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WikiLeaks gives dangerous ammunition to a tyrant

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Friday, January 7, 2011

As the latest diplomatic WikiLeaks trickle down from the headlines to remote parts of the world, we can begin examining their effect.

Take Zimbabwe, whose fragility makes it an instructive test case. This is a nation liberated, looted and then ground to dust by a single man: Robert Mugabe. Elections in 2008 were stolen by Mugabe's ruling party, but they produced an uneasy coalition government, with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister. Zimbabwe is now simultaneously attempting to write a new constitution, control periodic outbreaks of Mugabe's brutality and prepare for elections that may take place later this year.

Into this volatile situation comes, of all people, Julian Assange - not generally recognized as an expert on the politics of southern Africa. His recent leaks exposed the name of a member of the ruling party who talked about its internal divisions with an American official. In another secret cable, then-U.S. Ambassador Christopher Dell provided a frank assessment of Tsvangirai as a "brave, committed man," who is also a "flawed figure," prone to indecision and "questionable judgment in selecting those around him." Another cable detailed a secret meeting between Western officials and Tsvangirai in which he supported continued economic sanctions to pressure Mugabe, even though Tsvangirai needed to publicly oppose sanctions for political reasons.

A few of the revelations nicked Mugabe and his family, revealing their ties to the blood diamond trade. But most of the disclosures have eased the life of the dictator. The ruling party is now hunting for traitors, based on information from the leaks. Party-controlled media have played up American criticisms of Tsvangirai, even while accusing the opposition of being American puppets. And the Mugabe-appointed attorney general has named a commission to consider legal action, perhaps including charges against Tsvangirai. "The WikiLeaks appear to show," the attorney general says ominously, "a treasonous collusion between local Zimbabweans and the aggressive international world, particularly the United States."

Those who enthuse that information should always be free - like oxygen and butterflies - should consider the situation in Harare, where the breaking of confidences has strengthened a despot. Secrecy is often the precondition for political opposition in an oppressive society. And secrecy can also be a necessary protection for honesty. The quality of disclosures in the confessional would be diminished if confessions were posted on YouTube. What ruling-party figure in Zimbabwe will now quietly talk to U.S. officials about the inevitable transition beyond Mugabe?

In this case, hacker anarchism is more of a pose than a principle. Assange's activism is not directed at revealing the secrets of the United Nations or of journalistic organizations. It is guided by antipathy for America. The United States, in Assange's view, is an "authoritarian conspiracy" that should be crippled by disrupting its flow of information. It doesn't matter if American methods are martial or diplomatic, since its purposes are inherently imperialistic and colonial. In this belief, Assange counts at least one strong supporter. Mugabe not only shares it; it is the main message of his propaganda.

There are many problems with an ideology that turns anti-American Europeans and African dictators into co-belligerents. The root of its failure, however, is a limited and simplistic view of colonialism. Mugabe and his cronies constitute a kind of colonial power - what Richard Just of the New Republic calls "internal colonialism." They occupy a nation for their own benefit, treating opposition in much the same way that old colonial elites once did. "Is it a consolation," Just asks, "for the victims that their oppression does not come from the West?"

One unintended consequence of recent diplomatic leaks has been to highlight the role of American diplomats such as Dell. In the cables, he is exposed as an insightful and principled public servant - realistic in assessing both friends and opponents and deeply committed to the freedom of Zimbabweans. Here is no cynic, playing some subtle imperial game. "Mugabe and his henchmen are like bullies everywhere," Dell writes in one cable, "if they can intimidate you, they will. But they're not used to someone standing up to them and fighting back." Mugabe once told Dell to "go to hell" - a serious honor for any free man or woman.

On some occasions, foreign policy involves a binary, moral choice. Assange has chosen the side of Mugabe, apparently without regret. He has provided ammunition to a tyrant as surely as if he were an arms dealer. And he calls America an enemy of democracy.

michaelgerson@washpost.com


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