Now that some of the furor over Julian Assange and WikiLeaks has calmed down, it helps to untangle even a small strand of the web of intrigue surrounding the release of U.S. diplomatic cables. One of the themes we heard these past several months was that most of the cables are mere cocktail party "gossip." This phrase is often used to downplay their significance and to denigrate any public value WikiLeaks may provide as a safe harbor for whistleblowers.
Thus we see similar headlines all over the world: "Wikileaks 'Gossip' Merely Annoying in Latin America," Mario Osava, Inter Press Service, Dec. 13, 2010; "Good Gossip, and No Harm Done to U.S.," Albert R. Hunt, Bloomberg News, Dec. 5, 2010, syndicated in the New York Times; "Raila [Odinga] dismisses WikiLeaks reports as gossip," Carol Gakii and Kendagor Obadiah, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, Dec. 10, 2010; "WikiLeaks: Gossip on a global level," Rabia Ashfaque, Express Tribune Pakistan Blog, circa Dec. 10, 2010; "WikiLeaks: Much ado over idle chat," Korea Herald editorial, Dec. 17, 2010.
So where did this idea come from? Why has it crystallized in so many minds as a convenient explanation? The "gossip" diagnosis is portrayed as the commonsense response, and this alone is reason to beware. We live in an era of information warfare, marked by proliferation of secrecy and the agents who sustain it. Common sense is no longer credible when it can be so easily provided by a third party.
Take for example the CIA Red Cell Memorandum entitled "Afghanistan: Sustaining West European Support for the NATO-led Mission—Why Counting on Apathy Might Not Be Enough," a document leaked to WikiLeaks in early 2010. The first section pretty much sums it up: "Public Apathy Enables Leaders to Ignore Voters." It is painful to witness such brash condescension for the democratic values our troops die to protect, and it is pathetic how the CIA values apathy as a means to sustain an unpopular policy. Only a pathological detachment from life and death consequences could allow them to uphold this charade.
And for those moments when apathy is not enough and war opposition becomes real, the Red Cell Memo suggests a handful of tactics for massaging European publics, tailored to the unique cultural weaknesses of each nation.
The mission’s "multilateral and humanitarian aspects" are recommended as key selling points for German audiences, and a dose of fear is thrown in for good measure: "messages that illustrate how a defeat in Afghanistan could heighten Germany’s exposure to terrorism, opium, and refugees might help to make the war more salient to skeptics."
The French media strategy calls for stirring up guilt related to civilians and women: "The prospect of the Taliban rolling back hard-won progress on girls' education could provoke French indignation, become a rallying point for France's largely secular public, and give voters a reason to support a good and necessary cause despite casualties." The irony wafts like smoke from a Gauloise when we consider the controversy over headscarves in French public schools.
But the real sneakiness here is the way that ethical values are used to legitimize continuation of the war. Of course everyone wants Afghan women and children to live happy, safe, and fulfilling lives. But good news in the service of a democratically disfavored policy sows confusion and helps apathy proliferate. Policy Innovations, in fact, has run great articles over the years on Afghan women, children, and education because it's our business to tell success stories of innovation in development. And that's exactly where the CIA logic breaks down: There are women and children who need good health and education all over the world. Just because some of them happen also to be in Afghanistan doesn't mean that the United States and its allies can retroactively justify a 10-year occupation based on their fates.
This CIA memo preceded the diplomatic cable release but it speaks to a major issue that WikiLeaks has brought to the surface: We can't go on conducting international diplomacy with hypocrisy, cynicism, and dissimulation as if somehow people of different nations live on different planets and aren't listening. Or as Slavoj Zizek writes in the London Review of Books, "We can no longer pretend we don’t know what everyone knows we know." An age of appearances is over.