Archive for category Wikileaks

A Wikileaks Kind of World

War has broken out!  So scream headlines on various websites and blogs.  Bowing to pressure from the US, major credit card companies and Pay Pal stop allowing citizens to contribute to and support Wikileaks, leading to a massive cyber attack against those companies, even shutting down Mastercard’s on line system.   Groups opposed to Wikileaks have struck back against the group “anonymous” who has been leading these attacks — as of this writing, if you click that link you’ll get an “account suspended” page.   Wikileaks has also been removed from servers; four days ago I went there and read their self-promotion; now the site is off limits.   You can still reach it, but only through round about means.

Watching all the scampering about in response to a large but relatively vanilla set of leaks, it occurs to me that this isn’t so much about the leaks themselves, but a generation of politicians and leaders who don’t quite understand the new world they now inhabit.   Old methods of controlling information and responding to threats don’t work.   This case is important less for its substance (it’s unlikely the leaks did much if any real harm to the US) and more for what it symbolizes.    It demonstrates that the new cyber-world we’ve created doesn’t play by 20th Century rules.   Technology may be rendering traditional politics obsolete, and at this point leaders don’t know how to respond.

It happened before.   Before 1439, printing a book required extensive work to copy by hand the words, and bind them in a usually lavish form.  Few people could afford books, Latin was the language in which most were written (though in the 14th century there started to be more vernacular literature — Dante’s Inferno, for example).   The church controlled most of the books, and the flow of ideas across Europe or even cities was limited.   Oral communication, including oral histories, was the standard way people shared ideas.   That meant, of course, that disseminating ideas was difficult, and if you challenged authority you got noticed before too many people had latched on to the challenge.

In 1439 Johannes Gutenberg developed the first (western) printing press.   Suddenly the mass production of books and pamphlets was possible; an information revolution began.  Even after the printing press had been developed it took awhile before literacy to advance to the point that there was a public demand for the printed word.   But by the 1500s ideas could spread quickly.

The Catholic Church learned what this meant the hard way.   When the Pope decided that St. Peter’s basilica needed to be rebuilt to reflect the grandeur befitting the center of the Roman Catholic church, he allowed the printing press to be used to print off papal indulgences, giving people time off from purgatory.   These could be in effect “sold” — given to people who donated to the new basilica.  It worked, giving us the splendor we now find at the Vatican.   Yet it also led to the decline of church power, as one Catholic monk, Martin Luther, appalled by what he saw as a practice which threatened peoples’ salvation, put together a list of 95 issues about church practices he thought should be questioned and discussed.   He penned them in Latin, and nailed them to his university-church’s equivalent of the common bulletin board:  a large church door.

He expected an academic debate.   He got much more.  Some of his friends translated the list into German, and used the printing press spread Luther’s complaints across German speaking lands.   Soon a revolt was brewing, called the reformation.    It wasn’t that suddenly people started to agree with Luther’s argument; rather, these ideas proved able to unite Germans already chaffing at following dictates from Rome.   Luther’s complaint sparked a rebellion which led to over 100 years of instability and war, culminating in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.    The treaty put forth a new political entity: the sovereign territorial state.

The Church was pushed from the pinnacle of power for good, the old medieval political system of decentralized and local authority was destroyed.   An entire new political and cultural world was created, all because communication changed and ideas were able to be spread rapidly and with ease.  The printing press allowed mass education, helped create modern nationalism, and made the industrial revolution and enlightenment possible.    Propaganda, advertising, and even consumerism could not exist without the printing press.   We live in era of the printing press, though that era may be giving way.

The internet and corresponding information technology could impact our political world with as much force and substance as the printing press did the medieval world.   In other words, it could render current political structures and practices obsolete, forcing the entire system to transform.   Like Gutenberg’s invention, it has allowed ideas and information to flow in a fundamentally different and more widespread manner.   Information can be stored electronically and then publicized for the world to see.   Such documents can’t be destroyed, do not suffer physical limits, and cross borders and continents with ease.

The modern Nation State may be the functional equivalent of the 16th Century Church.  It dominates politics, and has considerable control over information available to its citizens.  The state’s control over information allows it to maintain physical control of territory, holding a monopoly on the legitimate use of political violence.   A state can go to war, but if non-state actors do so, it’s despicable terrorism.

Does this new technology threaten the sovereign state?   Will the state find that the wide dissemination of diverse views and information previously unobtainable threatens its status?   Will the politics of the Westphalian era, beginning in 1648, give way to a new era, one where sovereignty, territoriality and statehood no longer define the fundamentals of global politics?   If so, what will the new world look like, and how violent/difficult will the transition be?

As the “cyberwars” over Wikileaks rage, this whole issue is symbolic of the “world in motion.”   We live in a Wikileaks kind of world now, and no one is quite sure what that means for the future.

