Daniel W. Drezner

What the Obama administration and Emily Litella have in common

What the Obama administration and Emily Litella have in common

As much as I didn’t enjoy John Mearsheimer’s cover essay in The National Interest, that’s how much I’ve been enjoying his latest book, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics. Mearsheimer basic argument is that governments lie to each other far less frequently that one would expect, but they more commonly lie to their own citizenry. On the whole, however, they do this less for venal but for strategic reasons.

Mearsheimer’s book went to press before Wikileaks blew up. As Stuart Reid points out at Slate, however, it’s a wonderful testing opportunity for some aspiring dissertation-writer out there. Indeed, it now turns out that the Obama administration exaggerated juuuuust a wee bit about the damage caused by Wikileaks:

Internal U.S. government reviews have determined that a mass leak of diplomatic cables caused only limited damage to U.S. interests abroad, despite the Obama administration’s public statements to the contrary.

A congressional official briefed on the reviews said the administration felt compelled to say publicly that the revelations had seriously damaged American interests in order to bolster legal efforts to shut down the WikiLeaks website and bring charges against the leakers.

"I think they just want to present the toughest front they can muster," the official said.

But State Department officials have privately told Congress they expect overall damage to U.S. foreign policy to be containable, said the official, one of two congressional aides familiar with the briefings who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

"We were told (the impact of WikiLeaks revelations) was embarrassing but not damaging," said the official, who attended a briefing given in late 2010 by State Department officials.

Hmmm…. this sounds familiar. Very familiar.

What’s interesting is how one reacts to this kind of news. For example, I’m shocked, shocked that Glenn Greenwald has jumped all over this as yet another data point revealing official American perfidy:

And this, of course, has been the point all along: the WikiLeaks disclosures are significant precisely because they expose government deceit, wrongdoing and brutality, but the damage to innocent people has been deliberately and wildly exaggerated — fabricated — by the very people whose misconduct has been revealed. There is harm from the WikiLeaks documents, but it’s to wrongdoers in power, which is why they are so desperate to malign and then destroy the group.

Contrast this with Kevin Drum:

For the most part, the leaked cables were interesting and in some cases embarrassing, but as a lot of people pointed out in real time, not really all that revelatory. In fact, they mostly showed U.S. diplomacy in a pretty good light. Obviously American diplomats would prefer that private conversations remain private — and that’s perfectly reasonable — but in the end the WikiLeaks releases didn’t cause nearly as much damage as government officials claimed.

It will shock, shock you to know that I agree with Drum more than Greenwald. This is not because of world-weary cynicism — indeed, there’s a very strong argument to be made in favor of a "broken windows" theory of government lying. Do it for small things, and it becomes easier to do it for big things.

The thing is, government honesty and transparency inevitably becomes a comparative exercise, and compared to other governments, the United States does pretty well. Looking at the various lists of Wikileaks revelations, the bulk of the truly embarrassing and/or damaging material affects other governments far more [But what about U.N. spying?–ed. Look up desuetude and get back to me].

My take on Wikileaks really hasn’t changed much since my first post on the matter — the revelations do less to harm U.S. interests than the official overreaction to those revelations.

If the U.S. government stopped exaggerating the threat to U.S. interests and then going all Emily Litlella later, that would be peachy.