If conservatives are outraged about something, you can bet that Peter Beinart will soon be on the case, there to explain why it’s no big deal and you should just go about your business. Today on the Daily Beast, Beinart explains why the latest batch of revelations from Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks is an overblown drama:
Then The Times began summarizing the documents, and the banalities began. Bullet Point 1: The U.S. is worried about loose nuclear materials in Pakistan but can’t do much about it. Bullet Point 2: American leaders are “thinking about an eventual collapse of North Korea” and hoping China will accept a reunified peninsula. Bullet Point 3: Washington is “bargaining [with various allies] to empty the Guantanamo prison.” Bullet Point 4: There are “suspicions of corruption in the Afghan government.” Bullet Point 5: The Chinese regime hacks into foreign computers. Bullet Point 6: Rich Saudis still fund al Qaeda. Bullet Point 7: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are tight. Bullet Point 8: Syria arms Hezbollah, but lies about it. Bullet Point 9: The U.S. tried to get Germany not to prosecute CIA agents accused of kidnapping. Bullet Point 10: Ireland is having financial trouble. (OK, I made that one up).
But maybe this isn’t fair. Maybe the cables, while mundane when taken in isolation, combine to provide a fascinating synthesis of America’s position in the world. Or maybe not. Overall, explained The Times, “The cables show that nearly a decade after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the dark shadow of terrorism still dominates the United States’ relations with the world…They depict the Obama administration struggling to sort out which Pakistanis are trustworthy partners against Al Qaeda…They show American officials managing relations with a China on the rise and a Russia retreating from democracy. They document years of painstaking effort to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon—and of worry about a possible Israeli strike on Iran with the same goal.” Valuable insights—if you’ve been living under a rock all century.
After dismissing the revelations as old news hardly worth much fuss, Beinart goes on to say that their unremarkable nature is why Assange shouldn’t have leaked them—because they weren’t important enough to risk the trouble:
The point is that in foreign policy, even more than other aspects of government, secrecy is both necessary and dangerous. It’s necessary because concealing things from your adversaries often requires concealing them from your own people. There’s no way to tell the American people everything Washington is doing to battle al Qaeda without telling al Qaeda as well. But secrecy is dangerous because without public knowledge and oversight, battling adversaries can become a blank check for all manner of self-defeating and immoral behavior. Journalists shouldn’t simply trust government officials to draw the line, since government officials have a professional self-interest in secrecy. But journalists need to draw that line themselves, recognizing that their professional self-interest may tempt them to violate secrecy more than is necessary to keep the government honest. That’s exactly what WikiLeaks does not do—for Julian Assange, virtually everything is fair game. And since Assange doesn’t care one whit about foreign policy secrecy, it no longer really matters if The Times does. People will see the documents no matter what.
For better or worse, this is the world we now live in. But living in it is one thing; celebrating it is another. When journalists gather information that genuinely changes the way we see some aspect of American foreign policy, or exposes government folly or abuse, they should move heaven and earth to make sure it sees the light of day. But that’s a far cry from publishing documents that sabotage American foreign policy without adding much, if anything, to the public debate.
Uh-uh, Peter. That’s not how war works (but then again, I can see how you might be confused, given that you don’t think we’re at war). Sure, this or that bit of classified data might turn out to be harmless—although the latest revelations aren’t quite harmless—but that’s not the average journalist’s decision to make. We as private citizens (and as much as they’d like to think otherwise, that’s all the average reporter is) don’t know why particular reports are classified. We don’t know what other classified information might put them in a new light. We don’t know what America’s friends, competitors, and enemies would do with them. And “adding something to the public debate” sure as hell isn’t a good enough reason to take it upon yourself to make the decision to leak.