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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue