Washington is reeling from the latest WikiLeaks document dump. The foreign policy wonks insist that there are few, if any, major surprises. "Much of what we've seen thus far," opined Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, "confirms more than it informs." And, in the end, what these documents confirm is that President Obama's foreign policy is a mess.
Even if you're supportive of Obama's foreign policy efforts, the WikiLeaks dump is a bigger deal than the know-it-alls are suggesting. It's one thing to believe something as a generality; it's another to dispel plausible deniability for all concerned.
Everyone may know that the Saudis are worried about the Iranian bomb. But knowing that isn't quite the same as learning that the Saudi monarchy has implored the U.S. to attack Iran and "cut off the head of the snake," in the words of a Saudi envoy. Egypt and other Arab states have called the Iranian program an "existential threat" and have begged the U.S. to use military force to stop it. (Of course, if the U.S. did take out the program, these same regimes, not to mention countless domestic critics of Israel, would insist that the U.S. was doing the bidding of the Israel lobby.)
Around the globe, diplomats, dignitaries and potentates feel betrayed and exposed. Certainly, the news that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton ordered American diplomats at the United Nations to spy on other delegations will make lunchtime at the Turtle Bay commissary a bit awkward.
Politically, the one advantage for the White House is the sheer volume of the leaks. If these stories came out one by one, there'd be room for them to flare up as full-fledged controversies, but with a quarter of a million documents, each story robs oxygen from the next.
Still, the (relative) lack of surprises is hardly an exoneration for anybody -- not for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has declared himself an enemy of the United States, nor for the Obama administration, which seems utterly lost about how to deal with him.
The administration's formal response to the revelations was to have State Department attorney Harold Koh pen a tersely worded cease-and-desist letter to Assange, asking him to pretty please stop publishing thousands of state secrets. When lawyers run your foreign policy, this is what passes for a blistering counterattack.
Indeed, with the important and complicated exception of Afghanistan, such high-minded legalism is par for the course.