The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, is no Daniel Ellsberg. Say what you will about the man who put out the secret history of the Vietnam War, he had skin in the game. He had been a hawk and had grown disillusioned with the war before leaking in 1971 the classified documents that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers.
Not so this Australian practitioner of electronic piracy. Mr. Assange feeds off the taste for high gossip. Doubtless, he sees himself as truth-teller at war with an American "empire" with a lot to hide. But he communicates brazenness and a love of the limelight that is of a piece with this time when all discretion and privacy are now things of the past.
There can be no denying the appeal of this big dump of diplomatic cables. We want to see the political deities in Ankara and Rome and Riyadh as they are, unmasked. We now know what we knew before, but on official paper. So Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is "feckless, vain and ineffective," a man whose "frequent late nights and penchant for partying hard mean he does not get sufficient rest." We now know that Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is "mercurial and eccentric," that he loves horse racing and flamenco dancing, that he fears flying over water. In short, he is the "flake" that Ronald Reagan dubbed him a quarter century ago.
There is gambling going on at Rick's! Foreign leaders play the American empire and wish it to do what they can't do for themselves. In the public domain, Arab leaders are solicitous of Iran and fear its reach and power. But when American diplomats and military commanders turn up, the Arab-Persian schism is laid out. From Lebanon's young Prime Minister Saad Hariri, then parliament majority leader in 2006: "Iraq was unnecessary," he claimed, "Iran is necessary."
There had always been a received wisdom about the secrecy of the House of Saud, the cunning of Saudi diplomacy. The cables lend credence to the prevailing view. King Abdullah plays to type—he is blunt and self-assured. In 2008, on the challenge of Iran, a close aide says the king wants the Americans "to cut off the head of the snake."
We had known the depth of the Saudi animus to the American war in Iraq, and to the new Iraq midwifed by that war, and the cables underline what had already been in the public domain. The Saudi monarch did not trust Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and saw him as a sectarian pawn of Iran. In their heart of hearts, the Saudis have been convinced that the American war in Iraq handed Iraq to Iran on a gold platter. WikiLeaks added nothing new there.
Some of our allies in the war on terror are crooks: An Afghan vice president turns up in the United Arab Emirates with $52 million in cash. He keeps the money and he offers no accounting of how the money was obtained. Other allies are sly, and the cables offer a glimpse of how they have managed to rule seemingly impossible places. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh runs a dictatorship and a kleptocracy that has survived secessionist movements, both north and south. To Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, he provides assurance that the American drone attacks in that country present no problem for U.S. diplomacy: "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours." The best sort of ally that money and military aid can buy.
From time immemorial, long before encrypted emails, envoys returned from foreign lands with the most coveted things in their diplomatic kit: an informed view of rivals, an eye for the quirks of foreign rulers, a sense of who, and what, plays in their courts. Homer's Odysseus gloried in what he saw—"many cities of men . . . and learned their minds."
A good deal of that boast is, inescapably, part of the diplomatic pride and beat. In a way, diplomats are frustrated novelists and storytellers who love to render scenes and characters and in these electronic dispatches they do, as their predecessors have done for so long. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is afflicted with grave paranoia; France's Nicolas Sarkozy is "an emperor with no clothes"; Germany's Angela Merkel is risk-averse, the ultimate Teflon politician; Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan is surrounded by aides who humor him but have little regard for him.
And the dispatches, by sheer volume, often tell of the rise of new powers or places of great controversy. Turkey, it turns out, is the diplomatic listening post that ranked first in the volume of the cable traffic sent to Washington. Of a quarter-million documents, more than 7,000 dispatches were filed from that country. An erstwhile ally of America has all but gone over to the dark side and the traffic bears witness to American concern.
But the cable traffic does not tell what these leaders in exotic, distant lands would do when history comes calling, when the advice rendered the American emissaries has to be redeemed and made good on. The bravado in Bahrain or Abu Dhabi, the admonition that Iran is a rogue power best tamed, is sure to be denied and forgotten if America draws the sword against Iran. Don't be surprised if the erstwhile whisperers take to the public square to express sympathy for the Iranians under an American attack.
There is no equivalent of the Zimmerman telegram here. The Zimmerman telegram, it should be recalled, obtained by the British, was released in early 1917 by President Woodrow Wilson himself. He was girding for war, and the revelations that German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman had instructed his ambassador to enlist the Mexicans in a campaign against America, with the promise of vast territorial gains in the American Southwest, were helpful to Wilson's strategy.
Nor is the handiwork of Mr. Assange comparable to the diplomatic storm unleashed in 1917 by the Bolsheviks upon their seizure of power in Russia. They opened up the czarist archives, and from the revelations the Arab world learned of the secret Sykes-Picot Accord of 1916 that mapped out the partition of the post-Ottoman Middle East between Britain and France.
Foreign leaders will continue to talk to us. It is the way of power to brag, and to tempt visitors from afar. In a world where secrecy mattered, Mr. Assange would have long been brought to justice. His country of birth and citizenship would have disciplined him, he would have been denied sanctuary in decent places, and an American intelligence service worth its name would have located him and brought him to justice. But we don't play by these rules anymore, and voyeurs and curiosity seekers will have a moment of satisfaction. Mr. Assange, if nothing more, has given us all the thrill of looking behind the curtain.
Mr. Ajami is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is co-chairman of Hoover's project on Islamism and the International Order.