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Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Wikileaks and the Bush-Obama Transition


The publication of up to 251,000 secret US Embassy cables by the Wikileaks organisation helps address a key question:

To what extent do President Barack Obama’s foreign and national security policies differ from those pursued by President George W. Bush? Has Obama lived up to his promise of “change we can believe in”?

The secret US embassy cables broadly cover the period 2004 to April 2010 (although some stretch back to the 1990s as well). They therefore allow analysis of continuities and change from Bush to Obama. This is interesting and useful because it allows us to compare Obama’s election campaign promises with his performance since taking office. It allows American citizens more clearly to see whether Obama has made a difference and judge his performance, and perhaps vote or otherwise act accordingly, and it allows people outside the US to better understand the realities of American power: that it changes little from one administration to another even when such radically different leaders and parties control the White House. It is useful for non-Americans’ assessments of US power and election manifestoes and declarations.

It should be recalled that authoritative opinion surveys in the US and across the world in the closing years of the Bush administration showed very high levels of US unpopularity around the globe and high levels of American citizen opposition to US global leadership/hegemony, unilateralism, sidelining of the UN, and so on.

A key attitude survey by the University of Maryland at the end of 2010, before the Wikileaks publication of secret embassy cables, showed declining international support for the leadership and policies of Barack Obama. It will be interesting to see post-Wikileaks opinion surveys to consider their effects on US power and global standing.

Secret embassy cables:

1. Predator Drone attacks in Pakistan exposed by the cables: the cables confirmed what was previously believed by many journalists and observers. Indeed, the Obama administration has used drone attacks with greater frequency than had the Bush administration. What is further exposed is that Pakistan’s president and prime minister knew about and supported, but publicly denied, drone attacks. Obama is therefore shown to have stepped up this aspect of the ‘war on terror’. Under Bush, 9 drone attacks from 2004-7 and 33 in 2008; under Obama, there were 53 in 2009, 118 in 2010, and 4 up to now in January 2011 (according to the Drone database maintained by the New America Foundation think tank in Washington, DC.

2. US Special Forces embedded in Pakistan: Obama took that decision in October 2009, according to Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (2010); exposed by Wikileaks in December 2010. Bush had not embedded US military units into the Pakistan military – that had been a ‘red-line’ issue with Pakistan’s army.

3. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) was known under Bush to be funding Taliban and other terror groups; embassy cables show continued ISI backing of terror groups fighting US and other NATO troops, and passing of information to warn terror groups of US planned attacks. It was an ISI-supported group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT, meaning ‘Army of the Pure’) that carried out the attacks on Mumbai in November 2008.

The Obama administration continues to support the Pakistani state, including ISI, to the tune of $2 billion p.a. in military aid.

4. Spying on UN leaders and diplomats: in January 2009, according to cables, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered US diplomats to collect information on Ban Ki Moon, secretary-general of the UN, and his secretariat; and on the permanent UNSC representatives, including Britain and France. Information requested included iris scans, DNA, fingerprints, passwords for email and other computer accounts.

It is also the case that Condoleeza Rice, as US secretary of state under Bush, had ordered illegal surveillance of the-then UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, in the run up to the Iraq War of 2003. It will be recalled that a GCHQ ‘whistle-blower’, Katharine Gun, had exposed in 2004 that Condoleeza Rice had asked for British diplomats to spy on Kofi Annan and his staff and had also ‘bugged’ his office. In 2004, Clare Short MP claimed to have read transcripts of Annan’s illegally recorded conversations (BBC News online, 26 Feb 2004).

What the Wikileaks cables suggest is a programme of illegal surveillance that violates the 1946 US-UN HQ agreement and the 1961 Vienna Convention, and which the Obama administration appears to have placed on a far more ambitious basis and scale. In the case of Africa, diplomats were ordered to collect military base location and size information, including aircraft and other vehicular markings and insignia. In relation to Palestine Authority and Hamas, information was requested on mobile telephone numbers, vehicles used, and so on.

5. Saudi Arabia was the site of large financial flows to Taliban, al Qaeda, and other terror groups fighting US and other NATO troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan: this was known under the Bush administration and continues to be the case under Obama, with little achieved. This is exposed in embassy cables, as are funding flows to Taliban etc.. from other US allies in the Gulf, including Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE.

6. Israel: Bush tied the Obama administration to Israel aid by agreeing to provide $30 billion over 10 years from 2008. Despite claims to the contrary, Obama has failed to halt Israel from expanding settlements in disputed territories and continues to guarantee Israel’s “Qualitative Military Edge” over other Middle Eastern powers, including US allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Cables reveal this, including the fact that US sells to Egypt and Saudi Arabia weapons to replace previously sold arms, rather than new generation arms, equipment and systems.

On the Goldstone Report on War Crimes in Gaza (late 2008), cables reveal that US officials would continue their efforts to deflect criticism of Israeli actions and would hinder the Report’s progress to the UNSC. US officials also requested Israeli information to further deflect criticism of Israel’s attack on Gaza that left over one thousand Gazans and 13 Israelis dead and caused massive destruction.

7. Yemen: While Bush had no strategy for Yemen’s growing al Qaeda problems, Obama ordered airstrikes against targets that killed over 120 people in two attacks in December 2009. While the Pentagon denied the airstrikes were by US forces, and the Yemeni government claimed they had carried out the attacks, Wikileaks showed that the US was responsible after all, and that the Yemenis had agreed to keep the attacks’ US provenance quiet.

Of course, to the above it is possible to add policies towards Iran have exhibited little change, despite early ‘peace’ feelers. In regard to rendition, Guantanamo, Bagram and secret prisons run by the CIA, little has changed since the Bush administration left office in January 2009. The Wikileaks cables, therefore, add to a growing awareness of the continuities between Obama’s and Bush’s foreign policies, but provide all-important official confirmation of ‘open secrets’ known to journalists and other experts, as well providing significant information to American and other publics.

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