Over the years, as part of my academic research, I have spent many hours at the National Archives poring over diplomatic cables of the kind recently released in Wikileaks. The only difference is that rather than being released after a 30+ year waiting period – when the principals involved are presumably dead or in retirement and the countries in question have very different governments in power – the Wikileaks are a lot more recent, more relevant and, in some cases, more embarrassing as a result.
However, those of us who have actually read such cables over the years find nothing in them particularly unusual or surprising. Indeed, the only people who would be surprised or shocked by what has been released in the recent dump of diplomatic cables are those who have a naïve view that the U.S. foreign policy is not about empire but about freedom, democracy, international law, and mutually-respectful relationships between sovereign nations. There is little indication that the foreign governments in question are particularly surprised at any of the content in these cables either.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume the interpretations of events by State Department personnel contained in these documents are accurate reflections of reality. While many career Foreign Service officers are sincere and dedicated people, the nature of their role forces them to see the world from inside the prism of a hegemonic power. They cannot expect to have a more enlightened view of developments within a Middle Eastern state than, for example, a representative of the British Foreign Office would have had a century earlier.
For my doctoral dissertation on what motivated U.S. military intervention in Latin America and the Middle East during the 1950s, I spent many hours reviewing cables sent to and from U.S. embassies in Guatemala and Iran in the months prior to the U.S.-backed coups in those countries. I read frantic messages sent by senior diplomats in the U.S. embassy and top officials in the State Department and the White House regarding what they feared to be imminent Communist takeovers of those countries. Neither of these fears was based on reality, of course, but it was widely believed to be true.
By contrast, there is absolutely nothing in the hundreds of cables I reviewed in the lead-up to the coups indicating that the desire to overthrow Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossedegh was based primarily on his nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company or that the plans to overthrow Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz was based upon his nationalization of some lands owned by the United Fruit Company. It was based on a sincere, if grossly exaggerated, fear that there was a real threat that these countries would become dominated by pro-Soviet Communists. This certainly does not rule out the likelihood that powerful corporate interests which had a stake in ousting these nationalist leaders helped create the climate that led to such paranoid speculation. However, as far as those who made the key decisions were concerned, it appears to have been based primarily on this fear of Communist takeovers.
There is a tendency among critics of U.S. foreign policy to assume a level of rationality in decision-making that has led to the emergence of many popular conspiracy theories. Yes, there have certainly been conspiracies. Yes, in the final analysis, powerful corporate interests do play an important role in U.S. foreign policy. Yet what is often overlooked is the role of ideology, of the way that those embedded in U.S. embassies are willing to take the prevailing line simply because that it what they are pre-disposed to believe and they didn’t have the opportunity or the willingness to figure things out otherwise. This is why, absent of corroborating evidence, I’m skeptical about leaked documents regarding large-scale Iranian support of Iraqi insurgents and other claims which appear to legitimate U.S. militarism.
Our man in Rabat
One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon of allowing ideology to interfere with honest reporting comes in a recently-released cable from the U.S. charge d’affairs in the U.S. embassy in Morocco, Robert P. Jackson.
In his lengthy analysis regarding the conflict over Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, he makes the preposterous assertion that the independence struggle is essentially an Algerian creation, ignoring decades of popular resistance and longstanding Sahrawi nationalism which pre-dated Algeria’s support for the nationalist Polisario Front. He bases this claim on the fact that because the Polisario has failed to claim Sahrawi-populated parts of southern Morocco as part of the Western Sahara state, this somehow proves that the struggle is “less nationalist than geopolitical, linked to the much older dispute between Algeria and Morocco, and hardly boosts the case for an independent state.”
In reality, the reasons for this distinction between the two Sahrawi-populated regions is that the Polisario – unlike Morocco and its supporters – understands international law: The Sahrawi-populated Tefaya region is universally-recognized as part of Morocco whereas Sahrawi-populated Western Sahara is recognized as a non-self-governing territory under foreign belligerent occupation and therefore has the right to self-determination, including the option of independence. If Morocco would allow the Tefaya region to become part of an independent Western Sahara, there certainly would be no objections by the Polisario, but they simply understand that they have a much stronger case regarding Western Sahara itself. Instead, the U.S. charge implies that this willingness to recognize this important legal distinction somehow delegitimizes the nationalist struggle.
Jackson goes on to criticize the United Nations for recognizing the Polisario, along with Morocco, as the two principal parties in the conflict, insisting that the Algerians – who have no claim to Western Sahara – are the key to peace because of their support for the Polisario. Rather than pressure Morocco to abide by a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark decision by the International Court of Justice to allow for an act of self-determination, he calls on UN special envoy Christopher Ross, a veteran U.S. diplomat, to “budge [Algerian] President Bouteflika and his government” to allow Morocco to consolidate their conquest.
This cable is very reminiscent of the longstanding effort by State Department officials during the Cold War to delegitimize national liberation struggles by claiming they were simply the creation of Cuba, the Soviet Union, or some other nation-state challenging U.S. hegemony. Indeed, in a throwback to Cold War rhetoric, Jackson insists that the Polisario Front, which has been recognized as the legitimate government of Western Sahara by over 80 governments, is “Cuba-like.” In the cable, Jackson calls for U.S. support for Moroccan calls for a census and audit of international programs in Polisario-led refugee camps, but not support for the international call for human rights monitors in the occupied territory. In addition, rather than recognizing the right of Sahrawi refugees to return under international law, he unrealistically suggests that the Sahrawi refugees all be resettled in Spain.
Contradicting findings by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other observers which provide evidence to the contrary, he insists that “respect for human rights in the territory has greatly improved” and “once common beatings and arbitrary imprisonment have also essentially ceased.” Despite an unprecedented level of popular resistance against the occupation, he insists “support for independence is waning.” He praises Morocco’s development efforts in the occupied territory, even claiming that Al Aioun, the occupied Western Sahara capital, is “without any Shantytowns,” which is news to those of us who have actually been there and seen them.
In a rare moment of candor, Jackson acknowledges that Morocco’s “hard-line stance may have been bolstered by what was perceived in the Palace as uncritical support from Washington.” However, he falsely claims that most governments in the UN Security Council support Morocco’s “autonomy” plan for Western Sahara, which not only promises a very circumscribed level of self-governance but prohibits the people of Western Sahara from voting on the option of independence as required under international law.
Not long after this cable was written, Jackson was promoted by President Obama to his first post as full ambassador, as the U.S.-backed dictatorship to the Republic of Cameroon. This serves as yet another example that a willingness to tow the official line rather than critically examining the evidence is the key to advancement in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Stephen Zunes, professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, is a senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus. His most recent book, co-authored with Jacob Mundy, is Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press, 2010.)