WikiLeaks reminded me of one of the world's oldest jokes:
What is a diplomat? A diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country.
What bothers me is not that our officials sometimes tell lies for the greater benefit of the country. As a reporter in troubled places, I have sometimes had to tell lies. To enter Burma and China, I said I was a tourist. Had I said I was a reporter, I could not have gone and could not have written articles about the problems and the lives of the people I met there.
When meeting with Islamist extremists in Rabat and Lahore, one does not say that you believe they are deranged killers who should be stamped out. Instead, you lie and ask for their views. Same goes for meeting with Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Sikh separatists in India or American Nazis in Idaho.
It's not the lying but the controlled hectoring of weaker nations on behalf of a value system we ourselves do not live up to. That's what bugs me — and what the whole world now sees exposed by the State Department cables.
First of all, we see that our top diplomats are given talking points to speak on. Skilled diplomats with 30 years service under their belts are reduced to the level of parrots, repeating boilerplate jargon prepared by a committee. Our ambassadors are not even allowed to inject the local color and examples that might bring home the points of our policies and humanize our voice.
And, of course, they often are told to say that things are fine and that we admire the local government — while inside the cables, just the opposite is really being said.
Second, we saw reports of cables on weapons shipped to southern Sudan that the United States first approved and then — when made public after pirates seized a ship loaded with tanks — tried to disavow. So, not only did we lie to the world by denying our support for weapons to southern Sudan, we also threatened sanctions on the shipping country, Ukraine, if it did not follow our orders.
Third, the threat of sanctions is only the latest of a series of sticks waved at small powers when they refuse to follow our orders.
When Honduras ousted its demagogic president, Manuel Zelaya, the State Department announced sanctions on the tiny, impoverished Central American country unless it restored the guy. When the Hondurans refused to do so, U.S. foreign aid was cut — largely hurting the poorest Hondurans.
Aid was also cut to Sri Lanka when it refused to halt its drive to end a 27-year guerrilla war by crushing the Tamil Tigers. As the Sri Lankan army finished off the Tigers — inventors of the suicide vest and skilled assassins of journalists and all who opposed them — the United States got the International Monetary Fund to cut a huge slice of aid to the Colombo government.
Sometimes, we are simply too big. The U.S. economy is so vast that it can make or break many smaller nations dependent on U.S. imports, exports, assistance or remittances from a diaspora in America.
Recently, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, threatened to cut off U.S. aid to Haiti's government unless it followed U.S. orders to change the election results. The poorest Haitians have suffered for years as U.S. governments held up World Bank and other aid because we didn't approve of their struggling efforts at democracy. Of course, when Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak won a landslide in corrupt elections this month, the United States — fearing the Muslim Brotherhood might come to power — did not threaten to cut aid.
And when our State Department warned all U.S. employees not to read the WikiLeaks documents, it put America in the same class of thought control as China, which shut down all coverage of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo this month. Does our government believe that while the rest of the world reads the cables and learns from them about the nitty-gritty of international diplomacy, our diplomats and federal employees will — and should — remain in the dark?
Lessons learned from the WikiLeaks revelations are clear. Don't repeat gossip, even when true, if you don't want it to eventually see the light of day — which will happen. Limit secret reports to real secrets, and keep them close. Cloak diplomatic cables in the anonymity given to protect people; we used to do it as journalists covering Burma, China and Iran. Use code names such as "Mister X" when reporting insulting information about a foreign leader.
Frankly, I am stunned by the wealth of disclosures in the cables. Each one of the several hundred released so far could have been a front page story when I was covering the State Department. This is like the beginning of history.
Many of the cables reveal that our diplomats are smart and could make good journalists. They focus on the important stuff and tell what they have learned in lean sentences that are blunt and unambiguous.
But they also reveal the immense hands of the world's largest military and economy engaging in the internal affairs of countries in ways that would offend Americans if we knew China or Russia were doing it to us.
Given our country's passionate engagement in internal economic and social policies, such as balancing the budget, stimulating job growth and extending health care to all, this may well be a good time to ease off on foreign entanglements. Let the Afghans and Pakistanis and Georgians and Palestinians and Israelis and Iraqis work thing out.
That reminds me of another joke I relish, one I heard in a Latin American capital some years ago:
Why is there never a coup d'etat in the United States? Because there is no American Embassy in Washington.
There's a lot of truth in that joke, which tells us a lot about how Latin Americans view Uncle Sam. And you don't need WikiLeaks to learn it.
Ben Barber is a journalist who covered international affairs for 30 years for many newspapers and magazines. His e-mail is email@example.com.