“Beware he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.” Pravin Lal, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Firaxis Games.
Every foreign policy catastrophe has, at its root, secret diplomacy. Examples abound, yet we refuse to learn from them, and the same mistakes are repeated again and again, to terrible, illegal, counter-productive, and sometimes genocidal effect. The most important thing we could demand of our politicians is transparency, but recent events show that if anything, we are moving further away from it, and into an era of secrecy, elitism, and obfuscation.
Secret diplomacy is generally considered to be one of the fundamental causes of the First World War. As it drew to its murderous close, US President Woodrow Wilson drew up fourteen points as a blueprint for a permanent world peace, first among which was a ban on private diplomacy. The world needed “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at, after which there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view”. The principle became a founding covenant of the League of Nations.
It was too late for Wilson to undo the damage caused by that secret diplomacy which had occurred during the war itself. The worst of this affected a region which is still reeling from the trauma: the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration were both drawn up behind closed doors. Inevitably, the Great War also saw a great amount of propaganda too. Propaganda and secret diplomacy are co-dependent, because covert rationales can never be publicly exposed, and so additional motives must be manufactured. In this regard too, the Great War foreshadowed the future.
In my own lifetime, secret diplomacy was rife, and continues to shape events like never before. The countless assassinations and coups and proxy wars of the Cold War were all the product of secret diplomacy. None bode well. But since the War on Terror, secret diplomacy has exploded. In fact, the harbinger event of our current age, 9/11, has a foreign policy component which continues to be deliberately concealed at the highest level: the role of Saudi Arabia.
Then came the invasion of Iraq, an act of secret diplomacy writ large. The truth behind it remains impenetrable, we can only be certain it was never enacted for the reasons proposed to the public. Naturally, as with all secret diplomacy, the key decisions were all made in a very tight circle, whose members refuse to reveal their true deliberations. All of this is now notorious. A quick (British) sketch would include the “sofa cabinet” of Tony Blair, which refused to take minutes; the use of ministerial veto by Jack Straw to prevent publication of what minutes were taken; the refusal by the Cabinet Office to release the minutes of conversations between Blair and Bush in the build-up to war; the concealment of exhaustive intelligence that disproved Blair’s assertion that Saddam Hussein was developing WMD. In America the situation was even graver.
This terrible secrecy became entrenched to the extent that those who breached it, or even alleged it existed, either lost their jobs or were prosecuted as criminals. David Kelly, of course, is an example which is close to my heart, but there are many others. Civil servant David Keogh and MP’s researcher Leo O’Connor were both jailed simply for passing minutes of a 2004 Bush-Blair meeting to O’Connor’s MP (who, to his undying shame, dobbed them in to Downing Street and Special Branch). The content of the memo they passed on has never been made public, but it is believed to relate to future planned war crimes, such as bombing the media offices of a respected broadcaster in a neutral country. It is, at the time I write this, still illegal in the UK to suggest that the secret trial of Keogh and O’Connor proved that Bush and Blair supported bombing Al Jazeera’s branch in Qatar.
One decision from this episode I find particularly curious is Coalition Provisional Authority Order Two, which disbanded the Iraqi military. Nobody has owned up to this. It was the first thing Paul Bremer did when Bush appointed him Presidential Envoy. Bremer has said only that he worked it out with the Pentagon, and considering Bremer’s only line manager was superhawk neocon Donald Rumsfeld, it seems likely that that Rummy was instrumental. But Rumsfeld isn’t talking, and George Bush has even said he can’t remember why they did it. What is tantalising about this disastrous decision is the light it shines, namely that the ultimate geopolitical aim of Operation Iraqi Freedom was to destroy Iraq as a sovereign nation. This is exactly what Saddam and most Iraqis believed the West always intended, and history has borne them out.
Although it remains intrinsically self-defeating, secret diplomacy has only accelerated since the fall of Baghdad. On one side we have a wall of silence and lies, on the other we have empirical reality and the odd leak. A case in point would be what Seymour Hersh reported as “the redirection”, whereby America presaged its withdrawal from Iraq by covertly fomenting Sunni sectarianism not just in Iraq (where it also boosted the Kurds) but also in Syria and Lebanon, thereby ensuring the impossibility of a stable, democratic Iraq. This began with an informal meeting of inner-circle Bush-era neocons, presided over by Elliott Abrams, architect of some earlier eighties secret diplomacy known as Iran-Contra. Faced with the stark truth that secret diplomacy hadn’t worked, they concluded this was simply because it hadn’t been secret enough, and “the redirection” was confined almost entirely to the Vice President’s office. Even the spooks were frozen out.
Fast forward to Hilary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, during which she used a private server, which allowed her, when State Department officials asked for copies of her emails, to delete about 30,000 of them. Hilary’s private server was a deliberate and very blatant circumvention of American law. Those emails are gone. They will never be subpoenaed by Congress. They will never be collected by the National Archives and Records Administration. I suspect that like the Nixon with his tapes, Hilary cannot bring herself to bin them entirely, but for the purposes of everyone else in the world, they are no more. This sets a disastrous precedent. It is the precise opposite of what Woodrow Wilson advised in the aftermath of the world’s worst ever war.
Consider where we have come to. There is something called the truth. There is something called democracy. At home or abroad, effective government policy has to rest on both those points. Yet whenever anyone (often through enormous sacrifice) drags some element of the foreign policy sphere towards either, they are branded traitors, and/or mentally ill. As with that terrible Assange biopic, they are accused of “stealing” secrets. But they haven’t stolen them, they have only given them to us, to history and the world. The information is still there, in its classified silo. They are accused of endangering lives, or worse, but every time these accusations are made they are swiftly rebutted by fact.
Wherever you stand on Assange and Snowden and Manning et all, you must concede this: the whistleblower who hands you a memo is a far lesser worry than the warmonger who burns it behind closed doors. There isn’t a single plaintiff whose life has been endangered by the revelations of Wikileaks and Snowden, but there are bodies falling in Libya and Syria and Yemen and the Ukraine every day, and I do not know if our true role in these crises will ever be officially disclosed. History is set to become a very challenging discipline if chunks of it can now be routinely deleted.