Julian Assange doesn’t like America. So what?

The WikiLeaks founder is not the reason why the secret US documents were leaked.

That WikiLeaks itself would come under attack is no surprise. It's happened before, and if the website survives it will happen again. Those who speak truth to power will eventually find power telling them to shut up.

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks's figurehead, Julian Assange – now apparently being hunted by British police – has become the target of an extraordinary hate campaign from the right.

"Why was he not pursued with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders?" wonders Sarah Palin, adding that he should be hunted down with "cyber-tools" (if you don't know what these are, think Doctor Who's sonic screwdriver).

"I think Assange should be assassinated actually," declares the political science professor Tom Flanagan. " I think Obama should put out a contract and maybe use a drone, or something."

Jonah Goldberg of the National Review asks: "Why wasn't Assange garroted in his hotel room years ago?"

For a discussion of what these comments prove about the attitude towards democracy of Palin, Goldberg et al, read Dan Gardner's lacerating column in the Ottawa Citizen. But, in their eagerness to find a scapegoat, these commentators also make the error of mistaking the man for the ball.

Writing in the Telegraph this morning, George Grant of the Henry Jackson Society accuses Assange of releasing US diplomatic files because he hates America, and thinks the world's greatest power is run by a corrupt regime in need of cleaning up. The idea that Assange is motivated by "anti-Americanism" is the main ingredient in much of the bile aimed at him. But Grant, unlike some of Assange's other critics, isn't foaming at the mouth – so it's worth looking at his article closely.

He quotes Assange:

"The United States," he said, "once had a proud tradition of freedom of the press . . . [but] when we see the path that [it is now] going down, we have to question whether it is really holding those values any more."

OK, we get it: Assange is critical of the United States. Anybody who has read anything about him knows this. But where Grant goes wrong is in the next paragraph:

By making the west, and in particular the United States, the focus of his efforts, Assange betrays an agenda every bit as sinister as the one of which he accuses his enemies.

Now we've jumped from the reasonable position that Assange doesn't think much of the United States to the idea that he is personally responsible for leaking all these documents, or even that he could have chosen to publish the secret documents of any other country had he been minded to.

If Assange is genuinely committed to shining light into the darkness, and exposing real corruption and human rights abuse, we must ask ourselves, where are the "Chinese Embassy Cables"? What has become of the "Iran Files"? Whither the "Chechnya War Logs"?

According to this reasoning, WikiLeaks should refuse to publish any secret documents until it is able to do so even-handedly. For every sarky cable sent from London to Washington by a US ambassador, we should also be able to read what China's diplomats are saying about Pyongyang. Every exposé of coalition war crimes in Baghdad must be balanced by the details of Russian atrocities in Chechnya.

Does Grant really think that Julian Assange would suppress a similar cache of secret documents if they came from China? Of course he wouldn't. The reason the "Chinese Embassy Cables" aren't on WikiLeaks is that nobody has leaked them.

Maybe Assange is biased, and likes publishing incriminating information about the west most of all. It doesn't change the fact that anybody can – or could, at least – upload data to WikiLeaks.

So why have we got the dirt on the States but not on other, nastier, non-western regimes?

Dissidents in the kinds of countries where Assange should be focusing his efforts could never be so certain. A bullet in the head for themselves and their families – no trial – would be the almost inevitable consequence. Small wonder there aren't many leaks coming out of the Russian embassy or the Chinese mission.

Leaving aside the error that every leak comes about because of Assange's personal efforts, this is a reasonable conclusion. Whistle-blowers in authoritarian countries have to be much braver than those with recourse to the rule of law. And then there's the fact that two million Americans had access to all of the data in the diplomatic files, and any one of them was free to leak the lot if they could face the consequences.

But Grant isn't satisfied with these explanations.

The second answer to this question could just as easily be, however, that Assange is not really all that interested in exposing corruption and human rights abuse at all, rather his objective is to embarrass and weaken the US and its western allies because he hates them for what they are and what they stand for.

Grant goes on to make some reasonable objections to the leaks, and makes the interesting claim that the cause of Korean reintegration may have been set back by the public revelation that China was apparently considering withdrawing support from Pyongyang.

But you can't lay the whole raft of questions raised by WikiLeaks at Assange's door. He is a self-publicist (when he's not in hiding, that is) and he is certainly no cheerleader for western governments, but he's not WikiLeaks embodied.

These huge leaks have happened because lots of people have access to lots of data and it has become relatively easy to share it. Because we have unpoliced access to the internet and a free press that can sift through a huge cache of information and make it intelligible for a wide readership, we are able to get at that data.

These developments wouldn't go into reverse if Julian Assange were suddenly to realise the error of his ways. Arresting Assange will not make future leaks impossible. The question of his politics is a sideshow.

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war