Ju­lian As­sange: Neo­con tool?

The Pak Banker - - Editorial5 - Robert Wright

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.

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