Washington is reeling from the latest WikiLeaks document dump. The foreign policy wonks insist that there are few, if any, major surprises. "Much of what we've seen thus far," opined Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, "confirms more than it informs." And, in the end, what these documents confirm is that President Obama's foreign policy is a mess.
Even if you're supportive of Obama's foreign policy efforts, the WikiLeaks dump is a bigger deal than the know-it-alls are suggesting. It's one thing to believe something as a generality; it's another to dispel plausible deniability for all concerned.
Everyone may know that the Saudis are worried about the Iranian bomb. But knowing that isn't quite the same as learning that the Saudi monarchy has implored the U.S. to attack Iran and "cut off the head of the snake," in the words of a Saudi envoy. Egypt and other Arab states have called the Iranian program an "existential threat" and have begged the U.S. to use military force to stop it (of course, if the U.S. did take out the program, these same regimes, not to mention countless domestic critics of Israel, would insist that the U.S. was doing the bidding of the Israel lobby).
Around the globe, diplomats, dignitaries and potentates feel betrayed and exposed. Certainly, the news that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered American diplomats at the United Nations to spy on other delegations will make lunchtime at the Turtle Bay commissary a bit awkward.
Politically, the one advantage for the White House is the sheer volume of the leaks. If these stories came out one by one, there'd be room for them to flare up as full-fledged controversies, but with a quarter of a million documents, each story robs oxygen from the next.
Still, the (relative) lack of surprises is hardly an exoneration for anybody — not for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has declared himself an enemy of the United States, nor for the Obama administration, which seems utterly lost about how to deal with him.
The administration's formal response to the revelations was to have State Department attorney Harold Koh pen a tersely worded cease-and-desist letter to Assange, asking him to pretty please stop publishing thousands of state secrets. With the important and complicated exception of Afghanistan, such high-minded legalism is par for the course.
Ever since his bizarre campaign stop in Berlin and his primary debate promise to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "without preconditions," Obama has consistently stressed his preference for soft diplomacy and gauzy platitudes about international cooperation. For instance, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany proved, according to then-candidate Obama, that "there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one" — an incomprehensible claim that would earn an F from any high school history teacher.
Since then, on issue after issue, Obama's rhetorical globaloney has met the grinder. Perversely, his best moment was when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and felt compelled to explain why he didn't deserve it — yet — and give a legitimately stirring defense of military action.
It is certainly true that Obama inherited many of his foreign policy challenges. Iran was pursuing nukes back when he was in the Illinois state Senate, and North Korea has been crazy since before he was born. But Obama insisted that his would be the better way. Engagement, dialogue, kumbaya would all win the day.
And yet they keep losing. A month after his inauguration, the North Koreans tested a ballistic missile. Since then, they've revealed yet another nuclear program and attacked South Korea just weeks after Obama's embarrassing failure to win a trade deal from Seoul during an official visit. Meanwhile, according to WikiLeaks and other sources, the North Koreans have been selling ballistic missiles to the Iranians.
The irony is that Assange represents a purer form of Obama's own idealism. According to Assange's dangerous utopianism, in governance purity must define means, not just ends. He is convinced that he has revealed the hypocrisy and corruption of U.S. foreign policy, when in reality all he has revealed is that pursuing foreign policy ideals is messier and more complicated in a world where bad people pursue bad ends. We can hope that Obama has been learning that lesson. Assange, meanwhile, is simply blind to it.