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Wikileak Files: The Banality of Politics

Farhang Jahanpour, Oxford, TFF Associate

December 15, 2010

The latest batches of WikiLeaks files do not reveal anything unexpected or exciting, or anything that most people who have an interest in international politics did no already know. All that they do is simply to confirm some open secrets.

In her ground breaking 1963 work, Eichman in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil the late Hannah Arendt talked about the “banality of evil”. She showed that when you see the evil monsters who have committed untold atrocities in flesh and in the dock, not only do they not look very impressive and imposing; on the contrary, they look like a bunch of miserable and pitiful cowards. In the same way, the new documents reveal the banality of politics and of most politicians.

Many people have a rather rosy and exaggerated view of their politicians, thinking that although they may not be honest, at least they are smart and sophisticated and speak with authority and knowledge. Having access to “secret intelligence reports” they know things that most ordinary mortals are not privy to. Of course, nothing can be further from the truth. All the “secret intelligence” about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein allegedly possessed and could have launched in 45 minutes, photographs of mobile labs and secret weapons’ depots all were shown to be nothing but a tissue of lies, meant only to deceive and mislead. Often the politicians themselves did not believe in the material that they were peddling, and they had to produce dodgy dossiers and set up “offices of special plans” to fabricate intelligence that fitted their policies.

This does not mean that there are not some good, honest and sincere politicians and diplomats who have chosen their profession in order to serve the public, but the events of the past few years have shown that they are in a minority. However, this awareness is a useful wakeup call and a part of growing up. It teaches us to have a healthy cynicism regarding politics, to question our politicians and not to imagine that simply because they are powerful and seem to speak with authority they know best and we have to follow them blindly.

The latest released documents should show to anyone who wishes to know that the emperor really has no clothes; that our highly-paid and powerful politicians and diplomats are no more knowledgeable about the issues that involve the life and death of hundreds of thousands of people than most well-read individuals, and that they often know much less about those issues than experts who spend their lives studying them. Most of them are pursuing their own agendas and prejudices, rather than being concerned with the truth or with the common good.

Of course, this is only to be expected. Most politicians lead very busy lives and deal with a large number of issues, from education, health, defence, economy and politics, right up to international relations. They have to rely on the advice of a handful of “experts” who often attach themselves to those powerful people with some ulterior motives and who try to push their own agendas.

The politicians and diplomats are justifiably angry at the release of these documents because they reveal some of their shady dealings, but these documents are not likely to make much difference in the way that politics and diplomacy are conducted. At worst, they cause short-term embarrassment for the politicians – if indeed they are capable of being embarrassed – and the electorate will then move on to some new personal or national issues. What did the last batch of WikiLeaks files, which revealed some really shocking secrets, achieve?

Among other things, those files showed that despite the repeated denials of our politicians and military officers, they had some idea of the number of people that they had killed in Iraq. The files showed that there had been a cover-up of the civilian death toll. Although coalition leaders said "we don't do death tolls", they knew that there had been at least 122,000 civilian deaths, not counting the victims in Falluja and not including thousands of those who had died as the result of aerial bombings and other atrocities, unknown and unrecorded.

Those documents revealed hundreds of incidents of abuse and torture of prisoners by Iraqi security services, up to and including rape and murder, committed with the knowledge of their American masters. They showed that security firms (the mercenaries recruited by Coalition Forces to do their dirty work for them) had been involved in wrongful killings of civilians. They provided details of at least 832 civilians killed at checkpoints. They showed that journalists had been fired upon and killed, that men trying to surrender had been shot, because, in the words of a military lawyer: "They cannot surrender to aircraft and are still valid targets," etc.

How many prosecutions have been carried out as the result of those revelations and how many people who ordered those atrocities and authorised torture have been brought to book? Those files provided some media excitement for a short time and were then forgotten, as we moved to new green postures.

These files too will probably prove to be a two-day wonder. About half of the new files were unclassified, and most of the rest were given the lowest possible classification — “confidential.’’ So, we have not gained access to some important state secrets. They contain some tittle-tattle, showing that US diplomats consider French President Nikolas Sarkozy to be arrogant, German Chancellor Angela Merkel to be risk-averse, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to be still wielding a great deal of power and influence, etc. Those politicians can live with that, but what is important is that they enable us to examine the way that policy is normally made at the highest levels, and often how divorced it is from reality and from the lives of ordinary people.

What is important to bear in mind about these leaks is that they are accounts by various US politicians and diplomats about their conversations with their allies, or their impressions of various conversations. Consequently, they do not provide any guarantee for the veracity of those views, but simply as an account of various events as seen by some US politicians and diplomats.

They provide details of the discussions between senior US officials and Israeli officials and intelligence chiefs who provide them with the recipe of how to deal with Iran, including the imposition of more sanctions, acts of sabotage, leading to regime change, something that has been common knowledge and a formula long advocated by Israel’s friends in the United States. The files reveal US and UK pressures on the new head of the IAEA to adopt a more robust approach towards Iran’s nuclear programme.

They also show that the leaders of some Arab countries, either out of conviction or in order to please their American masters, have told them that they advocate an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. They show the total lack of trust between US ambassador in Kabul and the Afghan president, or accounts of corruption by some Afghan politicians.

They reveal the attempts of Iraq’s neighbours to meddle in the internal affairs of that country, but perhaps for the first time they provide a clear indication that the Iraqi prime minister regards Saudi Arabia as a bigger source of threat to his country than Iran, and also they reveal that some sources in Saudi Arabia fund the Sunni terrorists and al-Qaida members in Iraq and elsewhere. They show the influence of extremist Wahhabi ideology on the Taliban and on extreme Sunni groups in Pakistan. They indicate how the British government’s inquiry into its involvement in the Iraq War was deeply compromised by the British government’s secret pledge to protect the Bush Administration.

Perhaps the most important and the most bizarre revelations of the files concern all the secret directives by the US Secretary of State to 33 US embassies and consulates, ordering them to provide credit card numbers, email addresses, phone numbers and other details including the DNA information of UN officials, the Secretary General, down to “heads of peace operations and political field missions.” This kind of activity is very dangerous, as it will implicate US diplomats in spying activities and blurs the distinction between diplomatic activities and espionage in the eyes of US opponents. This is even worse than the US attempts to tap the telephone conversations of the former UN Secretary General prior to the invasion of Iraq, because at least that was done through intelligence agencies.

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If after reading those revelations we do not re-examine our politics and do not demand accountability and, above all, do not call for a new form of politics more rooted in reality, peace and compassion, then we deserve what we get. The problem is not only with our politicians. The electorate is responsible too. If we wish to have more enlightened and more responsible politics, we must start with ourselves, we must become more involved in political issues and must demand change, because ultimately it is the ordinary people who will pay for the consequences of those wrong policies.

All great changes in history, from the anti-slavery movement, to decolonisation, to workers’ rights, to the suffragette movement have started with change from below. Let us initiate a real change in politics before it is too late.


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