Does WikiLeaks prove that the Yanks are “a force for good”?

David Aaronovitch must be having a laugh.

When I first read David Aaronovitch's column in the Times (£) today, I resisted the temptation to look up at the corner of the page to remind myself of the date. I know it's not 1 April. But is Aaro having a laugh? Playing a prank on us? Just being silly? His column is entitled:

The secret's out: the Yanks are a force for good

The standfirst says:

The WikiLeaks cables prove that the world's most powerful democracy is on our side, the side of liberty

David himself writes:

. . . the United States sometimes blunders, makes mistakes, corrects them and, in correcting them, makes more.

So the US, in his view, is just an innocent abroad – clumsy, mistaken, but well-intentioned; not mad or bad. Nice and convenient. He continues:

The cables prove again that the US, the most powerful democracy, is on our side. On Britain's side. On the side of those who think that democracy and liberty are important and need to be argued for and defended. They haven't been lying to us. They haven't been doing things that are against our interests.

What?? Let me check the date again. Are we sure it's not April Fool's Day? If not, then I'm not sure where to begin. Hold on, I know, let's start with the "first sets of disclosures of military messages relating to Iraq and Afghanistan" which David glosses over.

In the Iraq war logs, for example, we discovered that the "US authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers whose conduct appears to be systematic and normally unpunished" and "a US helicopter gunship involved in a notorious Baghdad incident had previously killed Iraqi insurgents after they tried to surrender".

In the Afghan war logs, for examples, we learned about Task Force 373, the "black" unit of special forces charged with hunting down targets for assassination or detention without trial and "in many cases, the unit has set out to seize a target for internment, but in others it has simply killed them without attempting to capture. The logs reveal that TF 373 has also killed civilian men, women and children and even Afghan police officers who have strayed into its path."

Is this what Aaronovitch calls democracy, liberty and truth? Let's turn to the latest batch of state department cables. Aaronovitch rejects Julian Assange's call for Hillary Clinton to resign from her post as US secretary of state on the grounds that (a) she is elected and he is not, and (b) she "authorised her spies to spy in the United Nations – as, one imagines, do the undocumented Chinese, Russians, Bolivians and Cypriots". But point (a) is irrelevant and, as for point (b), let me make two points of my own:

1) The fact that others break the law or engage in morally dubious behaviour does not justify the United States or, for that matter, the United Kingdom doing so also. Perhaps David was off sick the day his primary school teacher taught his class the rather basic lesson that two wrongs don't make a right; and

2) Clinton did not, in fact, authorise "her spies" to "spy in the United Nations", as he claims, but actually instructed her state department ambassadors, envoys and diplomats to do so, which, as the Guardian has noted, "appears to blur the line between diplomacy and spying". That's what makes the content of Section 01 of 24 State 080163 so disturbing. Plus, I should add, the UN says that bugging the secretary general is illegal, under the 1946 UN Convention on Privileges and Immunities and the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Does US law-breaking not matter if the Cypriots are allegedly doing so, too? Is that really what Aaronovitch would have us believe?

And, yes, we've had gossip and tittle-tattle in some of these leaked US cables. But we've also had clear and depressing evidence of the "grand hypocrisy" on the part of the United States that Aaro is so desperate to dismiss in his column. A 2007 cable from the US embassy in Berlin, for example, published by WikiLeaks on Sunday night, describes a meeting in which the then-deputy chief of the US mission to Germany, John M Koenig, urged German officials to "weigh carefully at every step of the way the implications for relations with the US" of issuing international arrest warrants for CIA agents in the shameful case of the German national Khalid el-Masri.

As the ACLU notes:

In 2003, el-Masri was kidnapped from Macedonia and transported to a secret CIA-run prison in Afghanistan where he was held for several months and tortured before being dumped on a hillside in Albania.

Charming. So I guess that's what Aaronovitch means when he refers to the United States, "the most powerful democracy", being on "our side", on the side of "liberty". Here's what the ACLU's Ben Wizner said in response to the el-Masri WikiLeaks revelations:

We have long known that both the Bush and Obama administrations have shielded perpetrators of torture and rendition from accountability for their illegal acts. We now know that US diplomats have also sought to shut down accountability efforts abroad. The United States' employment of diplomatic pressure to influence the legal proceedings of a democratic ally was improper and unseemly, particularly where the goal of that interference was to shield US officials from accountability for torture.

Even as many of our closest allies have acknowledged and addressed their official complicity in the Bush administration's human rights abuses, the United States has yet to reckon with its legacy of torture. The best way to restore our standing in the world, reassert the rule of law and strengthen our democracy is to support, not obstruct, meaningful accountability for torture.

Hear, hear!

On a side note, I must point out that it is ironic for a man who wrote, back in April 2003, that "if nothing is eventually found, I – as a supporter of the [Iraq] war – will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again" to now write, as he does in the Times, that the Americans "haven't been lying to us".

Itis also worrying to see a man of David's intelligence, experience and acumen having failed to learn the lessons of the Iraq war, and the associated WMD lies, deceptions and propaganda: in his column, he refers to the "possibility of the Iranian Bomb". Why the capital letters, David? Is that the Times's house style or the product of your own deliberate decision to fear-monger?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.