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Watching WikiLeaks' 'Cablegate' From Tbilisi

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toast good relations in Tbilisi in July.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toast good relations in Tbilisi in July.
The main news to emerge from the huge WikiLeaks scandal so far is that there are no conspiracies and everything in the world actually is more or less what it seems. And that the diplomats of the democratic countries -- and of the United States in particular -- are amazingly honest. Not that they don't hide things. What would diplomacy be without that? But they hide specific things for perfectly respectable reasons.

There hasn't turned out to be any striking difference between what politicians and diplomats say publicly and what they are saying among themselves. Imagine: All the secrets of the U.S. State Department were exposed and not a single person had to resign! The scandalous founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, made the timid suggestion that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has to go since she gave a politically incorrect order to spy on some officials at the United Nations. Shocking! Only Assange has found himself in trouble -- facing sexual-assault charges in Sweden. It is an embarrassing charge for a champion of free speech.

In the end, the shouts of the extreme anarchists of all countries to the effect that bold individuals have defeated repressive institutions and that the dark deeds of the mighty in this world (particularly those of the American imperialists) have finally been exposed for all to see turn out to be worthless.

Dark Secrets?

The August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia is one of the hot topics within the WikiLeaks material. There are still many questions about how the war was conducted (Who started it? Who is to blame?) and about the contradictory reactions of the international community, and of the Western democracies in particular. So it was logical to hope that the secret reports of the diplomats might clear up some things. I read through the WikiLeaks materials carefully and then studied all the commentaries on the subject, but I didn't find anything at all that made me doubt what I already thought about the war.

I may be seen as somebody biased in a "pro-Georgian" way. That is, I believe that Georgia was the victim of aggression in that conflict and not its perpetrator. The majority of people I know believe that the WikiLeaks material plays into Georgia's hands and only confirms Tbilisi's version of the war. However, those who believe the opposite cite the same source and argue that Tbilisi's "peaceful" pretensions have again been exposed for what they really were.

Let's take, for example, a report by then-U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Teft. From his dispatch, it is clear that the Georgian government was not planning any war and only reacted to unfolding events -- correctly or incorrectly, that's another question.

I found nothing surprising here. I knew Teft -- he loves jazz and has a remarkable sense of humor and heaps of common sense. His assessment is completely logical to me. But those who hold opposing views deduce from the WikiLeaks materials that Teft had fallen under the influence of Georgian leaders. Can you imagine that? In principle, I suppose so.

Incidentally, in some later WikiLeaks material, another U.S. ambassador -- this one in Moscow -- advised Washington not to sell defensive weapons to Georgia because doing so would upset the U.S.-Russian "reset" process. Teft advised otherwise, arguing that every country -- including Georgia -- has the right to defend itself, particularly when there is a concrete danger.

Reality As It Actually Is

What can we make of this disagreement? It is possible that one of the ambassadors was right and the other was mistaken. We won't discuss now which was which. But we can draw a more general conclusion -- that ambassadors often fall under the influence of the politicians of the countries where they are serving. That's what they call "going native." That is, developing a tendency to see problems through the prism of the local society rather than from Washington's point of view. That is why diplomats are constantly rotated. None of this is news to anyone.

And so on. We knew that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is an emotional man and that he held very difficult negotiations in Moscow both during the fighting and later in September. But now we learn that he personally grabbed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov by the lapels and called him a liar (but he didn't grab President Dmitry Medvedev by the tie and say the same thing). It is an interesting detail, of course. It might be useful if they ever make a film about these events.

So far, though, I've only heard about another film -- one about Julian Assange that will be made by the notorious enfant terrible of contemporary counterculture, Michael Moore. Well, more power to him. They are two of a kind, and let them once again expose the false and repressive essence of American imperialism. And we'll keep on trying to understand reality as it actually is. And if we are lucky, maybe we'll figure some things out.

Ghia Nodia is professor of politics at Ilia State University. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL