Outrage and Apologies Washington Fights to Rebuild Battered Reputation
Few leaks have ever caused so much anger and shock as the publication of the US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been trying to repair the damage done to Washington's reputation, while some on the right have even called for Julian Assange's execution. By SPIEGEL Staff.
Her face has seemed frozen in place for days. She looks peaked, thin-lipped and serious, very serious. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is currently enduring the consequences of what is probably the biggest indiscretion in the history of diplomacy, and it shows.
Clinton, who has embarked on a damage-control trip around the world, sharply condemned the publication of the embassy cables by the website WikiLeaks, calling it a "very irresponsible, thoughtless act that put at risk the lives of innocent people all over the world."
"Secretary Clinton is literally working night and day in conversations with countless leaders around the world to try as best we can not only to express regret but to work through these issues," Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns told US lawmakers. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, said he would be "very surprised if some people don't lose their lives" as a result of the leaks.
In the Spotlight
On Wednesday of last week, Hillary Clinton was in the Kazakh capital Astana for a long-planned summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). It was her first major appearance on the international stage in the wake of the leaks, and she knew that it could be an embarrassing one.
President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the 70-year-old ruler of Kazakhstan, was standing on a large stage in the Palace of Independence, waiting for 38 heads of state, as well as other senior politicians from around the world. He was the host of the event, the first OSCE summit since 1999. The head of each delegation had to walk up a small staircase onto the stage to shake the Kazakh autocrat's hand.
Finally it was Hillary Clinton's turn. Wearing a dark-blue suit, she climbed up the stairs and walked toward Nazarbayev, smiling broadly. As she stood on the stage with Nazarbayev, Clinton knew that the spotlight was on her, as the head of the US State Department, the government agency responsible for writing so many unflattering psychological profiles and political assessments of politicians worldwide.
Some of the people Clinton's ambassadors wrote about were now sitting in the room in front of her. They included Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, whom the diplomats characterized as "pale and hesitant" and likened to a comic-book character, and the president of Turkmenistan, who, according to the cables, is "a practiced liar" and "not very bright".
Host Nazarbayev is apparently fond of warm weather, has about 40 horses in his stable and owns a palace in the Arab Emirates. Nazarbayev has already told the Americans that he will get over the revelations.
More Than Just Damaged Egos
But it's more than a question of potentially damaged egos. The published cables offer insights into the thought processes of American leaders and their counterparts abroad. They provide authentic direct quotes from the world's crisis regions. They report on North Korean B25 rockets capable of carrying nuclear warheads and with an estimated range of 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles), which Pyongyang allegedly shipped to Iran. They reveal that US diplomats were given secret instructions in the summer of 2009 to spy on foreign officials at the UN. They discuss Arab leaders who favored bombing Iran. They describe a suitcase containing $52 million (39 million) in cash, with which Afghanistan's former vice-president was caught in Dubai before he was released again. And they mention a Lebanese defense minister who said that he hoped Israel would bomb his own country and annihilate Hezbollah.
The cables, as reports from a world of secretiveness and discretion, contain astonishingly clear and unvarnished statements made in the context of the diplomatic realm of duplicity. They have shocked, alienated and appalled the world.
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, seemingly in shock and speaking somewhat prematurely, called the leaks the "September 11th of world diplomacy." French government spokesman François Baroin, calling the leaks a threat that needed to be combated, said: "I always thought that a transparent society was a totalitarian society."
Hillary Clinton is aware of all of these irritations. According to her spokesman, she claimed not to have read a single one of the problematic documents. This is astonishing. In her speech before the OSCE plenary assembly, she didn't say a word about the WikiLeaks disclosures.
'No Better Friend'
Suddenly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the woman American diplomats described as "rarely creative," was sitting next to Clinton. Merkel was also wearing blue that day. The two women seemed to be having an amiable conversation. The chancellor would later say that the WikiLeaks affair played only a "secondary" role at the meeting.
