By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 8:44 AM
ASTANA, KAZAKHSTAN - As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton landed here Tuesday for a security summit, she faced the prospect of encountering people who might not be very happy with some of the State Department cables disclosed this week by WikiLeaks.
There will be Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president whom one cable described as the "Robin" to the "Batman" of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whom he nominally outranks. Also here will be German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom another cable tagged as "risk averse and rarely creative."
After nearly two years as the United States' chief diplomat, Clinton will need to draw heavily on the relationships she has forged to get past the current controversy and turn attention back to pressing international issues, such as the confrontations with Iran and North Korea over their nuclear ambitions. Even before the documents were publicized by newspapers beginning Sunday, Clinton had been working the phones, warning allies about some of the impolitic remarks contained in the documents.
Before departing from Washington, Clinton said the "United States deeply regrets" the disclosure of the cables. During her travels this week, she said she will seek to meet with as many counterparts as she can "because I want to personally impress upon them the importance that I place on the kind of open, productive discussions that we have had to date and my intention to continue to work closely with them."
Analysts and foreign policy experts - many of them former U.S. government officials - predicted that the long-range impact of the documents will be minimal. They said that little in the cables was noteworthy or surprising - merely confirming things already known to insiders - while none of the more unvarnished comments was attributed to Clinton or other senior Obama administration officials.
"I would actually think the Pentagon Papers may have been more significant as it showed internal doubts about a major U.S. policy," said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official, referring to the secret history of the Vietnam War leaked and published during the Nixon administration. "The impact of these leaks is limited as they largely confirm what we already thought - that they do so in an explicit manner is awkward but not a crisis."
In her remarks in Washington, Clinton sought to internationalize the problem posed by WikiLeaks, saying it was not just a U.S. problem. "Let's be clear: This disclosure is not just an attack on America's foreign policy interests," she said. "It is an attack on the international community - the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations, that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity."
Michael J. Green, a former White House aide for George W. Bush, applauded Clinton's approach. "Framing of this as an assault on diplomacy and therefore the international system as a whole is smart," he said.
Indeed, taken as a whole, the cables are more revealing of other countries than of the United States. Unlike the leak of the cable by Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry last year, which exposed deep disagreements over whether to add troops in that conflict, these cables generally do not offer such insights. Instead, they mainly depict American diplomats as sharp analysts of personalities and problems overseas.
Phillip D. Zelikow, who was counselor to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, noted that WikiLeaks has justified its actions by saying it wants to expose wrongdoing. But instead "none [of the disclosures] so far have turned up a smidgen of wrongdoing by the U.S. government," he said. "Instead it looks like to me WikiLeaks has instead exposed a lot of 'rightdoing' - diplomats actually being observant, telling the truth and even displaying an occasional flash of wit."
Zelikow also noted that the leak did not occur in any database under State's control - a military intelligence analyst is allegedly the source - thus further distancing Clinton from the incident.
Daniel Drezner, an international politics professor at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University, said that the leak could have a longer-term impact if it is seen as "one piece of a larger mosaic that suggests doing business with the United States has just become a big headache. Confidential conversations get exposed, slam-dunk treaties get stalled out and even traveling to the United States has become a bigger pain. It's easy to retrofit a trendline onto this data point, and the trend doesn't look so good."
But other experts said that over time, national interests will compel foreign governments to keep working with the United States. Arab leaders might be embarrassed that their private sentiments about Iran have been exposed and "it may make them more circumspect in meetings in which the embassy is represented," said Martin Indyk, a former ambassador who is now vice president at the Brookings Institution. "But it doesn't change their attitude toward Iran's hegemonic ambitions nor toward their need to counter it with American help."
Indyk said that, compared with the crisis now brewing over North Korea's attack on a South Korean island, "the WikiLeaks story is a sideshow - a titillating one but a sideshow nevertheless."