The current deluge of WikiLeaks' pirated US diplomatic cables has been a triumph for press freedom and the democratic ideal of open and accountable government, but has mostly served to confirm rather than reveal.
Unlike WikiLeaks' previous scoops (the Afghan and Iraq War Logs), the cables released so far tell us little — in political or military terms — that we did not already know or suspect.
As one would expect, coming from America's diplomatic corps, the cables project a US-centric global vision. Twenty-two-year-old Bradley Manning — who originally downloaded the cache of cables — is already in jail and there are calls to extradite WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange to the US and charge him with treason.
Is the US — as several colleagues in the British press have suggested — in danger of over-reacting?
The world of the embassy cables is actually something of a public relations dreamscape, a scripted universe where Iranian President Ahmadinejad is ‘like Hitler', Libyan leader Colonel [Muammar] Gaddafi is phobic and hot-tempered and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sends ‘suitcases full of money' to that other scourge of imperialism, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega.
What makes the cables mostly interesting is the human dimension, the gossipy detail, the off-the-record frankness, the unguarded passing of judgment. Sometimes it seems that Julian Assange has unpackaged a Hello! magazine version of global news and international diplomacy.
There are sinister moments, certainly — for example Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's instruction to UN diplomats to undertake acts of espionage; or the collusion between the US and China to ensure the failure of last year's Copenhagen climate summit; or Britain's promise to protect US interests during its enquiry into the invasion of Iraq.
A shocking moral bankruptcy sometimes emerges too: Shell's vice-president for sub-Saharan Africa is happy to report that the multinational's representatives have infiltrated every ministry in the Nigerian government; another diplomat languidly notes that Asif Rahimi "appears to be the only [Afghan] minister that was confirmed about whom no allegations of bribery exist".
But there is also much to amuse as the sober masks of statesmen and women are torn off to reveal ‘a numbskull' (Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari as described by Sir Jock Stirrup, Britain's then chief of staff) or ‘a practised liar' (Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, according to a US diplomat).
Russia's de facto leader Vladimir Putin and its real, elected President, Dmitry Medvedev, are described as ‘Batman and Robin' by one diplomat, while another relates how a ‘too relaxed' French president Sarkozy, on a visit to Rabat, was photographed "crossing his legs and pointing the sole of his shoe at the King — a taboo gesture in the Islamic world".
Naturally, I was most interested in what the cables would reveal about recent events in the Middle East. Of those published to date, a disproportionate 40 per cent deal with the region.
There are some colourful scandals and a litany of nefarious intrigues starring the usual suspects. One leaked cable from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton manages the challenging feat of incorporating the entire ‘Axis of Evil' in one report, with North Korea providing missile technology to Iran and Syria who in turn pass it on to Hamas and Hezbollah.
The cables clearly demonstrate how American interests dovetail with those of Israel: Arab leaders urge an attack on Iran, Pakistan's nuclear capability is of great concern and allegations of the Turkish government's involvement with Al Qaida are made repeatedly.
Yet it is the absence of cables from US embassies inside Israel that is most telling. Despite the intense world focus on Israel's invasion of southern Lebanon in 2006, there is nothing from the US Embassy in Beirut during that period. Similarly, the Embassy in Tel Aviv and the consulate in Occupied Jerusalem apparently fell silent during the 2008-09 onslaught on Gaza.
Rumours are circulating on the internet that Assange made a deal with Israel allowing it to censor and ‘cherry pick' the cables prior to publication, repackaging them to serve its own regional interests. Israeli premier Netanyahu confirmed, in a November 30 Haaretz article, that his government had ‘worked in advance to limit any damage from leaks'. WikiLeaks' second-in-command, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, was among several disenchanted former members who recently left the group to set up OpenLeaks. Among their complaints were "concerns about its [WikiLeaks] neutrality" and the increasing propensity for Assange to take ‘solitary decisions'.
There are other, credible, explanations for the missing cables about Israel. In a recent post on Facebook, Ed Abington, former US consul-general in Occupied Jerusalem, mentions ‘a special channel US embassies use for very sensitive information' which WikiLeaks has not had access to; Remy Ourdon of Le Monde (one of the five international newspapers that were given advance copies of the cables by Assange) says there are "tens of thousands of cables and many surprises still coming". It is also possible that the so-called ‘Insurance Files' — which will be released if Assange is ‘incapacitated' — contain embarrassing revelations for Israel.
Israeli politicians and cheerleaders have seized on the PR opportunities the present situation affords. In the wake of the flotilla massacre earlier this year and the 2008 invasion of Gaza, Israel's reputation on the world stage was undoubtedly tarnished. Now website Israelly Cool can boast "WikiLeaks show that Israel is the only country in the Middle East with an open and honest foreign policy".
Yet, I prefer the vision of Assange as a doughty fighter for freedom of information and global justice. It seems inconceivable that he would protect Israel from censure when the WikiLeaks website categorically states that its "primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes...and unethical behaviour [by] governments and corporations".
Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi.