MANAMA, Bahrain—Two things about the WikiLeaks effect on U.S. foreign relations were apparent on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s first overseas trip since the publication of a trove of secret State Department messages.
First: The disclosures aren’t crippling her brand of diplomacy. Second: The releases almost certainly will dog her for months and complicate her job, particularly with only a fraction of the quarter-million diplomatic messages made public so far.
As a sign of how seriously the U.S. takes the potential for serious diplomatic damage, Clinton said she had recommended that President Barack Obama call some leaders to smooth things over. She didn’t say which ones she suggested.
WikiLeaks questions intruded throughout her trip this past week to Central Asia and to the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain, where she attended a security conference with dozens of Arab leaders and hundreds of officials from around the world. Those questions consumed time she otherwise would have spent talking with foreign leaders about other matters.
But there was scant evidence that the leak furor, however troublesome, amounted to more than an irritant to real diplomacy. Even in the midst of the publicity storm, she managed to close a deal with the former Soviet republic of Belarus on securing nuclear materials.
At each stop she bemoaned the document dump of more than 250,000 State Department reports, many classified secret, variously describing the deed as “illegal,” “regrettable,” “thoughtless” and “irresponsible.” She made clear her belief that it’s not just the U.S. government that is left vulnerable.
“I believe this attack, if left unpunished, will be just the first of many against anyone, anywhere,” she said in Bahrain.
Clinton realizes, she said Tuesday in Kazakhstan, that other countries will keep pressing for explanations about the substance of the sometimes-undiplomatic dispatches as well as Washington’s inability to stop them from leaking.
Her goal in the coming weeks, she told reporters flying back to Washington with her late Friday, is “to make sure, as (more) things become public, if they raise concerns, I will be there to reach out and talk to my counterparts or heads of state and government.”
She insisted the problem will blow over and diplomacy will return to normal, though with greater efforts at preserving secrecy. She said she came to that conclusion after meeting with dozens of leaders on her trip and calling many others.
“A lot of people were reassured,” she said, trying to put the best face on an embarrassing situation. “They got their questions answered and joke about it and realize we’re going to keep doing business, and nothing was going to slow down our outreach and our diplomacy.”
Most of the questions she fielded in public meetings with students and civic leaders had no relation to WikiLeaks.
In Astana, Kazakhstan, she expressed regret, in public and in private, for the leaks. Among the material were confidential reports from U.S. Embassy officials that cast high-level Kazakh government officials in a sometimes unflattering light. Still, there seemed to have been no lasting damage to U.S. relations with a country Washington is working closely with on nuclear issues.
Her Kazakh counterpart, Kanat Saudabayev, all but dismissed the matter, telling reporters it amounted to “the normal price” that unfortunately must be paid sometimes in the rough-and-tumble world of diplomacy. He said it would have no lasting effect on relations with the U.S.
The diplomatic path also seemed smooth on her stops in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
She had a harder time dealing with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. He was mentioned in U.S. cables as having profited from close relations with Moscow. One document suggested that the friendship between the Italian leader and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was so strong and Italy’s dependance on Russian energy so significant that Berlusconi has a “distorted” view of Moscow.
In a meeting with Clinton in Astana during a security conference, Berlusconi complained angrily about the leak, according to Clinton aides who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private meeting. He later appeared before reporters with Clinton, and she praised him and his government as valued and long-standing allies.
In Bahrain, Clinton saw a different, perhaps even encouraging, side to the fallout from the leaks.
Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, spoke with unusual public candor about his government’s belief that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is so troubling that it has to be stopped. “We can never accept and we can never live with” an Iran that has the capacity to turn enriched uranium into nuclear bombs, he told reporters with Clinton at his side.
He was responding to a question about a secret State Department cable that quoted Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa as privately arguing “forcefully for taking action to terminate their (Iran’s) nuclear program, by whatever means necessary.”
That reflected a view held widely—but rarely voiced publicly—by leaders of the Gulf’s predominantly Sunni Arab rulers, who fear Shiite Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
It might be argued that by lifting the lid on the Gulf Arabs’ candid views on Iran, the leak of the diplomatic cables has emboldened Iran’s nervous neighbors and given more weight to Obama administration arguments on the need for a concerted international effort to isolating Iran and compelling it to change course.