Julian Assange: Neocon tool?
It turns out our government has been lying to us about whether we have troops in Pakistan engaging in combat operations. The Pentagon has said the mission of American soldiers is confined to "training Pakistani forces so that they can in turn train other Pakistani military," but in fact our forces have been embedded in Pakistani fighting units, giving them electronic data and other support as they kill the enemy.
We know this because of WikiLeaks. It's also thanks to WikiLeaks that we know about America's arrangement with the President of Yemen: we kill Yemen-based terrorists and he claims that Yemen is doing the killing.
In these respects, I think, WikiLeaks is doing God's work. I realize there are tactical rationales for both of these deceptions, but I don't see them trumping the bedrock right of citizens in a democracy to know when their tax dollars are being used to kill people - especially when those people live in countries we're not at war with. So, if we're going to calculate Julian Assange's net karma, I'd put this stuff on the positive side of the ledger.
And calculate we must. Assange will presumably get Time magazine's Person of the Year nod, and Time will no doubt remind us that the award recognizes impact, not virtue; Hitler and Stalin are past winners. It will be left for us to decide whether to file Assange under good or evil. Let's get started. Assange has an elaborate rationale for his actions. He laid it out in a grandiose online manifesto that ranges from the undeniably plausible ("If total conspiratorial power is zero, there is no conspiracy") to the eccentrically metaphorical ("What does a conspiracy compute? It computes the next action of the conspiracy") to the flat-out opaque. But the gist of his argument is clear. He thinks a basic problem with the world is "authoritarian regimes," a term that he uses - in stark contrast with its American usage - to include America.
An authoritarian regime, he says, oppresses people and keeps its plans secret from the oppressed. Transparency rips the veil off, exposing these plots. And radical transparency - like the WikiLeaks data dump - makes authoritarian regimes guarded in their future internal communications. This in turn impairs the regime's functioning. As "more leaks induce fear and paranoia," we see "system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power." (In this respect, as the journalist Glenn Greenwald has noted, Assange is like Osama bin Laden: he wants his enemy to react to his provocations self-destructively.)
Assange wrote these things in 2006, and it's hard to imagine that he didn't have the Bush administration in mind. Certainly Bush was big on centralizing power, and wasn't big on civil liberties, and sometimes he kept his infringements on our liberties secret. Assange is in this sense the anti-Bush, challenging secretive, centralized authority with a transparency that is highly decentralized. (His backers have created mirror Web sites to ensure access to the WikiLeaks documents, and Assange says that more than 100,000 people possess the whole archive in encrypted form.) Yet in one sense Assange is the anti-anti-Bush.
Bush was criticized for unilateralist tendencies, for failing to nurture good relations with other nations - and, in particular, for writing off suspect nations (see "axis of evil") as barely worth talking to at all. Obama came into office vowing "engagement." He would reach out to other nations, emphatically including those with whom relations were most fraught, like Russia and Muslim nations, even including Iran.
If our government quit keeping explosive secrets about what it's doing abroad, then what it's doing abroad would change. Engagement is the search for win-win outcomes to non-zero-sum games. As any game theorist can tell you, a key to reaching those outcomes is communication, and the communication is most fruitful when there is mutual trust. Well, thanks to Assange, many nations will now hesitate to speak candidly with us, fearing that their private utterances might go public.
Communication, and trust, may also be cooled by our recently revealed appraisals of foreign leaders. I'm guessing the Turks won't warm to the cable from Ankara that looked forward to a day when "we will no longer have to deal with the current cast of [Turkish] political leaders, with their special yen for destructive drama and rhetoric." And Vladimir Putin can't be liking our depiction of him as a slacker thug.
Many of our foreign relations will prove resilient. Longstanding European allies will get over the insults, and will eventually accept assurances that we're tightening the security of our missives. But such ready rapprochement is less likely with the Russias and Turkeys of the world - nations that are more culturally remote from us and were less secure in our friendship to begin with. In other words, the relationships that will suffer the deepest damage are the most fragile ones, the ones that Obama entered office hoping to mend with engagement.
These include many of the relationships that the neoconservatives who shaped Bush's foreign policy were most willing to risk. Neocons have often encouraged policies and utterances that threatened relations with Russia and Turkey, as well as China, Iran and so on. Indeed, neoconservatism sometimes seems devoted to exacerbating the world's major geopolitical fault lines.