Some the most important historical information for understanding current events comes, not surprisingly, from sources that were intended to be shielded from the public. From November 2010 to September 2011, more than 250,000 communications between U.S. diplomats that were never meant to see the light of day were made public. They are available at WikiLeaks, the nonprofit media organization that accepts confidential information from anonymous sources and releases it to news sources and the public. A number of researchers have put together a treasure trove of information and analysis that can be immensely clarifying. (The recently released book from this research, published by Verso, is “The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to U.S. Empire.”)
Consider Syria, which is dominating the international news because of increased Russian military intervention as well as a surge of some 500,000 refugees from the region arriving in Europe. Why has it taken so long for Washington to even begin — yes, it is unfortunately just beginning — to reconsider the policy of requiring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to agree to resign before any meaningful negotiations can take place? After all, any diplomat could have told the White House that demanding the political suicide of one party to a civil war as a condition for negotiations is not how civil wars end. Practically speaking, this policy has been a commitment to indefinite warfare.
The answer can be found in diplomatic communications released by WikiLeaks, which show that regime change in Syria has been the policy of the U.S. government as far back as 2006. Even more horrifying — after hundreds of thousands of deaths, untold lives ruined and more than 4 million refugees fleeing the country — is the evidence that Washington has had a policy of promoting sectarian warfare in the country for the purpose of destabilizing the Assad government. A cable from the top U.S. embassy official (the chargé d’affaires) in Damascus in December 2006 offers suggestions for how Washington could exacerbate and take advantage of certain “vulnerabilities” of the government of Syria. Vulnerabilities to be exploited include “the presence of transiting Islamist extremists” and “Sunni fears of Iranian influence.”
Describing this strategy in “The WikiLeaks Files,” Robert Naiman writes:
At that time, no one in the U.S. government could credibly have claimed innocence of the possible implications of such a policy. This cable was written at the height of the sectarian Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq, which the U.S. military was unsuccessfully trying to contain. U.S. public disgust with the sectarian civil war in Iraq unleashed by the U.S. invasion had just cost Republicans control of Congress in the November 2006 election. The election result immediately precipitated the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. No one working for the U.S. government on foreign policy at the time could have been unaware of the implications of promoting Sunni-Shia sectarianism.
The cables also show that U.S. support for efforts to overthrow the Syrian government beginning in 2011 were not a response to the Assad government’s repression of protests but rather a continuation of a years-long strategy by more directly violent means. They explain why the U.S. government could get so carried away by the protests and then the armed struggle that it helped to promote as to ignore what a large number of Syrians, were thinking: Whatever they thought of Assad, a glance at the mess in Iraq (even before the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) showed that a much worse fate for their country was possible.
That scenario has materialized. With hundreds of thousands of people dead and a military stalemate, both of which could have easily been foreseen, finally Barack Obama’s administration is showing some flexibility toward meaningful negotiations, a move strongly encouraged by many House Democrats. Why couldn’t this have happened earlier?
Cables from U.S. diplomats in Latin America shed a lot of light on U.S. policy in that region as well. They show a consistent pattern of not only hostility but action against left-wing governments, including those of Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Venezuela and others. The cables see Venezuela as so influential that it is almost as if they are talking about a new Soviet Union that must be contained. A five-point plan to counter the political success of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez (who died of cancer in 2013), outlined in a 2006 cable by William Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador to the country at the time, includes “penetrating Chavismo’s political base,” “dividing Chavismo” and “isolating Chavez internationally.” Other memos provide more details of how this was attempted. For example, U.S. pressure was brought to bear on countries as small and needy as Haiti, Honduras and Jamaica to reject energy assistance from Venezuela that would save them hundreds of millions of dollars.
The cables also show how Honduras, under the government of President Manuel Zelaya, became an enemy state for becoming too friendly with other left governments. He was overthrown by the military in 2009, and it was clear from the day of the coup, when the Obama administration released a statement that did not oppose it, which side Washington was on. Here WikiLeaks cables back up what could be deduced at the time from public information.
And now recently released emails from then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton provide more detail on how the U.S. government helped make sure that the democratically elected president of Honduras did not return until after “elections” — which almost all of Latin America refused to recognize — were held under the de facto government.
All these formerly classified documents help explain the intentions and strategy of the current administration and how internally consistent it has remained — with the exception of the historic deal with Iran — in so many places. In Latin America, these documents help us understand why the U.S. still refuses to accept an ambassador from Venezuela, even after it has accepted an ambassador from Cuba. These policies are consistent with one another and with the past half century of U.S.–Latin American relations. Whoever is making policy in the Obama administration (it is not that transparent) is still calculating that in Venezuela the opposition can best be helped by attempting to delegitimize the government, whereas in Cuba, opening relations and commerce with the U.S. is seen as the better bet. Not to deny the symbolic and historic significance of the United States’ re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, but in both cases the goal remains the same: regime change.