The still-evolving situation in Tunisia casts a provocative light on how Wikileaks was supposed to be damaging America’s standing in the world.
Historically, many of the worst wounds to US standing have happened because the people of other nations came to see gaps between the values America stood for, in their minds and ours, and our actual foreign policy, based on expectations of national interests. US administrations have compromised with corrupt and undemocratic governments that appear to be helping fight the threat of the decade: communism, terrorism, whatever came in between. If America supports those regimes too long, their people start to resent it.
Tunisia was one of those governments. But in early December the Guardian reported that US diplomatic cables from 2008-09, released by Wikileaks, had warned that its president was increasingly corrupt and had lost touch with the populace. (A Spanish newspaper, El Paìs, reported on the same documents, but I don’t know enough Spanish to find its story.)
The Tunisian government responded by trying to block access to the Wikileaks website. That action confirmed what US diplomats had warned about: the regime didn’t allow open dissent or criticism. A Tunisian opposition group called Nawaat.org created an online archive for the cables about their country, called “Tunileaks.”
There was little in those cables that most Tunisians didn’t already know. And most Tunisians no doubt felt sure that American diplomats knew. What Wikileaks revealed was that the Americans were concerned about the corruption and oppression. As I discussed back here, journalists say the cables mainly show their authors as perceptive and sincerely interested in human rights, though also committed to US interests.
Prof. Rob Prince of the University of Denver looked at the Tunileaks cables for Nawaat, and reprinted his analysis on his blog in mid-December:
something else is going reading between the lines, a kind of dangerous dance that on some level the two sides are both aware of: it is as if the State Department is probing [President] Ben Ali: are you still useful to us, they seem to be asking. And he is responding, ‘why yes, of course’. Tunisian authorities are somewhat defensive, nervous one would say and while the US ambassadors are not particularly rude, they are actually ‘diplomatic’, they have made mild criticisms to Ben Ali himself, to the Tunisian foreign secretary. And the cables themselves make the situation clear: all is not well in the relationship. . . .Prince has less praise for US foreign policy than the journalists I quoted before, but even he saw the cables as showing that our government wasn’t committed to the Ben Ali regime if there could be something better.
If the cables are accurate, they suggest that the State Department is beginning, however dimly, to understand the political consequences of these economic policies, many of which, while applied in Tunisia are ‘made in America’…and referred to as ‘The Washington Consensus’.
Eleven days after the first Wikileaks disclosure, a jobless young Tunisian set himself on fire as a protest and/or despairing suicide. (That act has now inspired other suicide attempts in north Africa.) Other people took to the streets. The regime came down hard, killing dozens, which in turn sparked more protests. Even if the Wikileaks cables didn’t offer news for Tunisians, they might have strengthened that revolt by hinting that the US would not stand behind the regime.
On 15 January, the New York Times reported (without mentioning the Guardian or El Paìs):
Those cables, from the cache obtained by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks and made public in recent weeks, helped fuel the anger on the streets that culminated Friday with Mr. Ben Ali’s flight after 23 years in power. Posted on a site created last month called TuniLeaks, the diplomats’ disgusted and lurid accounts of the kleptocratic ways of the president’s extended family helped tip the scales, according to many Tunisian commentators.That idea has been echoed in various ways by everyone from Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic to Muammar Qaddafi of Libya. In fact, Qaddafi and the Iran government have suggested that Wikileaks is a CIA plot because it’s serving US interests better than their own.
As I type, the Tunisians’ protests have driven the Ben Ali family out of the country, and forced his Vice President to step back from initial plans to take over. The military (much smaller than the internal secret police) has sided with the people. Crowds in Tunis are trying to block the recent ruling party being included in the government of national unity. It’s not clear what will develop, but it looks like there’s even a chance of something like democracy breaking out. And so far the Tunisian people are not blaming America.
Perhaps honesty and openness are actually good for foreign policy.