At the risk of posting on a stale topic --
I’ll admit up front that I have a natural bias against the disclosure of classified information. While classification can certainly be used as a government tool to hide embarrassing truths, some folks are a little too quick to assume that the release of classified documents is an inherently good thing, while giving too little thought to the trade-offs involved in such disclosures. With respect to the Wikileaks disclosures, a common refrain on the left is that the truth about the war has been hidden too long, and any risk associated with the release of these reports is justified by revealing The Truth about American perfidy in the Middle East.
Personally, I can’t help but think that the ground-breaking nature of this latest document dump has been somewhat overblown. To provide some perspective on these disclosures:
1) What they tell us about the Iraqi security forces is much less surprising than it first appears.
Below is an excerpt from The Guardian’s summary of the Wikileaks docs:
The numerous reports of detainee abuse, often supported by medical evidence, describe prisoners shackled, blindfolded and hung by wrists or ankles, and subjected to whipping, punching, kicking or electric shocks. Six reports end with a detainee's apparent death.
As recently as December the Americans were passed a video apparently showing Iraqi army officers executing a prisoner in Tal Afar, northern Iraq. The log states: “The footage shows approximately 12 Iraqi army soldiers. Ten IA [Iraqi Army] soldiers were talking to one another while two soldiers held the detainee. The detainee had his hands bound … The footage shows the IA soldiers moving the detainee into the street, pushing him to the ground, punching him and shooting him.”
Compare this to an excerpt from a 2001 State Department country report on Iraq’s human rights practices:
The Government continued to be responsible for disappearances and to kill and torture persons suspected of--or related to persons suspected of--economic crimes, military desertion, and a variety of other activities. Security forces routinely tortured, beat, raped, and otherwise abused detainees. Prison conditions are extremely poor and at times life threatening. The Government reportedly has conducted “prison cleansing” campaigns to kill inmates in order to relieve overcrowding in the prisons. The authorities routinely used arbitrary arrest and detention, prolonged detention, and incommunicado detention, and continued to deny citizens the basic right to due process.
And again to the 1999 report:
Reports suggest that persons were executed merely because of their association with an opposition group or as part of a continuing effort to reduce prison populations. The Government continued to be responsible for disappearances and to kill and torture persons suspected of--or related to persons suspected of--economic crimes, military desertion, and a variety of other activities. Iraqi military operations continued to target Shi'a Arabs living in the southern marshes. Security forces routinely tortured, beat, raped, and otherwise abused detainees. Prison conditions are poor. The authorities routinely used arbitrary arrest and detention, prolonged detention, and incommunicado detention, and continued to deny citizens the basic right to due process. The judiciary is not independent. The Government continued to infringe on citizens’ privacy rights. The Government has made use of civilians, including small children, as “human shields” against military attacks.
So what the Wikileaks documents tell us is not some profound discovery about the state of Iraqi security forces. It's hardly surprising that a country with a decades-long tradition of state repression did not yield a crop of upright civil libertarians when that repression gave way to ethnic conflict.
These reports also indicate that American forces knew about these human rights abuses and failed to adequately investigate or prevent them. If this is true, the Wikileaks disclosure is a positive good in that it pressures the Defense Department to look into whether more could have been done to curtail these abuses. In the process of doing so, however, it’s worth asking whether American forces had any feasible alternatives available at the time. As the Abu Ghraib scandal demonstrated, refusing to turn prisoners over to Iraqi forces and thereby overcrowding American detention facilities would hardly have been conducive to preventing detainee abuse.
Moreover, to the extent that Americans bore the responsibility to ensure that prisoners were treated humanely, that hardly squares with the avowed anti-war position of many Wikileaks proponents. If Americans were responsible for preventing Iraqi security forces from abusing prisoners, then, by extension, drawing down American troops seems like a recipe for more human rights violations, not fewer. Furthermore, if the American forces should have left Iraq altogether several years ago, that simply means that these abuses still would have gone on -- they just would have had even less chance of being reported. The anti-war left would do well to avoid overstating American responsibility for the actions of Iraqi security forces; otherwise it risks undermining the rationale for ending America’s involvement in Iraq.
Granted, this argument invites the inevitable rebuttal that American should not have gone to war in the first place. That is a valid point, so far as it goes. But saying so in the context of 2004-2009, once the decision to go to war had already made, smacks of closing the barn door after the horses are gone. And, more to the point, Iraqi security forces were abusing prisoners years before Americans set foot in the country. The Wikileaks disclosures bring these particular abuses to light, and that is a good thing. But the disclosures hardly reveal any systemic failing of the U.S. military or undermine the rationale for U.S. efforts to put the country back together after the decision to go to war was made.
2) What they tell us about civilian casualties is even less surprising.
According to the Wikileaks documents, there have been nearly 122,000 casualties since the start of the Iraq War. To the extent that American forces caused the deaths of innocent civilians, we must take more responsibility for the lives lost. However, that hardly proves that these casualties irrefutably demonstrate that America's presence in Iraq has been nothing but destructive.
When it comes to large populations in underdeveloped countries wiping each other out, Americans simply aren't as important as the most ardent voices on the left proclaim. This is readily confirmed by a survey of various ethnic conflicts over the last fifteen years. Prior to American intervention, the Bosnian war claimed 200,000 lives over four years; the civil war in Rwanda resulted in 800,000 dead between April and June of 1994; by some estimates, the Darfur death toll has reached nearly 300,000 since 2003.
In Iraq, a third of the civilian casualties over the last few years resulted from U.S. military action, with the mast majority caused by from Iraqi-on-Iraqi sectarian violence. Considered in isolation, this is a terrible tragedy. What's even more tragic, however, is that other nations have managed to kill far more of their citizens in far less time, and they have done so without the extra incentive of seeking control over vast oil reserves. While this does not absolve American forces of responsibility for any avoidable civilian deaths that took place on its watch, it is quite possible that the presence of American forces actually mitigated the effect of post-Saddam conflict in Iraq rather than exacerbating it.
Here again, the obvious rejoinder is that had the U.S. not removed Saddam, then Iraq would have avoided civil war altogether. Such an argument collapses upon any extensive scrutiny. A 1993 Human Rights Watch report estimated that Saddam Hussein killed 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds during the Al Anfal campaigns of 1987-1989. Estimated casualties from the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq are as high as 500,000 killed. Another Human Rights Watch report estimated that “in the last twenty-five years of Ba`th Party rule the Iraqi government murdered or “disappeared” some quarter of a million Iraqis, if not more.”
History suggests that, absent American intervention in Iraq, tens of thousands of Iraqis, if not more, would still have died -- it just would have been different Iraqis. (Although perhaps the Julian Assange believes genocide is irrelevant so long as it happens at the hands of non-Americans.)
3) They change absolutely nothing about the status quo.
As sources of history, the Wikleaks disclosure provide excellent source documents. As game-changers for the war as it stands in 2010, they mean almost nothing. American forces are drawing down in Iraq, and will continue to do so over the next year.
A common refrain is that exposure of these classified documents will inevitably result in the responsible parties being held accountable. However, to the extent that American forces were involved, the Defense Department has stated that the responsible parties have already been investigated. And to the extent that Iraqi security forces are the responsible parties, the Iraqi government is hardly more likely to punish past human rights violations now, when American oversight is diminishing, as opposed to preventing over the last several years under the eye of a much more significant American presence.
Considered as a whole, it is questionable whether the Wikileaks disclosures accomplish enough to justify the human cost of releasing classified information. What is disturbing is that Julian Assange, in his quest for disclosure and exposure in and of themselves, seem oblivious to the fact that such a trade-off exists at all.