Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton may have spoken too fast when she denounced the release of about 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks as "an attack on America." In the short run, the disclosures will hurt U.S. diplomacy, but in the long run they may help restore the U.S. image abroad.
If what we have seen in the first week of disclosures is the most juicy part of this unprecedented leak of diplomatic cables, it will undoubtedly make life more difficult for U.S. diplomats in coming weeks.
The Obama administration will be hit from all sides. U.S. allies across the world will feel betrayed by Washington. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, which according to the cables repeatedly urged Washington to attack Iran and destroy its nuclear program, will ask Obama: How can we possibly trust the United States when our secret conversations end up splashed across the headlines of the world’s biggest newspapers?
U.S. adversaries, in turn, will use any criticism of their governments in the cables to try to paint U.S. diplomats as sinister spies. And U.S. conservatives will blast the Obama administration for not siding with right-wing forces in countries such as Honduras, where the military ousted pro-Chavez former populist President Manuel Zelaya last year, before the country held free elections that restored democracy.
So in coming months, the United States will get a beating. A new poll conducted in 18 Latin American countries by the Latinobarometro shows that Obama — alongside Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — is the most popular foreign leader in the region, with a 73 percent approval rate each. Expect Obama’s figures to fall somewhat in next year’s poll.
So far, the WikiLeaks cables have not backed up any of the wildest conspiracy theories circulating on the blogosphere, such as that former President George W. Bush — and not al-Qaeda — was behind the 9/11 attacks, or that Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq’ main goal was seizing Iraq’s oil reserves.
There are 696 mentions of the name “Chavez” in the WikiLeaks cables, but the Venezuelan leader may be disappointed that, until now, nothing has come out to prove his claims that Washington is conspiring to oust him.
My opinion: It’s too early to tell because thousands of cables remain to be scrutinized, and we may still find evidence of U.S. cowboy diplomacy. And, granted, there are other U.S. government cables from various intelligence agencies that are not included in the WikiLeaks treasure box.
But barring some gross revelation of U.S. dirty tricks abroad in upcoming WikiLeak cables, the fact that a quarter-million confidential U.S. diplomatic notes contain no evidence to back up some of the craziest conspiracy theories circulating worldwide should help put the latter to rest, at least among reasonable people.
In a weird way, what’s a major embarrassment for Clinton today may end up helping restore the U.S. image abroad tomorrow.
Andres Oppenheimer a correspondent for the Miami Herald, can be reached at aoppenheimer(at)miamiherald.com.