Things did not go quite as smoothly for Clinton with Silvio Berlusconi. Since the leaks occurred, the Italian prime minister -- the last world leader to arrive at the meeting, carrying a folder under his arm and visibly out of breath -- has been under suspicion of securing benefits for himself in connection with energy deals with Russia, which he denies. The cables describe Berlusconi as "feckless, vain and ineffective" and as a party animal who doesn't get enough sleep. But in Astana, Clinton also felt compelled to make amends with the Italian. "We have no better friend, we have no one who supports the American policies as consistently as Prime Minister Berlusconi has," Clinton told reporters.
Apologies, professions of solidarity and efforts to make amends: Is this what American foreign policy will look like for the next few months?
"We cannot, of course, put the toothpaste back in the tube," writes former CIA case officer Robert Baer in an opinion piece for the Financial Times. "The credibility of the State Department as a reliable interlocutor has evaporated, and no doubt for a long time."
In an interview with SPIEGEL, former Saudi Arabian intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal says that American's "credibility and honesty are the victim of these leaks" and assumes that from now on people "will no longer speak to American diplomats frankly."
'Anything Less than Execution Is Too Kind'
Those at the right end of the American political spectrum feel threatened by a foreign power once again. Whoever passed on this information is guilty of treason, says former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, one of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. According to Huckabee, "anything less than execution is too kind a penalty."
His rival Sarah Palin wrote on her Facebook page that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be hunted down like a terrorist. "He is an anti-American operative with blood on his hands. Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders?"
One leading politician who hasn't said much is President Barack Obama, whose handling of the WikiLeaks affair thus far only confirms his political adversaries' criticisms. Just like with the controversy over an Islamic center in New York and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Obama is once again being accused of not taking decisive action, showing weakness and putting America's superpower status at risk. Obama's inaction in the WikiLeaks case was the focus of conservative criticism in the second half of the week.
Commentator Ann Coulter calls Obama a hesitant, powerless leader who is stuck in the White House, incapable of doing anything to defend his country. While Interpol is looking for Assange, she says, the US government isn't doing everything in its power to apprehend him. She characterizes the United States as "a helpless, pitiful giant."
Turkey has considered taking legal action because of the leaks. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, described in the cables as an "ignorant Islamist" with eight Swiss bank accounts, wants to strike back at US diplomats in a big way. "Those who have slandered us will be crushed under these claims, will be finished and will disappear," Erdogan announced in Istanbul, where he is considering filing a lawsuit against the diplomats.
Many Turks suspect that a massive conspiracy by the Jewish lobby is behind the WikiLeaks campaign, a view held even by the deputy chairman of the governing party, the AKP. The goal of the reports, he says, is to weaken the Turkish government.
The cables will probably have their most serious long-term effects in places where the world was already extremely fragile before the leaks: the Middle East, Yemen, the countries bordering Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Critics in Islamabad said last week that the United States, Pakistan's strategic partner in the war on terrorism, mistrusts its Pakistani allies and is "playing a double game." Some of the cables revealed US concerns that Islamabad is not sufficiently protecting its nuclear arsenal. "The documents show what Washington really thinks about us," says one official in a Pakistani ministry.
Secretary Clinton's diplomats will have to woo their foreign counterparts and openly express their regrets, and they'll even have to eat some humble pie to offset the loss of confidence. The State Department is already thinking about withdrawing some of its ambassadors as a way of making amends. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns says that the WikiLeaks disclosures have done "substantial damage" to diplomacy.
The peculiar thing about this debate is that it also has another, entirely different side, in the form of those who feel that the leaked cables are "embarrassing but not damaging" and "lack relevant new information."
"The WikiLeaks disclosures did not offer any surprises," writes Switzerland's Neue Zürcher Zeitung, while the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit argues there is nothing at risk "that ought to preoccupy humanity, at least not in Europe."
- Part 1: Washington Fights to Rebuild Battered Reputation
- Part 2: From Banal to Explosive