A free and use­ful les­son in the art of ef­fec­tive spin-doc­tor­ing

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES - DANIEL NG­WEPE

THE US govern­ment pulled out all the stops to con­trol the dam­age in the wake of the re­lease of the thou­sands of leaked diplo­matic ca­bles from its mis­sions across the globe.

Var­i­ous me­dia out­lets combed the piles in search of what the US re­ally thinks of their gov­ern­ments and its lead­ers.

First, as US Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton pre­pared her coun­ter­parts for the in­evitable, se­nior Amer­i­can di­plo­mats were do­ing the same in their host coun­tries.

As a re­sult of this ef­fort, some for­eign gov­ern­ments joined the US in de­clin­ing to com­ment on the leaks.

In the face of a pos­si­ble fall­out, US of­fi­cials went on the of­fen­sive, thereby po­ten­tially avert­ing far worse dam­age.

The key mes­sages were that the leaks were re­gret­table, but the of­fi­cials em­pha­sised the prag­ma­tism of friends and al­lies, seek­ing to sep­a­rate the con­tents of the diplo­matic cable traf­fic from of­fi­cial US govern­ment pol­icy, and con­demn­ing Wik­ileaks founder Ju­lian As­sange’s “ir­re­spon­si­ble be­hav­iour”.

There was of course a fee­ble at­tempt to wag the dog, by em­pha­sis­ing the risk to jour­nal­ists, hu­man rights ac­tivists, op­po­si­tion lead­ers and oth­ers who may have been sources for Amer­i­can di­plo­mats.

The truth of the mat­ter is that all di­plo­mats, South Africans in­cluded, pro­vide their gov­ern­ments with can­did views of their as­sess­ments and in­sights re­lat­ing to de­vel­op­ments in coun­tries to which they are as­signed.

The views expressed by Amer­i­can di­plo­mats are no ex­cep­tion.

As Clin­ton pur­ports to have been told by one of her coun­ter­parts: “Wait un­til you hear what we say about you (the US).”

For good mea­sure, Clin­ton was only sorry that the ca­bles ended up in front of the wrong cus­tomer, but re­mained res­o­lute and un­apolo­getic about the right of her di­plo­mats to em­ploy can­dour in their as­sess­ments.

Di­plo­mats and other state op­er­a­tives are al­ways look­ing out for that which is not nec­es­sar­ily pub­licly avail­able, a value-add to for­eign pol­icy for­mu­la­tion.

Re­ports about the col­lec­tion of DNA sam­ples, fre­quent flyer pro­grammes and credit card de­tails of par­tic­u­lar in­di­vid­u­als may border on es­pi­onage, but most gov­ern­ments do it, some bet­ter than oth­ers.

Diplo­macy may have been dealt a tem­po­rary blow in that of­fi­cials and non-state ac­tors may have to be more dis­creet and cir­cum­spect in fu­ture en­gage­ments, es­pe­cially with their Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts.

The leaks, at least in ref­er­ence to South Africa, re­veal noth­ing new. Most of the rev­e­la­tions are old news and a mat­ter of pub­lic record.

In his strong op­po­si­tion to the Iraq war, Nel­son Man­dela at the time pub­licly con­demned Ge­orge Bush as be­ing “in­ca­pable to think”.

That Thabo Mbeki was bi­ased in his Zim­bab­wean me­di­a­tion is not new ei­ther.

Even as it may have caused some dis­com­fort, Maite Nkoane-Mashabane, our cur­rent In­ter na­tional Re­la­tions Min­is­ter, is right on the money say­ing that the oc­to­ge­nar­ian Zim­bab­wean Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe is a “crazy old man”.

Any­one with half a brain will agree with her apt de­scrip­tion, given Mu­gabe’s atro­cious record of hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions and run­ning the coun­try into the ground over the many years he has need­lessly clung to power.

If any­thing, the US govern­ment’s re­sponse to the Wik­ileaks saga is a free and use­ful les­son in the art of ef­fec­tive spin, and per­haps more im­por­tantly, the need for gov­ern­ments to se­cure their com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems.

Ng­wepe is a busi­ness­man and a for­mer South African diplo­mat based in Washington.

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