Arab revolutions through the WikiLeaks lens

In Tehran, there is a small gift shop in the southeast corner of the old U.S. Embassy (the famous "Den of Spies," as it has been known since being converted to a Revolutionary Guards base after the 1979 revolution). Among the many less than enticing items it sells, next to gruesome postcards of "martyrs" from ...

PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images
PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images
PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

In Tehran, there is a small gift shop in the southeast corner of the old U.S. Embassy (the famous "Den of Spies," as it has been known since being converted to a Revolutionary Guards base after the 1979 revolution). Among the many less than enticing items it sells, next to gruesome postcards of "martyrs" from the Iran-Iraq War, is a bound set of reprinted U.S. diplomatic documents. Embassy staff shredded the documents frantically while the building was being overrun, but to no avail. Ayatollah Khomeini's volunteers laboriously pieced together the shredded cables the old-fashioned way, with tape, perhaps crying out "Aha!" every now and then when something incriminating turned up -- say, a memo revealing that the United States was sending the shah even more military equipment. The result, however, is an anthology of turgid, less-than-thrilling bureaucratese. When I visited a year ago, the copies sat dusty on the shelves.

The 2011 wave of Arab revolutions has its own tranche of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, though in the present case, they have come largely as prologue to revolution rather than as epilogue. Their only direct role in the revolutions was to provide further proof of the profligacy and corruption of erstwhile Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and perhaps also some measure of reassurance that the United States, too, knew he was a thief and scoundrel. Even the most cynical critics of the United States haven't found much in the WikiLeaks cables to condemn it. The cables are dutiful, intelligent, and maybe a tad officious. They are not prescient, but then again who was? Of the hundreds of cables leaked from Cairo, Tunis, and Tripoli, not one predicts imminent collapse, nor anything beyond a slow, eventual (if not untroubled) transition of power.

Read more.

In Tehran, there is a small gift shop in the southeast corner of the old U.S. Embassy (the famous "Den of Spies," as it has been known since being converted to a Revolutionary Guards base after the 1979 revolution). Among the many less than enticing items it sells, next to gruesome postcards of "martyrs" from the Iran-Iraq War, is a bound set of reprinted U.S. diplomatic documents. Embassy staff shredded the documents frantically while the building was being overrun, but to no avail. Ayatollah Khomeini’s volunteers laboriously pieced together the shredded cables the old-fashioned way, with tape, perhaps crying out "Aha!" every now and then when something incriminating turned up — say, a memo revealing that the United States was sending the shah even more military equipment. The result, however, is an anthology of turgid, less-than-thrilling bureaucratese. When I visited a year ago, the copies sat dusty on the shelves.

The 2011 wave of Arab revolutions has its own tranche of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables, though in the present case, they have come largely as prologue to revolution rather than as epilogue. Their only direct role in the revolutions was to provide further proof of the profligacy and corruption of erstwhile Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and perhaps also some measure of reassurance that the United States, too, knew he was a thief and scoundrel. Even the most cynical critics of the United States haven’t found much in the WikiLeaks cables to condemn it. The cables are dutiful, intelligent, and maybe a tad officious. They are not prescient, but then again who was? Of the hundreds of cables leaked from Cairo, Tunis, and Tripoli, not one predicts imminent collapse, nor anything beyond a slow, eventual (if not untroubled) transition of power.

Read more.

 

Graeme Wood is a contributing editor to the Atlantic.

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