On Critically Reading the Wikileaks

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More than what meets the eye

A person’s perspective matters a lot for this reason. For example, a leak could suggest that, “Iran is a threat to regional stability and the Arab nations fear its nuclear capabilities.” Now, this message may mean one thing to a devout FOX News follower, and another to one critical of the American hegemonic ambitions and support to the status-quo regimes of the Middle East. Hence, the interpretation and value of such a statement depends on the perspective with which people judge it and how critically informed those perspectives are.

More than what meets the eye

Only a small proportion of the announced documents have been released so far by Wikileaks. As such, it is a bit early to conclusively suggest anything as to the value of these documents and their impact. While following the release, a few tentative thoughts came to mind that I want to share here in the interest of starting a constructive discussion. The examples I mention below are not from Wikileaks, but they are close to some of the released bits I have seen in news. The purpose here is not to analyze specific cables, but to elaborate a critical perspective for reading these leaks. (And, more broadly, for reading news on government- and corporate-owned media as well as non-corporate and user-generated forums like blogs and wikis.)

Rarely do diplomats speak their minds in candid terms. The most sensitive information is almost always communicated in person, not over digital lines or mails. Therefore, one needs to think about not only what was said in these cables, but also what was not said.

Even for communications over digital lines and mails, the US diplomats and other government officials usually use plain but coded language on important issues. The person sitting on the other end has to decipher the language and read between the lines. The dots can be hard to connect for an outsider who may understand no more than just the apparent meaning of a leaked text. However, the added layers can be uncovered by placing such texts in the context of the politics and interests of the involved political players.

A person’s perspective matters a lot for this reason. For example, a leak could suggest that, “Iran is a threat to regional stability and the Arab nations fear its nuclear capabilities.” Now, this message may mean one thing to a devout FOX News follower, and another to one critical of the American hegemonic ambitions and support to the status-quo regimes of the Middle East. Hence, the interpretation and value of such a statement depends on the perspective with which people judge it and how critically informed those perspectives are.

In my view, when Washington talks about “regional stability”, it first and foremost means the protection of the American and Israeli interests in the region. Iran is a “threat” because it challenges those interests and supports the resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon, among other things.

Words like “Al-Qaeda” and “terrorist groups” may also be codes in these cables which could refer to different groups in different countries. In Yemen, for example, they could also refer to the Houthi rebels who are challenging the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. Both Washington and Riyadh are against that and have provided heavy financial and military support to the regime against these rebels. In Egypt, such labels may also be used to refer to the Sunni opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been repeatedly cracked down by the US-backed regime of Hosni Mubarak. Similarly, the terms “moderate states” and “moderate Muslims” are also codes that often refer to those who are in favor of and are protecting the American and Israeli interests in the region. (For more on this, see Good Muslim, Bad Muslim.)

One also needs to distinguish the Arab rulers from the Arab masses. Many Arab rulers surely fear Iran, but the majority of their people support Iran’s stance on the nuclear issue and Iran’s support to the resistances in Palestine and Lebanon. In a recent poll carried out by Zogby International and the University of Maryland in the summer of 2010, the people in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates were asked to name the countries that they thought were the greatest threat to their security. 88% replied Israel, 77% the US, and only 10% Iran.

At times, factual-sounding statements in diplomatic communications may in reality be policy statements. For example, a statement that, “Iran will further isolate itself if it continues to pursue nuclear ambitions”, could very well be a statement of what they would like to see in case Iran does not follow their wishes – not necessarily what the ground reality is, even from their own perspective. Because, again, the same summer 2010 poll suggests that a “majority of the Arab public now see a nuclear-armed Iran as being better for the Middle East.”

The poll results, moreover, suggest an increasing support for Iran in the Middle East on a number of critical issues that also discredit the argument of some US scholars that “old feuds between Shia and Sunnis” define the political attitudes of the region. Yet, the terms “sectarian divisions” and the “specter of a rising Shia crescent” – both codes for what they would like to promote – are continually used by both the US and Israeli diplomats and their supported status-quo regimes of the Middle East with the hope of dividing the masses and re-aligning their politics on sectarian lines. (For more on this, see Bahrain and Pakistan: The Shia Dilemmas.)

Without a critical interrogation and with media spins, these codes and policy objectives may in fact perpetuate themselves through these leaks. It should be no surprise if, due to the media coverage of some of the latest leaks, the general public in the US got the impression that “all Arabs are against the Iranians and see the Iranian nuclear program as a threat to their security”, and that the fault lines in the Middle East politics lie within their “ethno-sectarian” divisions. Both the Neocons and the Hawkish-Pragmatists in Washington are surely going to capitalize on such a gross misunderstanding. For one, the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, stated on November 29th: “So if anyone reading the stories about these alleged cables thinks carefully, what they will conclude is that the concern about Iran is well-founded, widely shared, and will continue to be at the source of the policy that we pursue with like-minded nations to try to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Hence, in view of the above discussion, the leaked cables should not be taken at face value, even in instances where they may be authentic.

