign counterparts The Audacity Of Hope and asking them to read through chapter 12 before tomorrow’s meeting? If so, that may explain some of our recent foreign policy problems. And has anyone looked lately at the value of maintaining a worldwide network of “information resource centers” stocked with hard copy books? If we’re spending so much on President Obama’s biographies, the “information resource centers” must be enormous — unless those books are the only ones that have been found to reflect the American viewpoint on culture, history, and values. How often are the “resource centers” used? Wouldn’t a more diverse, more cost-effective “information resource” be a computer terminal with internet access?
I recognize that $60,000 is just a tiny molecule of water in the great, slopping, steaming ocean that is the federal budget — but every journey begins with a single step. Programs that permit the purchase of thousands of dollars of the President’s books are programs that can be cut.
It is not clear yet how big, or how powerful, this wave of protest against undemocratic regimes will be. Waves are unpredictable. Sometimes waves that look enormous peter out, and waves also can be indiscriminate in their destructive force. In a year, we could see a Middle East that looks pretty much the same as it does right now, or we could see an area filled with many new governments. And if that is the result, who knows whether the governments will support peace with Israel and be favorably inclined to America, or whether we will see more governments predicated on intolerant religious fundamentalism, or whether we will see something else entirely? In America, and in Israel, we watch with anticipation and dread as the wave rolls on.
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.