A few days ago, I noticed that Michael Gerson was once again in his usual high dudgeon, and this time Wikileaks was his target. Hardly anyone could make me find Wikileaks very sympathetic, but Gerson is a man of rare talents. Perhaps sympathetic is the wrong word, but I certainly object to Gerson’s sloppy conflation of what Assange and his allies are trying to do with the kleptocratic despotism of Robert Mugabe. First of all, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out recently, the cable concerning Tsvangirai that Gerson mentions was published by The Guardian over a year ago. No doubt Gerson would condemn The Guardian in similar terms for having “provided ammunition to a tyrant as surely as if he were an arms dealer.” For Gerson to say that “Assange has chosen the side of Mugabe” is just the most recent lazy identification of Western opponents of U.S. and allied policies with foreign dictatorships. Gerson complains about Assange’s ” limited and simplistic view of colonialism” and then produces an even more limited and simplistic binary opposition in which Assange and Mugabe are supposedly on the same anti-colonialist side because they are both opposed for very different reasons to U.S. policies overseas.
Regardless, what is most striking about all of this is that the leaked cable does not reveal what Gerson says that it does.
Another cable detailed a secret meeting between Western officials and Tsvangirai in which he supported continued economic sanctions to pressure Mugabe, even though Tsvangirai needed to publicly oppose sanctions for political reasons.
The actual cable reported something rather different. According to The Guardian, the cable said:
In 2010 there must be some progress to show the people, but it will require actions by all parties, including the Western powers, to change the status quo. He expects the recently announced commissions to be installed in early 2010, and is satisfied with their makeup. ZANU-PF has implemented a strategy of reciprocity in the negotiations, using Western sanctions as a cudgel against MDC. He would like to see some quiet moves, provided there are acceptable benchmarks, to ‘give’ some modest reward for modest progress.
That indicates that Tsvangirai was calling on Western governments to ease sanctions to provide an incentive for continued progress inside Zimbabwe. There is something similar in a later report:
What is needed is some kind of concrete roadmap that all can agree on, linking easing of sanctions with identifiable and quantifiable progress.
U.S. diplomats were receptive to what Tsvangirai was proposing, and the embassy at Harare sent this recommendation:
As we’ve previously discussed (reftel), we think it might be in USG interests to consider some form of incremental easing of non-personal sanctions, provided we see actual implementation of some of these reforms.
As for the charge of endangering Tsvangirai, it is more than a little absurd to hold publishers accountable for what authoritarian governments choose to do with information that has been released to the public. If Mugabe in his paranoia chooses to persecute Tsvangirai yet again on account of these reports in which Tsvangirai is actually working to ease international sanctions on Zimbabwe, there is nothing that anyone else can do about that. However, the standard that Wikileaks has to meet to justify what it is doing is not simply that it is not actively aiding authoritarian governments by exposing dissidents’ secrets, but that it is actually aiding the cause of opposing authoritarian and abusive government. It has not met that standard, and I don’t think it ever will.
What is absurd about the heavy-handed, excessive crackdown on Wikileaks is that Wikileaks does not really threaten the U.S. government or its policies. It aspires to be a great threat to the status quo, and it simply isn’t.