US mistrusts its friends almost as much as its foes
Robert Fox: Leaked cables offer insight into US thinking - and suggest new conflict in the Middle East
The last big dump of intelligence reports by WikiLeaks was described as an embarrassment of riches for journalists and historians. This second mega-avalanche of a quarter of a million US diplomatic cables is a plain embarrassment.
We learn not so much what the Americans think, but how they think. It shows the US administrations of George W Bush and Barack Obama in far less control of their destiny than they would like us to imagine. They appear to mistrust their allies almost as much they do their acknowledged foes. There isn’t a good word for anyone who isn’t wrapped in the star-spangled banner.
Leaving aside the personal stuff – and, let’s face it, that is the only bit of fun in these often turgid missives – there are some points of real concern. The broad conclusion from the exchanges over the Middle East, North Korea and Afghanistan, is that we face a scenario of worsening or even new conflict in 2011.
The exchanges on Iran suggest that the US has all but accepted that Iran will have a workable nuclear weapon within months. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to be wildly unpredictable. The new development is that Iran seems to be well on the way to acquiring a new set of intermediate and long-range missiles from North Korea, and, yes, some of these could hit parts of Mediterranean and Eastern Europe.
This explains why almost everyone at the Nato Lisbon summit signed up with such alacrity to the anti-missile shield. This includes the Russians, who are using the shield as a way of re-engaging with Nato and its senior European and north American partners.
Linking the nuclear initiatives of North Korea and Iran is the shadow of the A Q Khan network, which delivered a nuclear arsenal to Pakistan. The cables reveal that since 2007 the US has been working strenuously to get highly enriched uranium away from Pakistan’s nuclear plants for fear of it getting into the hands of terrorist groups, or being traded to them by organised crime.
So far we have only heard of the private requests of Saudi Arabia to try to destroy the Iranian nuclear industry, by military force if necessary, at the earliest opportunity. We haven’t yet heard the assessment of Israel’s role in the worsening tensions with Tehran.
But there is some explicit reporting about the role of Syria in arming Iran’s natural ally and proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah. This contributes to the growing fear that a serious attack by Hezbollah and its Hamas ally against Israel is shifting from the possible to the highly probable in 2011.
On Afghanistan there is a dismal familiarity to the various comments from US diplomats. President Karzai is described as “locked in paranoia”. His brother Ahmed Walid, the power broker in Kandahar, is assessed as “deceitful” and not to be trusted – despite his protestations of support for the activities of the CIA.
You can almost sense the shrug of the diplomatic shoulders in the report that the Drug Enforcement Agency discovered a recent vice-president of Afghanistan was carrying $52 million on his visit to the UAE. Ahmad Zia Massoud denied he was trying to take funds out of the country and was “ultimately allowed to keep [the money] without revealing its origins or destinatio..”
The mistrust of the Karzai clan and the Kabul regime underlines the folly of trying to build up counter-insurgency and reconstruction when you cannot trust the resident regime you are supposed to be backing: it is the fable of Vietnam all over again.
The big question all this poses for the US is one of trust and credibility. If everything is seen through the ‘made in the USA’ lens, why should we like them if they don’t like us?
Machiavelli teased that a strong ruler should prefer to be feared than loved. With the slipping of the mask by WikiLeaks, the US may be regarded as worthy of neither fear nor love, by enemies or friends.
The danger is that the US has lost respect and trust – the two commodities Machiavelli regarded as most politically precious. ·
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