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WikiLeaks Reaction in Europe: Dismay, Concern but Not Much Alarm

3 years ago
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LONDON -- As news of the massive leak of secret U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks spreads like wildfire around the world, American politicians have reacted with outrage. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) wants to shut down Wikileaks, the brainchild of Julian Assange. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) wants it declared a terrorist organization. Over in Europe, however, where some of the leaked documents have the ability to do some real damage, reactions have been considerably more varied.

There is, understandably, some shock and concern that the information was so widely available within the various echelons of the U.S. government in the first place. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian newspaper -- which has published many of the Wikileaks revelations -- said Monday that numerous British diplomats he'd consulted with were "astonished" to learn that more than 2.5 million U.S. government personnel and soldiers, many of them extremely junior, were cleared to access such highly sensitive material. As he put it, the diplomats "had no sense that what the King of Saudi Arabia says in private could be read by a 22-year-old soldier in Baghdad."

Whether this free flow of diplomatic information within the U.S. government permanently damages U.S. relations with Europe is debatable. But Ruprecht Polenz, a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union Party and chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German federal parliament, thinks that it will. As he put it, "The U.S. must now move to reassure allies that they can be trusted. Otherwise, partners might not continue being open with them."

There is also the question of the image that these leaked documents project about American power and resolve abroad. According to staff writers at the German daily Der Spiegel -- which, along with The Guardian, France's Le Monde and The New York Times, is also releasing the documents this week -- the image that emerges from them is not one of an America that has "the world on a leash."

Rather, you see a "superpower that can no longer be certain of its allies." (This is a reference to countries such as Pakistan.) "Often enough, the lesson . . . is that the Arab leaders use their friends in Washington to expand their own positions of power." Or, as a Guardian columnist put it somewhat starkly: "The impression is of the world's superpower roaming helpless in a world in which nobody behaves as bidden."

The leaked cables may also have some potentially significant policy implications. Take Israel. Alastair Campbell, a senior adviser to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, argues that the cables could open the way for a tougher stance against Tehran among Western governments. As he posts on his blog: "I was left with the impression that anyone in the US system pushing for a hardening of the policy position vis-a-vis Iran would be able to build a lot of support for such a move."

Julian Assange, WikileaksAnd, indeed, Israel, is said to be quite delighted with the content of the leaks. These disclosures "don't hurt Israel at all -- perhaps the opposite," Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser to ex-prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, told Israeli radio. "If there is something on the Iranian issue that, in my opinion, happens to help Israel, it is that these leaks show that Arab countries like Saudi Arabia are far more interested in Iran than they are in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Pakistan, on the other hand, is decidedly less delighted with the content of the cables. Former Pakistani spy chief Hameed Gul has seized on cables indicating a U.S. desire to block Pakistan's nuclear program. Speaking to the Guardian, he said: "This confirms that the Americans haven't given up their pursuit, to try to snatch Pakistan's nuclear capability." (Already, Washington's new ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, offered a semi-apology for the cables in a newspaper.)

But the reactions to the document dump in Europe and elsewhere were not uniformly alarmist. Silvio Berlusconi, for example, apparently came in for some of the harshest criticisms from American diplomats stationed in Italy, who described him as "feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader." But upon reading these descriptions about himself, the Italian leader reportedly had "a good laugh."

Nor did the Brits appear to take the blunt disclosures about their government -- often negative -- terribly personally. There were secret cables covering everything ranging from Gordon Brown's perceived weakness and the coalition government's likely short-lived nature to "inappropriate behavior" by a member of the royal family and the sex life of one current government minister. But speaking to BBC Radio 4's "Today" program on Monday, former British Ambassador to Washington Sir Christopher Meyer called the leaks were far more embarrassing than damaging, as most of the facts were already widely known.

In this regard, perhaps the most trenchant commentary on the leaks so far came from the British Daily Telegraph's deputy editor, Benedict Brogan. For Brogan, the great lesson of all of this is that "occasional embarrassment is an occupational hazard in a 21st century marked by vast quantities of information circulating in all too accessible digital form." In other words, diplomacy in an information age is inherently prone to embarrassment.

You can say that again.

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