Wikileaks’ Latest and Greatest

Yesterday, Wikileaks released a bunch of new information on the war in Iraq.  While I haven't had a chance to dig through much of it yet, I'm curious to see which narrative is going to win out in the short term.  Rather, of the several dimensions of the war effort that these reports cover, which one will the press focus on?  Which one will come to be most closely associated with this leak in 20 years?  More speculation after the jump.

First, there's the issue that the body count in Iraq has been higher than was previously believed.  Knowing that the civilian costs in Iraq were higher than expected, would this have altered public opinion in any meaningful way?  I'm not an expert on public opinion, but I think it's pretty clear that the American public is sensitive to casualties, but what about casualties in the occupied/target state?  For some reason, though, I'm pessimistic that this is really the issue that is going to leap to center stage in the next couple of weeks.  I think people will be more apt to focus on the issues that are most clearly related to American interests and domestic issues.  While Iraqi fatalities are certainly a huge factor in the overall war effort, these are not the bodies that are being rolled off of American planes, and so, I don't think this issue will really hit the American people that hard by comparison.   

Second, there's the possibility that US troops are complicit in the torture of insurgents and Iraqi civilians.  What seems to matter here is the notion that while previous debates over techniques like waterboarding were easier for some in the American public to shrug off as not qualifying as torture, the reports from this recent batch of Wikileaks documents show that US forces have been aware for some time that Iraqi forces have been subjecting individuals in custody to some pretty brutal treatment.  The most brutal cases seem to have been committed by the Iraqi Army, Iraqi National Guard, or members of the Iraqi Police, but there are a few reports that cover allegations of American soldiers beating detainees as well.  Many of the reports note physical evidence that corroborates the detainees' stories of being beaten with things like pipes and cables, but there are also a couple of extreme cases that discuss some individuals being subjected to more extreme treatment.  Two cases in particular jumped out at me:  One in which an individual had holes drilled into his legs by electric drills, and a second where, among other things, a detainee had a cat thrown on his face.  I can only assume they meant, quite literally, a cat of the feline variety, as this doesn't seem to be an acronym that I recognize or to be one that Wikileaks recognizes either.  

Although the most brutal cases appear to have been perpetrated by Iraqi security forces, with many instances reporting that US officials were in fact responsible for stopping abuse, it seems possible that the overall narrative will come to be dominated by the sheer volume of reports concerning abuse.  A search for the term "detainee abuse" kicks back 1088 results.  A search for the term "torture" kicks back just over 1764 reports.  The latter term, however, includes several reports in which US officials have found mutilated corpses, or reports that concern individuals that have been tortured by insurgents.  Overall, these reports show just how far Iraqi security forces have to go in terms of training and preparedness.             

Third, there's Iran.  The documents apparently show that Iran was more directly involved in the war than had been previously stated.  The Bush administration had previously commented on the use of IEDs that were assembled, at least in part, with help from Iranian forces—particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Forces.  But the documents that have been recently released at least provide greater clarity as to the specific roles that Iranian forces played in aiding and training insurgents in Iraq.  This is certainly not the first time the US has had to deal with an enemy that was receiving support from a rival state, but when Bush officials were talking of Iranian involvement in Iraq, many worried that this was done in an effort to pave the way to an invasion of Iran.

It's doubtful that this information will lead to any kind of public outcry for retaliation against Iran, but with the elections just around the corner, and President Obama's presumed run fo reelection fast approaching as well, it seems as though this information may aid in Republican efforts to paint the Obama administration as endangering American soldiers.  Although most of the events outlined in these reports happened under the Bush administration, I suspect Republicans will seize the opportunity to furhter paint Obama's earlier talk of opening a dialogue with Iran as an example of the follies of appeasement.  

Fourth, the secrecy issue.  Supporters of the leak are arguing that the people have a right to know this kind of information.  Wikileaks posts a video of Daniel Ellsberg praising efforts to expost this kind of information and bring it to the public's attention.  Overall, though, there's nothing particularly shocking that I've come across so far, so I think the individuals that are blasting the government for concealing this information have a difficult case to make.  The sheer volume of documents leaked is impressive, but there are no particularly staggering revelations that 1) suggest the government has a particularly nefarious agenda, or 2) suggest that the leaking of this information is especially dangerous to US military forces.  The US government is attempting to play the national security card, probably more out of embarassment than actual necessity, and anti-war activists are trying to squeeze out of these documents something that will be damning to the government.  The idea that this information is endagering the lives of US troops loses any credibility when we simply consider the fact that the people most likely to retaliate over the revelation of this sort of information, the ones that are most likely to be enraged by the treatment of Iraqi detainees and civilians, are the ones actually experiencing it on the ground.  They are the people in these reports, the detainees and civilians themselves.  My guess is that they already know how crappy conditions on the ground have been over the past few years because they have the scars to remind themselves. 

I digress slightly, but the point is, without solid support on either side—that the leaks have exposed some serious kind of malicious intent on the part of the government, or that they have really endangered the lives of US troops—I don't see either side getting much out of this in the end.         

Finally, there's the overall issue of secrecy.  Given that two of the largest leaks in military history have occured only a few months apart, and both on Obama's watch, I have to wonder how this will factor into campaigns over the next couple of years.  The most obvious way is for Republicans to attack the Obama administration's stewardship of the Pentagon by citing the leaks as proof of their ineptitude.   As per the previous paragraph, I'm not sure how much traction politicians will get out of this line of argument either.  It seems a little late to do much with this now, but with 24 hour news cycles, perhaps this will have some impact on the upcoming elections. 

As for criticizing Obama's stewardship of the Pentagon, this seems like a potentially dangerous game to play.  Depending on what happens with Wikileaks, the next Republican president could very well be dealing with the same problems as this president.  Furthermore, it may be difficult for Republicans to criticize the Obama administration for this breach of security when that argument could be implicitly suggesting their support for keeping the more distasteful aspects of the war's conduct a secret.  Rather, attacking the Obama administration on these grounds says, "We'll do a better job at keeping out dirty laundry a secret, thank you very much." 

More to come…

Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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