Mon, Dec 06, 2010 - Page 7 News List

US diplomats may be out in the cold for a while

ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM:US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates characterized the leaks as ‘embarrassing’ and ‘awkward’ but said the long-term consequences would be ‘modest’


If you are a US diplomat accustomed to coaxing, cajoling or strong-arming governments behind closed doors, you will be out in the cold, at least for a while, because of WikiLeaks.

Current and former diplomats say the flood of US embassy cables obtained by the Web site and the steady drip, drip, drip of embarrassing disclosures in the media have had a chilling effect on US diplomacy.

“In the short run, we’re almost out of business,” said a senior US diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“It is really, really bad. I cannot exaggerate it. In all honesty, nobody wants to talk to us,” he added, saying it could take two to five years to rebuild trust. “Some people still have to talk to us, particularly [in] government but ... they are already asking us things like, ‘Are you going to write about this?’ People outside the government don’t want to talk at all.”

The 251,287 US embassy cables have exposed everything from US views of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as playing Robin to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s Batman to a US official calling Cuba and Venezuela an “Axis of Mischief.”

A handful of news organizations obtained the cables and began publishing stories about them, as well as some of the underlying documents, on Nov. 28.

A US official said about 1,100 cables had been posted online by news organizations and WikiLeaks by late on Friday, leaving another 250,000 or so that could surface to embarrass foreign governments, and Washington, for months to come.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sharply criticized the leaks and said they will not harm important US alliances. US Under Secretary of State William Burns gave a harsher assessment in testimony before a congressional committee last week.

“The reality is that the despicable breach of trust that we’ve seen through WikiLeaks’ disclosures has done substantial damage to our ability to carry out diplomatic efforts,” he said.

However, a US diplomat in the Middle East said the foreign officials he deals with had not suddenly clammed up and he suggested the long-term consequences were likely to be more pronounced for foreign countries than for US diplomacy.

“That’s a temporary problem and in two or three years, maybe less, we’ll be back to doing business the way we used to do it,” the US diplomat said. “Time heals all wounds.”

The official said in the Middle East there is often a disconnect between what leaders say in public and in private and, with the cables, people in closed societies may for the first time see that “in all its glaring inconsistency.”

“I think it will have a much deeper and longer-lasting impact on the societies here than it will on our ability to conduct diplomacy,” the diplomat said.

Former US secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger said he thought most foreign officials were likely to overcome any reticence with the US within six months to a year, though he stressed this was a tentative conclusion.

“We’re still big enough and important enough that people are not going to be able to avoid talking to us,” he said.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made the same point on Tuesday: “The fact is governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.”

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