The Impact

Not many people will go through all the leaked documents. They will mostly hear what the mainstream media and political groups choose to focus on. The media spins and, therefore, the politics of appropriation of these leaks would make for an interesting discussion in coming days.

In Iran, for example, while quoting the leaks some have criticized the current government for its defiant stand on the nuclear issue which to them has resulted in Iran’s “increasing isolation” in the international arena. Some others have expressed qualms about the veracity of these leaks in instances where they may suggest that direct US support was given to the post-election rioters (whether true or not, whether they discredit any of the opposition’s claims – that’s another debate). President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also questioned the “legal value” of the leaks.

What is troubling many governments is not necessarily the exposure of their “ill-feelings” toward each other by Wikileaks – the governments already know these truths and that embassies and diplomats regularly do espionage for their respective governments. In the arena of international relations, interests and power largely drive politics, not feelings of good will. Mutual suspicion among states is often normal. Pak-US relations is one example (on the issues of the nuclear arsenal, ISI, and PPP/Zardari). Iran-Saudi relations is another (particularly on Iraq and Palestine-Lebanon).

The concern that many governments have with these leaks is that this politics is out in public and now more susceptible to media spins and the perceptions of their national and international masses. After the leaks, the thoughts and prejudices of people against other countries or their own governments may solidify (and in some instances, radically change). It would become more difficult for these governments to put an all-friendly public face, or make pragmatic political shifts, or claim to support causes that they really don’t, such as the Saudi (non)support to the Palestinian cause. Also, the Saudi and other status-quo Middle Eastern regimes would not be happy if their geo-political interests appear too much in line with that of Israel.

Particularly for Washington, the leaks are not only an embarrassment in front of the world but they may also promote a further disillusion regarding Washington’s claim of championing democracy, freedom, and human rights. In this sense, the leaks are a direct attack on the propaganda machinery of its hegemonic ambitions. Hence, Washington might also charge Wikileaks with promoting “anti-Americanism”, in addition to calling it “a crime”, “risking lives of troops”, “compromising national security”, and so on and so forth.

The Truth

Despite the huge uproar in the media, most of the fundamental strategic- and policy-related knowledge that has come out in the leaks so far was already known to the discerning observers; the leaks, surely, added further confirmation to it.

Among the things that the leaks confirm is that “Israel tried to plan the Gaza War with Egypt and PA” (The Jerusalem Post, Nov 29, 2010). This suggests that a) the Gaza massacre in 2008-9 was pre-meditated (we already knew it then, but now we have further support), and that b) the Egyptian and the West Bank authorities knew about Israel’s plan well ahead of time, even if, according to the leaks, the two (supposedly) did not say “yes” to Israel. We do not know what was worked out in the later communications. Egypt and West Bank’s PA may have had logistical concerns but from looking at their policies during the massacre, we know that their strategic interests were aligned with those of Israel. Egypt, for instance, refused to open its Rafah border to allow food and other daily supplies to the Gazans. For reading the leaks, this also suggests that the fragments of cables, even if they are authentic, can be very misleading if we do not scrutinize them with a critically informed perspective.

Wikileaks reports also “indicate that the US has mounted a secret effort to remove highly enriched uranium from a Pakistani reactor since 2007…” (CSMonitor, Nov 29, 2010). Indeed, this was one of the key issues that embittered the relationship between Washington and Pakistan’s powerful military establishment in the last few years and perhaps explains some of the dramatic political changes and turmoil. Yet, this nuclear connection was persistently and emphatically dismissed by some journalists in the liberal elite circles of Pakistan who might still call it a “conspiracy theory”.

One should not discount the possibility of a good number of forged and fragmented documents intentionally released to Wikileaks by government apparatuses. That reason alone is enough to suggest that Wikileaks cannot be a measure of truth per se, but it is the perspective with which one judges its content, and since there can be multiple perspectives, the truth of these leaks will remain contested. Further, the accuracy of some documents in the leaks should not be taken as a verification of the rest of the documents. On the question of verification, Wikileaks website itself suggests that the “simplest and most effective countermeasure is a worldwide community of informed users and editors who can scrutinize and discuss leaked documents.”

Lastly, in any review of these leaks, one should also interrogate the sources used and the background and politics of the people working for Wikileaks. These considerations have a huge impact on what Wikileaks editors choose to release (and what they do not), their timing, and their targets. Perhaps, their politics and agenda will become clearer with the release of more leaked documents.

Ali A. is doctoral student in social sciences. He can be reached at See his political blog at

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