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Wikileaks and the Empowered Class

Secrecy has always been a hallmark of diplomacy.   So has spying.  In the game of high stakes power politics, the public face you show is often much different than the one you expose behind closed doors.    The one thing that governments friend and foe have in common is that they know this is the case.   They have no illusions that the public statements made by President Obama or Prime Minister Putin are somehow definitive or even true.   Insiders know secrets about world leaders which never get mentioned, and details about the inner workings of governments here and abroad.

That’s why I am not in the camp of the outraged in response to the latest Wikileak dump.  To hear US officials tell it, the leakers and those in charge of Wikileaks are anti-American, irresponsible amoral publicity hounds who, as Senator Lindsay Graham said “may have blood on their hands.”    Some have even branded Wikileaks an enemy of the state, and have called for non-judicial retaliation against Wikileaks founder Jullian Assange and others.

The truth, they believe, is for insiders to know.  The public is to get a sanitized and often false story, with the knowledge that in thirty years or so historians will get access to documents currently too sensitive to release.  The truth needs to be hidden for the sake of national security: the public just can’t handle the truth.

Yet this secrecy also enables powerful states and leaders to pursue policies and actions that shape our world and can lead to immense harm.    It prevents citizens from understanding and knowing what is being done in their name, and protects corrupt leaders from being held accountable.   Secrecy is the best friend of “big government,” allowing political leaders to say one thing while they’re doing another.   More than anything else, secrecy aids the ability of governments to control populations and deny liberty.    Without secrecy, government power is eviscerated.

That is why inside the halls of the State Department, Pentagon, Congress and White House there is outrage over the Wikileaks dump.   It threatens the power of the elite establishment to run their own game while giving the public only as much as they “need to know.”   This creates an “empowered class” – elites who know that they are on the inside and have a sense of both importance and power.  They possess knowledge others do not have, and ultimately see themselves as superior to average folk.   They rationalize their power by asserting they are protecting the citizens and allowing them to live their lives without having to think about the true nature of a complex and dangerous world.

The “empowered class” fancies themselves the protectors of democracy and the national interest.  They see themselves as having a clearer perspective about the world than most, and a more sophisticated sense of moral responsibility.  Yes, water boarding may seem wrong, but put in the context of the dangers we face and threats to the western way of life, at times it may be necessary.   Those who criticize are naive, uninformed, or lost in a cloud of idealistic wishful thinking.    The self-serving delusions of the empowered class hide everything from power orgies to quid pro quo deals and policy choices involving torture, war, and espionage.  Theirs is a high stakes, high risk game which must be kept as opaque as possible.

Wikileaks threatens that.   There is nothing inherently dangerous in the leak that came out, at least according to initial reports.     It does show a United States less able to manage world events than in the past, even if the Obama Administration has improved the US reputation abroad.  The United States clearly finds itself more isolated and easy to ignore than ever.    The leaks errode US prestige and power at a time when it is already being sorely taxed.

And yes, that’s embarrassing and makes it harder for US diplomats to operate.  Yes, foreign leaders may be less willing to secretly cooperate with the US if they fear news of that cooperation might be leaked.   Yet there was nothing surprising in the documents.   Most new information verified existing suspicions – the fact that Arab states are more worried than Israel about Iran getting a nuclear weapon should surprise no one.    Even “embarrassing” portrayals of foreign leaders fit what most people think – Angela Merkel is “rarely creative,” Libya’s Gadhafi is “erratic” and has a voluptuous blond Ukrainian nurse, Putin dominates Medvedev, and Afghanistan’s Karzai is weak and corrupt.   Well, all that is pretty obvious (though the Ukrainian nurse is a new).

That the US and South Korea are gaming out North Korea’s collapse may seem big news, but the shocking news would be if they were NOT doing that.   And who is surprised that China engaged in a kind of cyber attack on Google?   No, the documents were neither shocking, surprising, nor especially harmful.   Yet Secretary of State Clinton has a point when she said:

“Let’s be clear. This disclosure is not just an attack on America — it’s an attack on the international community.  “Such leaks…tear at the fabric” of responsible government.   There is nothing laudable about endangering innocent people, and there is nothing brave about sabotaging the peaceful relations between nations.”

It is an attack on the international community, but it does not tear at the fabric of responsible government.  It tears at the fabric of the power politics games enjoyed by governments for centuries.   It does not endanger innocent people, it informs innocent people and endangers government elites by showing how they operate.  It doesn’t sabotage the peaceful relations between nations, it exposes the secret deals and actions undertaken by and between national governments.

I’m sure Secretary Clinton believes her words; the empowered class has come to believe their own story: secretive games are necessary, and they are protecting the public.    This self-serving rationalization of secrecy is as prevalent on the left as on the right.    Yet there is reason to believe it to be misguided.  While some information would be dangerous or harmful if made public, in general it’s better to shine light on the actions of governments, even if creates embarrassment.   If world leaders feared that their statements and actions might become public knowledge, they’d have to behave more responsibly.

Yes, I know.  Those in the empowered class would say I don’t understand the sensitivity of the issues at hand, and lack appreciation for the delicate balance diplomacy requires.   I understand that argument, and in many instances it’s valid.  But overall, the moaning and groaning from the empowered class is less about the public good than the fact wikileaks threatens their power and insulation.  That’s a good thing.   So Wikileaks, thank you!

