Terms of Engagement

The Sunshine Policy

The United States has quietly asked allies like Yemen and Pakistan for some extraordinary favors in its war on terrorism. Is it really so terrible if WikiLeaks forces them to explain those demands?

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The most delicious aspect of the WikiLeaks cables is overhearing Mommy and Daddy gossip about the neighbors: Qaddafi’s a nut, Prince Andrew a boor, Sarkozy a megalomaniac, and so on. Of course, we already knew all that — and the fact that we did has given rise to the dismissive reception of the documents in some parts of the commentariat. In the New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg writes that because the cables offer “no grand revelations of epic lying, deceit, or criminality,” the chief lesson we draw from them is that “the private face of American foreign policy looks pretty much like its public face.”

That may be broadly true, but the “public face” of U.S. diplomacy does not include the following, from Sept. 6, 2009: “President Saleh pledged unfettered access to Yemen’s national territory for U.S. counterterrorism operations.” Or this, from a conversation in January between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and then-Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus: “Saleh rejected the General’s proposal to have USG personnel armed with direct-feed intelligence present inside the area of CT operations, but agreed to have U.S. fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory ready to engage AQAP should actionable intelligence become available.” (USG is U.S. government, CT refers to counterterrorism, while AQAP stands for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.)

“Unfettered access” — that’s quite a surrender of the sovereign authority that ex-colonies usually defend with furious passion. The documents show us that Saleh got a good deal for his open-door policy, as U.S. intelligence chief John Brennan, his interlocutor for the September 2009 conversation, arrived with a personal letter from President Barack Obama apparently pledging economic aid as well as an invitation to come to the White House — “the prize he has been chasing after for months,” according to the cable, signed by then-U.S. Ambassador Stephen Seche.

If Yemen were a democracy, Saleh would be in big trouble for letting those bombers lurk at the border in exchange for a photo-op. Of course, it’s not. But the United States enjoys similar, if less sweeping, arrangements with democracies as well and will almost certainly be seeking to make more of them in future.

The supreme example of this sort of transaction is, of course, Pakistan, where military and civilian leaders have pretended for years to protest U.S. drone strikes in North and South Waziristan which, in fact, they have fully accepted. This cover, too, has now been blown. In an August 2008 cable, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is quoted as saying, “I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.” More damaging still, the cables reveal that Pakistan has approved the deployment of small units of American forces on the ground. An inflamed sensitivity over alleged “neocolonialism” has made Pakistan one of the world’s most anti-American countries. So far, critics have focused their contempt on Pakistan’s politicians rather than on the American presence, but political leaders have generally been able to redirect this venom toward the United States. Good luck with that now.

So yes, it may well be true — and it would be a relief to know it — that U.S. diplomats no longer routinely engage in epic lying, deceit, and criminality, as perhaps they did during the Cold War. But the war on terror has its own diplomatic exigencies, and the WikiLeaks cables remind us of the extraordinary demands that American officials now make of U.S. allies. Those allies accommodate American demands out of self-interest, of course: Cables printed by the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, but not yet released by WikiLeaks, disclose that in 2008 Lebanon asked to have American spy planes conduct surveillance of Hezbollah at a time when the Shiite group threatened to overrun the state. But the Lebanese people would have been shocked to hear of Operation Cedar Sweep, as it was picturesquely known, and the revelation has already produced an outcry.

Operation Cedar Sweep took place during President George W. Bush’s administration, which was hardly known for respecting the sovereignty concerns of other countries (see: extraordinary rendition). Obama’s administration prides itself on its respect for international law and global public opinion, but the sort of consensual infringement of sovereign authority described in the cables has been a growth industry under Obama, as the examples of Pakistan and Yemen attest. And we are sure to learn a great deal more about such practices, in Southeast Asia and West Africa as well as in the Middle East, as more cables come to light.

The exposure in the 1970s of the CIA’s dirty tricks put an end to at least some of the epic lying and criminality of the Cold War. I imagine that Julian Assange and his fellow leakers hope that the leaked cables will have the same effect on clandestine American patrolling of Middle Eastern airspace, not to mention on the widening practice of drone warfare. Should we make this analogy ourselves? Should we recoil from these practices, too? I do think there’s a case to be made, moral as well as pragmatic, against assassination-by-drone. I don’t buy it, but I may be wrong. But if, as is often said, the United States should not be fighting terrorism with battalions of soldiers occupying foreign territory, then it must do so with small numbers of intelligence and special-operations forces and manned and unmanned aircraft. What’s the alternative? Homeland security?

The real question, then, is what to do when these operations become matters of public knowledge, as we can now be sure they will. Both the U.S. and host governments will have to do a much better job of explaining to their citizens why these forces serve local interests as well as American ones. The Pakistani government has so far refused to take this risky step; now it may have to. Given the low credibility of the United States in the Islamic world, the burden of explanation will fall on countries like Pakistan, Lebanon, the Philippines, and Indonesia. (Rulers in the Persian Gulf and the Arab world have the advantage of being answerable to no one.)

Is it possible to honestly engage these publics on cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism efforts? When I was in Mali in 2007, I was told that President Amadou Toumani Toure had publicly acknowledged the presence of a handful of American forces hunting for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and that the forces had even been featured, positively, on local television. This was possible because Mali was a democracy, because citizens genuinely feared Islamist extremism, and because the United States is much more popular in West Africa than in the Arab world. It will, of course, be much harder to make the case in places where the United States is feared and loathed.

Everyone wonders how WikiLeaks will change the world. Will diplomacy become impracticable in an age when everyone everywhere knows everything? That seems unlikely, but the possibility that any given assessment or policy could become known will hugely increase the cost of doing something that must remain hidden. This, in turn, will put a premium on being able to publicly justify and explain what you’re doing. Would that be such a terrible outcome?

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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