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