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Wikileaks and Fear of the Truth

To hear everyone from President Obama to GOP Senators talk, the leaking of documents about US activity (as well as Pakistani and Afghan) during the on going Afghan war is horrible.   But while they complain that individuals or operations may be put in jeopardy, that’s not really the cause of their ire.   The real reason the US military is “disgusted” with the leaks is that it shows the truth of US operations in Afghanistan, and the truth is not pretty.

For my part, I applaud the leaks and the leakers, and believe that secrecy about what is done in our name is the most dangerous thing for a democracy.   Short term secrecy is necessary at times, but clearly the documents detail aspects of the war that have been on going, and which we should know about.   When a government fears the truth, then it’s more important than ever to get the truth out.    Video of slaughters of civilians by US soldiers, documents about civilian deaths and cover ups will no doubt be a source of information and discussion in coming months, both here and abroad.   Arguably this hurts the US military and embarrasses policy makers (even if most leaks involve information from the last Administration).    Nonetheless, what’s good for the government isn’t necessarily what’s good for the country.

Americans often believe that what our military is doing overseas is always good and noble.   That’s because most military personnel are good and noble.   Yet war changes people, as recent statistics about high rates of mental illness in war vets, broken families, and economic distress indicate.    Civilians in both countries have suffered the most deaths, and their whole infrastructure and way of life has been altered.   In Afghanistan this started with the Soviet invasion of 1979 and hasn’t really ever let up.

While it is easy to condemn individual soldiers for civilian murders, slaughters, and other incidents, that is misplaced blame.  You put a young man or woman in that kind of stress, often with multiple deployments,  having buddies killed, surrounded by death constantly, and afraid what could come next,  the ability of any human to stay sane is threatened.  Most manage to handle it, but everyone has a limit.  Some due to the intensity of their experiences or their own personality hit that limit earlier than others.   Some process the experience effectively.    But you can’t have a war like this without war crimes.

In our society we like to think in terms of individual responsibility.   That comes in handy for the government or military leaders who can prosecute soldiers for violating the stated orders — orders clearly prohibit the kinds of acts that are getting reported.   A young eager 19 year old ready to sacrifice for his country ends up perhaps court-martialed for some act against civilians.   Focusing on what was done to him by placing him in such circumstances and stressing his young mind is not seen as a legitimate defense.  We like to think of our soldiers as heroic by nature, those who violate the rules are ‘bad apples,’ a disgrace to our otherwise gallant fighters.

Yet that is a very convenient excuse for Presidents and Generals.  They don’t have to endure the trauma, and Presidents like Obama and Bush don’t really know what life in war is like.    Indeed, it’s a known fact that civilian politicians are more likely to choose military action than former military personnel — to civilians like me, war is an abstraction.   Yet by reading people like Chris Hedges or other accounts of what war is like, it is possible to get a sense of what this does to people.   To look at statistics about broken families and mental illness tells a story as well.   Moreover, we know from past experience that despite all the hero’s welcomes and flowery rhetoric, it’s very likely that today’s war vets will be forgotten, experiencing higher unemployment, homelessness and poverty than others.

The damage done by our government to those sworn to protect our way of life is tremendous.   As well intentioned as overthrowing the Taliban may have been, how understandable the rage at Bin Laden and desire to strike back certainly was, we’ve now been through nearly nine years of war that has veered so far from that initial anti-terrorist strike that it’s hard to even explain what we’re fighting for.  It’s not to get Bin Laden.  It’s not even to stop terrorism.  It’s to have a way to leave while saving face, something Nixon called ‘peace with honor.’   Yet that honor is abstract, it’s simply a desire to avoid too much embarrassment.   Is that really worth destroying lives?

I’m not trying to downplay the civilian suffering over there by focusing on what’s done to our soldiers; rather, I’m arguing that the only way to really think clearly about what we should do in Afghanistan and Iraq is to have the public know the reality of what the war is like, the actions being done in our name, and the impact this is having on those we send over there to fight.   Only by having the “secrets” of the war revealed can we truly understand the nature of the acts being undertaken in our name.   Only by deflating the myth of the ‘heroic American’ honorably defending democracy’ can we see how politicians use that myth to hide their true motives.

President Obama, pragmatist that he is, won’t do what I think he should do.  He won’t welcome the release and call for a national conversation on the reality of the war.  He won’t talk to the country about the details of the material, openly discussing issues that embarrass him or the country.    That’s OK — his pragmatism probably has allowed him to accomplish more than people thought possible.   But the wiki-leaks may put enough pressure on the White House and government to shift the terrain a little, and make it a pragmatic necessity to fundamentally rethink US policy.    And perhaps Obama will find the courage to point the blame not at the soldiers who crack, but at the policy makers who put young people in such horrific situations.   Perhaps we might even rethink the militarism of our policies; do our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq really reflect who we are as a nation?