‘Never waste a good crisis’ used to be the catchphrase of the Obama team in the runup to the presidential election. In that spirit, let us see what we can learn from official reactions to the WikiLeaks revelations.
The most obvious lesson is that it represents the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet. And as the backlash unfolds — first with deniable attacks on internet service providers hosting WikiLeaks, later with companies like Amazon and eBay and PayPal suddenly ‘discovering’ that their terms and conditions preclude them from offering services to WikiLeaks, and then with the US government attempting to intimidate Columbia students posting updates about WikiLeaks on Facebook — the intolerance of the old order is emerging from the rosy mist in which it has hitherto been obscured. The response has been vicious, coordinated and potentially comprehensive, and it contains hard lessons for everyone who cares about democracy and about the future of the net. There is a delicious irony in the fact that it is now the so-called liberal democracies that are clamouring to shut WikiLeaks down.
One thing that might explain the official hysteria about the revelations is the way they expose how political elites in western democracies have been deceiving their electorates. The leaks make it abundantly clear not just that the US-Anglo-European adventure in Afghanistan is doomed but, more important, that the American, British and other Nato governments privately admit that too.
The problem is that they cannot face their electorates — who also happen to be the taxpayers funding this folly — and tell them this. The leaked dispatches from the US ambassador to Afghanistan provide vivid confirmation that the Karzai regime is as corrupt and incompetent as the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon was when the US was propping it up in the 1970s.
What WikiLeaks is really exposing is the extent to which the western democratic system has been hollowed out. In the last decade its political elites have been shown to be incompetent (Ireland, the US and Britain in not regulating banks); corrupt (all governments in relation to the arms trade); or recklessly militaristic (the US and Britain in Iraq). And yet nowhere have they been called to account in any effective way. Instead they have obfuscated, lied or blustered their way through.
The political elites of western democracies have discovered that the internet can be a thorn not just in the side of authoritarian regimes, but in their sides too. WikiLeaks does not depend only on web technology. Thousands of copies of those secret cables are out there, distributed by peer-to-peer technologies. Our rulers have a choice to make: either they learn to live in a WikiLeakable world; or they shut down the internet. Over to them.