Regrettably, Pete, it looks like the answer is never (as Jennifer has noted). This, just in from the Guardian — a veritable barometer of the liberal mindset, at least as far as Europe goes. The best of the liberal crowd from the UK — a pro-Iranian campaigner, a leading voice of Bolshevik nostalgia who is also a dedicated promoter of Islamic radicalism, Juan Cole, and several other colorful opinion makers — weigh in on the significance of the WikiLeaks data dump on the Middle East.
For anyone harboring optimism about the ability of ideologues to change their minds, this is compulsory reading. I detect no mea culpa, no concession on the liberal animus toward Israel and America, no recoiling from the morbid sympathy for Iran and its nuclear ambitions, no hint of doubt.
Who knows, by the time all WikiLeaks documents have made their way into the public domain, perhaps even the die-hard Guardian ideologues will see the light. I am not holding my breath.
Colleagues may understandably dismiss the Guardian’s collection as a largely fringe phenomenon, but another reason I do not think the leaks will significantly affect people’s mindset one way or another is that the current U.S. administration, and many other liberals in Congress, the State Department, and various other agencies of the federal government, were privy to some, if not all, the content of the leaks before the public was — and that did not change their worldview or the policies they pursued.
Anyone who thinks that the WikiLeaks silver lining is in the “moment of truth” value should remember that WikiLeaks was irrelevant for the bigger picture — it revealed nothing we did not either instinctively or advisedly know about the world already. The information was entertaining in a tabloid way (as Max has said) — but again, gossip about Berlusconi’s lifestyle and Qaddafi’s erratic behavior were already available before this event. What value did we get out of this exposure that we had not already gotten out of a subscription to Hello! magazine?
Undoubtedly, the embarrassment from the exposure will eventually subside because, after all, governments made uncomfortable by these leaks must have similar documents in mind that their own diplomats have produced about U.S. leaders. Such is the nature of diplomacy, after all — to offer frank, unadorned assessments under the assumption that they will stay secret until long after they have become irrelevant.
In sum, the only enduring consequences of this affair are negative. First, there is the potential damage caused to sources of information — past, present, and future. Will the likelihood of being exposed as an informant in societies where such activity may be punished with death, loss of face or revenue, or damage to family, help or hinder the future recruitment of sources? Will current sources, seeing how they could easily be exposed, continue or discontinue their cooperation with American (and other) diplomats? Will they have the luxury of this choice, given that being exposed could lead to their death? And will they have continued access to information, given that they have now been exposed?
Then there is the real damage done to the quality of diplomatic communication. WikiLeaks stupidly boasts of serving transparency. The fact of the matter is that its irresponsible and puerile act of exposure will not obviate the need for discretion in the way governments conduct their affairs of state. To the contrary, it will force governments to build more impenetrable firewalls for their vital internal communications — with increased costs to the public coffers and with an increase in the kind of “culture of secrecy” that WikiLeaks so ardently wishes to undermine.