In Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward recounts a comment made by then-candidate Obama after receiving an intelligence briefing from director of national intelligence Mike McConnell: “You know, I’ve been worried about losing this election. After talking to you guys, I’m worried about winning this election.”
Like Obama’s early intelligence briefings, the State Department cables released by WikiLeaks reveal a world much more dangerous and sinister than the media and foreign-policy elites would often have us believe.
Much of the information classified by the U.S. government is done so for very valid reasons — to protect sources and methods, to ensure that information related to weapons of mass destruction is not proliferated, or just to ensure that diplomatic relations are not undermined.
The last of these rationales is at times questionable. There is no reason that an embassy’s candid description of a foreign leader’s personality or peccadillos should be plastered on the front page of the New York Times. However, some uncomfortable truths about actions taken (or not taken) by foreign governments are often protected by the U.S. government in the interest of creating convenient myths about our relations with those countries. That is why, despite a variety of information that has emerged in recent years, you rarely see U.S. officials clearly discuss Iran’s role in killing American men and women in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is why the unhelpful roles played by Russia and China when it comes to preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missiles are often hidden under diplospeak from the State Department podium that praises cooperation that in reality doesn’t exist.
So, although much of the information in the cables released by WikiLeaks is not entirely new, reading them breaks through the alternate reality often created in foreign-policy circles to disguise unfortunate truths about the world. Iran, it appears, is not eager to engage and is not likely to be a receptive partner. China often disregards U.S. requests to block shipments of sensitive materials from its companies. Russia is slipping back toward old ways. And a military strike on Iran is not just a creation of the Israel lobby, but is the desired response of many Middle Eastern leaders to Iran’s nuclear program.
These are all views that have been advanced by conservative critics of the U.S. government’s failed approaches to Iran, North Korea, and the efforts of multiple administrations to curry favor with Beijing and Moscow at the expense of real action to confront the world’s most pressing problems. Now, in the unvarnished reporting of U.S. government officials, the realities are laid bare.
There is no doubt that the WikiLeaks revelations are damaging to U.S. national security. Foreign officials may be less likely to speak frankly to U.S. officials and U.S. efforts to prevent proliferation could be damaged as Iran, North Korea, and other potential proliferators gain information about U.S. infiltration of their activities. But in general, the cables show that, like every president before him, upon realizing the very dangerous nature of the world in which we live, President Obama has been forced to adapt his campaign foreign policy into a governing one. The verdict is still out on whether it will be a successful one.
— Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.