BOSTON, Mass. – It was a remarkable week for the internet. On Nov. 29, as the first WikiLeaks documents trickled out, many observers dismissed the diplomatic cable dump as mere gossip fodder. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confidently asserted that the fallout would be manageable.
It didn’t take long for things to change.
As the pixels fell into place, sexual misconduct charges against Julian Assange quickly took on a new urgency. Interpol issued a warrant for the WikiLeaks leader. The United States announced that it was investigating him for espionage. And in what may turn out to be the web’s first real war — between power and truth — the CableGate site was shut down. For better or worse, by week’s end WikiLeaks’ revealed itself to be a global game changer.
The cables’ barbed and colorful rhetoric was intended for an insider audience. Now that they’ve been outed, they’ve ignited scores of political fires, ruining the reputations and relationships of many among the world’s powerful.
Here’s a list of five top accusations that simply can’t be ignored — and one example of praise guaranteed to pique American conservatives.
1) Russia’s “Batman and Robin” kleptocracy
U.S. diplomats have a dim view of Russia’s leadership. “The Kremlin lies at the center of a constellation of official and quasi-official rackets,” the New York Times reported.
There’s much chatter surrounding the lucre of Russia’s longtime strongman Vladimir Putin — reportedly Europe’s richest, worth some $40 billion. According to cables viewed by the Guardian, his wealth stems from the “secretive Swiss-based oil company Gunvor.” (The company denies this.)
A dispatch attributed to Condoleezza Rice’s State Department alleges that when Putin’s presidency reached the end of its term limit, Putin’s fear of prosecution for financial crimes drove his decision on whom to back as a successor. The story makes sense: Putin, of course, plucked the little-known bureaucrat Dmitry Medvedev, who then anointed the strongman as his prime minister, putting Putin out of the reach of prosecutors.
Meanwhile, although Russia’s president officially holds more power than the prime minister, diplomats quip that Medvedev “plays Robin to Putin’s Batman.”
What does Putin say about allegations that he’s socked away an illicit fortune? They’re “just rubbish, picked out of someone’s nose and smeared on bits of paper,” the Guardian reports.
2) Italy’s prime minister is on the take
Putin isn’t only helping himself to national wealth — he’s alleged to be assisting Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in paying his bills as well. This cable from the U.S. Embassy in Rome cites several sources alleging that “Berlusconi and his cronies are profiting personally and handsomely from many of the energy deals between Italy and Russia.” It goes on to identify “Valentino Valentini, a member of parliament and somewhat shadowy figure who operates as Berluscon’s (sic) key man on Russia, albeit with no staff or even a secretary.” Valentini, the cable states, speaks Russian and travels to the country several times a month on unspecified business.
Of course, Berlusconi — a well-known womanizer who has ruled Italy on and off since 1994 — hardly needs Putin’s handouts. He’s a billionaire tycoon who controls a large swath of Italy’s media.
3) Afghanistan: a wretched hive of scum and villainy
If Putin and Berlusconi seem bad, consider the charges against Afghanistan.
The New York Times asserts that “Afghanistan emerges as a looking glass land where bribery, extortion and embezzlement are the norm and the honest official is a distinct outlier.” Among the more outlandish allegations is that customs officials caught former vice president Ahmed Zia Massoud carrying $52 million in cash. (The article did not explain how exactly this pile of cash was transported, and since the disclosure Massoud has pointed to this logistical improbability as evidence of his innocence.)
Meanwhile, another New York Times piece chronicles Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s nosedive — from stylish pro-Western savior in the aftermath of 9/11, to a greedy, incompetent, unstable paranoiac, possibly suffering from schizophrenia. Karzai’s many detractors include his own finance minister, Omar Zakhilwal, who is quoted as saying that Karzai is “an extremely weak man … easily swayed by anyone who came to him to report even the most bizarre stories of plots against him. Whenever this happened, Karzai would immediately judge the person to be loyal and would reward him.”
The Times concludes with musings from former NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer about whether there were two Hamid Karzais: “the erratic Pashtun politician or the rational national leader.”
Neither the corruption nor Karzai’s idiosyncrasies are terribly surprising, but the details are searing. Taken together, they raise the question: Given what the U.S. government knows, how can it commit blood and treasure to a regime that’s so hopelessly rotten?
4) Are the United States and United Kingdom frenemies?
Among the more surprising victims of U.S. diplo-smack is the United Kingdom, the supposed partner in Winston Churchill’s “special relationship.” A series of cables reported in the Guardian reveal persistent eye-rolling over former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s purportedly naive initiatives.
More poignantly, the Guardian asserts that in recent years, “British authorities were either ignored, manipulated or co-opted” by their American partners over many issues (including the Diego Garcia military base, American efforts to circumvent an international cluster munitions ban, and the use of British bases for rendition and spying flights). The Guardian speculates that these revelations of friction are only the beginning: “For all we know there is a ticking time bomb sitting among the unpublished cables — unnoticed by the teams of journalists working through them — waiting to go off.”
Making matters worse, the U.K.’s shellacking doesn’t come only from haughty American diplomats. Afghan President Hamid Karzai showers “devastating contempt” on the British for their inability to secure Helmand province, their unwillingness to fight and inability to mix with the Afghan people. (In Helmand, rather than depend on the Brits to establish order, Karzai has suggested installing a drug trafficking warlord.) Helmand’s governor also dismisses the British effort, telling newly-anointed Vice President Joseph Biden that American forces were needed, given that the British were unable to even secure a key market.
That’s some thanks for the U.K.’s commitment of 10,000 troops and $7.8 billion each year to Helmand.
5) Even Canada comes under scrutiny
So what could possibly be wrong with that big cuddly bear of a country to the north? Plenty, according to the New York Times reading of diplomatic cables from Ottawa.
Traumatized by the story of Omar Khadr (the Canadian teenager incarcerated at Guantanamo) and alienated from the Anglo-Saxon axis by its unwillingness to fight in Iraq, Canada is accused of being mistrustful of the United States. The result? An “onslaught” of TV shows — some subsidized by the Canadian government — depicting “nefarious” U.S. officials planning to bomb Quebec and steal Canadian water supplies.
Here again, the cables deploy the dynamic duo analogy: Canadians “always carry a chip on their shoulder” because they feel “condemned to always play Robin to the U.S. ‘Batman.’”
6) So what about France?
One overarching theme of the cables is that America’s foreign service corps harbors a shabby view of much of the world. Diplomacy may seem like a glamorous profession, but the cables give the impression that embassies spend much of their time parsing the psychoses of foreign leaders in a dark, dangerous world.
One standout exception, however, is Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France, that old bugaboo of the Tea Party right. According to the New York Times, a Jan. 25, 2010 cable calls French-American relations “one of the best.” Of course, praise is couched in reservations about the French in general: “Very much unlike nearly all other French political figures, Sarkozy is viscerally pro-American. For most of his peers, the United States is a sometimes reviled or admired, but decidedly foreign, other. Sarkozy identifies with America; he sees his own rise in the world as reflecting an American-like saga.”
Follow David Case on Twitter: @DavidCaseReport
Analysis: Could WikiLeaks start a war?
View from Afghanistan: WikiLeaks are an American conspiracy
View from Latin America: Hugo Chavez called "crazy" and other tales
View from Asia: Leaked cables could generate sympathy for US
View from Saudi Arabia: Saudi efforts to thwart Iran revealed
View from Iran: The "snake's head" reacts
View from Europe: Coverage focuses on gossip
View from Turkey: Cables hurt US-Turkey relations
View on Africa: US wants Mugabe out
Analysis: WikiLeaks will kill transparency