“Never waste a good crisis” used to be the catchphrase of US President Barack Obama’s team in the run-up to the presidential election. In that spirit, let us see what we can learn from official reactions to the WikiLeaks revelations.
The most obvious lesson is that it represents the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the Internet. There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.
And as the backlash unfolds — first with deniable attacks on Internet service providers hosting WikiLeaks, later with companies like Amazon and eBay and PayPal suddenly “discovering” that their terms and conditions preclude them from offering services to WikiLeaks, and then with the US government attempting to intimidate Columbia university students posting updates about WikiLeaks on Facebook — the intolerance of the old order is emerging from the rosy mist in which it has hitherto been obscured. The response has been vicious, coordinated and potentially comprehensive, and it contains hard lessons for everyone who cares about democracy and about the future of the net.
There is a delicious irony in the fact that it is the so-called liberal democracies that are clamoring to shut WikiLeaks down.
Consider, for instance, how the views of the US administration have changed in just a year. On Jan. 21, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a landmark speech about Internet freedom, in Washington, which many people welcomed and most interpreted as a rebuke to China for its alleged cyber attack on Google.
“Information has never been so free,” Clinton said. “Even in authoritarian countries, information networks are helping people discover new facts and making governments more accountable.”
She went on to relate how, during his visit to China in November last year, Obama had “defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity.”
Given what we now know, that Clinton speech reads like a satirical masterpiece.
One thing that might explain the official hysteria about the revelations is the way they expose how political elites in western democracies have been deceiving their electorates.
The leaks make it abundantly clear not just that the US-Anglo-European adventure in Afghanistan is doomed but, more important, that the US, British and other NATO governments privately admit that too.
The problem is that they cannot face their electorates — who also happen to be the taxpayers funding this folly — and tell them this. The leaked dispatches from the US ambassador to Afghanistan provide vivid confirmation that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s regime is as corrupt and incompetent as the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon was when the US was propping it up in the 1970s. They also make it clear that the US is as much a captive of that regime as it was in Vietnam.
The WikiLeaks revelations expose the extent to which the US and its allies see no real prospect of turning Afghanistan into a viable state, let alone a functioning democracy. They show that there is no light at the end of this tunnel, but the political establishments in Washington, London and Brussels cannot bring themselves to admit this.