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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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.