On April 5, 2008, a small coterie of Republican senators and diplomats— John Barrasso, Saxby Chambliss, Mitch McConnell, and James Risch, among others—held a quiet meeting with then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the Heliopolis Palace in Cairo.
The setting was regal. Designed in the early twentieth century by a Belgian architect, the one-time luxury hotel had been remade as Mubarak's home and workplace in the 1980s. Blending Arabic, European, and Persian architectural styles, the complex embodied purposefully Egypt's place at the crossroads of the pan-Islamic and pan-European worlds.
The conversation slid naturally to current events as the group settled down to talk.
After a brief back-and-forth about Israel, Mubarak turned to Iraq. "My dear friends," he began, "democracy in Iraq equals killing. The nature of those people is completely different. They are tough and bloody, and they need a very tough leader. They will not be submissive to a democratic leader."
Stability required an authoritarian fist.
"As I told Secretary of Defense Gates last year," Mubarak continued, "the only solution [to America's desire to leave Iraq] is to strengthen the military and security forces, arm and train them, wait for the emergence of some generals, don't oppose them, then stay in your camps in the desert and don't interfere. The military will control Iraq like the ayatollahs control Iran."
Twenty-eight years in power, and Mubarak's worldview amounted to a simple adage: never "mix democracy and tribalism."
The transcript drips with irony when read from the present.
It was sent to the Department of State by U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey on April 8, 2008. It allegedly comes to us via Private First Class Bradley Manning, who sits now in a U.S. military prison, awaiting trial for passing along 251,287 such cables—only 2,000 of which are available online currently—to the media organization known as WikiLeaks.
Manning's fate and the imbroglio surrounding Julian Assange, the controversial figure who shared the cables with the world, has faded somewhat from the headlines in recent months. Yet the WikiLeaks communiqués reveal much about America's role in today's world.
In the words of author Timothy Garton Ash, the documents are a "historian's dream" and a "diplomat's nightmare"—a spigot of information from the contact points of American power, where powerbrokers and diplomats go daily through the motions of statecraft.
Leaks, Yesterday and Today
In the United States, politicians have hyperventilated over the WikiLeaks story since it broke in 2010.
Despite the fact that most foreign leaders quickly dismissed the material as blasé, American leaders have framed Assange and Manning as unambiguous enemies of the international community.
Internal dissent—voiced notably by (now former) State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, who criticized the U.S. government's imprisonment of Manning—has been cast as inexcusable and irresponsible.
But the American ship-of-state has long been a leaky boat.
George Washington reprimanded Alexander Hamilton for passing material to the British during the 1794 Jay Treaty negotiations, and James Madison castigated his secretary of state for giving administration secrets to members of the opposing Federalist Party.
There has been no shortage of leak-related precedents since then.
In 1848, as the United States' war with Mexico drew to a close, Senate investigators placed a journalist under house arrest for the first time because he refused to disclose how he obtained details about the not-yet-complete peace treaty.
At the height of the First World War, lawmakers considered making it illegal to leak state information to the public, but changed their minds because of first amendment concerns, opting instead for legislation that criminalized the act of relaying defense secrets to the enemy during wartime.
The most notorious leak in U.S. history came in the early 1970s, when Daniel Ellsberg—a Princeton-educated analyst who worked for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara during the 1960s—delivered a 7,000-page Pentagon report to The New York Times, and later The Washington Post.
Unprecedented in scope, the collection of top-secret materials revealed that Lyndon Johnson's White House had lied systematically to the public about the rationale behind America's involvement in Vietnam.
Richard Nixon tried to use an injunction to stop the material's publication in 1971, setting another historical precedent in the process, but failed at the Supreme Court.
The ethics of leaking have never been straightforward. Nixon's own contradictions were on full display as he and his advisors formulated their response to Ellsberg:
Nixon: "Let's get the son of a bitch into jail."
Henry Kissinger: "We've got to get him."
Nixon: "We've got to get him ... Don't worry about his trial. Just get everything out. Try him in the press ... Everything ... that there is on the investigation, get it out, leak it out."
Such conviction, of course, facilitated Nixon's undoing, but the implications were clear and the sentiment was probably felt widely among American elites: leaking was bad when it violated the interests of power.
Or, as columnist David Corn said once, there are leaks "that serve the truth, and those that serve the leaker."
The second Bush administration blurred this line frequently.
White House staff members gave the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame to columnist Robert Novak after her husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, criticized the rationale for the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Bush himself passed along (selectively chosen) top-secret documents to reporter Bob Woodward for the 2002 book, Bush at War.
Wheat from the Chaff
Each of these leaks tells a different historical story.
The Plame affair underscored the politicization of information in our fractured age, when partisans compete with cynical glee to mold Washington's weekly narrative.
Ellsberg's papers exposed the contradictions of an earlier epoch, highlighting the tenuous underpinnings of the global Cold War, particularly in Southeast Asia.
Controversies from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—sharpened often by war and codified through law—offer windows into the rise of the modern state, and highlight how the U.S. government came to police its inner correspondence.
And the experiences of the founding fathers hint at an era now long past, when leaders navigated questions of secrecy with little consideration of bureaucratic power.
So given this long leaky history, what makes the WikiLeaks material so interesting?
Size matters—there is a lot of information in the 251,287 cables—but the documents differ from previous leaks.
For one, they draw on different source material.
Unlike Ellsberg, Manning did not have access to top-secret reports. Most of the information he downloaded from his desk at a military base in Iraq never reached the Oval Office. It is likely that few of his cables even made their way to the seventh floor of the U.S. State Department, where America's top statesmen manage the daily business of U.S. foreign relations.
Moreover, the documents do not lend themselves to a Plame or Ellsberg-like controversy.
There are embarrassing tidbits here and there—gossipy assessments of foreign leaders—and heart-wrenching details from the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Washington's foreign officers come across mostly as professionals.
As commentator Fareed Zakaria opined, "Washington's secret diplomacy is actually remarkably consistent with its public diplomacy" this time around, unlike during the Vietnam War, U.S. diplomats are undeniably "sharp, well informed, and lucid."
What emerges from the WikiLeaks material is a story that features not the great men and women of Washington but the mid-level officials who work in U.S. outposts around the world.
These are the individuals who conduct American diplomacy on the ground. Their correspondence is dominated by neither turf battles nor policy debates, but rather a continual effort to collect accurate information, analyze trends, and advance U.S. interests in the world.
Looking through the eyes of such individuals reveals much about U.S. foreign relations, especially in the American hinterland—that zone of exchange at the outskirts of Washington's political influence.
The WikiLeaks documents showcase the common priorities of the officials who enact American policy in this region, and they tell scholars something about the challenges of U.S. foreign affairs in the early twenty-first century.
Things have changed certainly since the end of the Cold War, but they haven't changed as much as one might suspect.
Small States, Big Allies
Washington's global influence today is deeply contested. To a degree that might surprise both boosters and detractors of America's foreign policy, negotiation is the motif of the WikiLeaks documents.
Whether dealing with special friends or political afterthoughts, U.S. diplomats rarely dictate the terms of international exchange. They are caught instead in a continual two-way conversation that often obfuscates the asymmetrical nature of Washington's military and economic resources.
The examples are almost endless.
Take Yemen: residing at the outskirts of the Arab world with a harsh climate and a small population, there is little reason the country should possess any leverage over the U.S. policymaking establishment. Unlike Saudi Arabia, it possesses few oil reserves or regional clout—only the strategic port city of Aden, which provides access to the waters between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.