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Will WikiLeaks' disclosures lead to international probes of Afghan War?

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Ira Sharkansky

By Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–“Document Leak May Hurt Efforts to Build War Support”

Each of us may have a different view of that headline in the New York Times, which derives from the paper’s activities, along with the Guardian, Der Spiegel, and WikiLeaks, to bring purloined documents to the public’s attention. Some will condemn the paper as working against the national interest or worse, and say that this is the latest chapter in a disingenuous effort against the war in Afghanistan.  Others will praise the paper for revealing to the public what should be known about a war destined for failure from the beginning. 
Those with a memory will say it all looks pretty much like the controversy surrounding the New York Time’s publication of Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers in 1971. That was a highlight in a campaign against a war that began with public support and ended in a mood of political embarrassment, and defeat for the party in power.
Ellsberg faced serious charges under the Espionage Act that could have put him in prison for the rest of his life, but a federal judge dismissed the case in the light of illegal activities directed against Ellsberg by the Nixon administration. Since then his story, and Vietnam, have been joined with Watergate in a grand condemnation of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. 
Now we will see if responsible people in the Obama administration remember the treatment of Ellsberg, and/or the story of Vietnam, and manage to avoid charges of how they defend a war that is, at the least, problematic.
We can quarrel about the public’s right to know the details of military actions, including errors in targeting, civilian casualties, convoluted relations with other governments, the deceptions that occur along the chain of command, and the disregard for human life that may reach the level of sadism. Control of such material is harder than in the 1970s, and perhaps impossible given the advent of the internet without a fixed base of entry, along with camera-equipped cell phones, tiny recording devices and other gadgets affordable and readily available to military personnel, journalists, and others. Censorship has become voluntary, and perhaps impossible to maintain in military operations that include tens or hundreds of thousands of participants. Some of those involved will be intense in their commitment to achieving military goals and impatient at any civilian control, while others will feel strongly about their own conceptions of decency. Individual attitudes change in the course of operations, and may move in the direction of disregard for civilian casualties or accurate reporting, or in the counter direction of disgust with any officially directed or condoned violence.
So far WikiLeaks does not have a Hebrew language version. Israel and the IDF may be spared, at least temporarily, anything equivalent to what is currently disturbing the Pentagon and White House. 
My own question is whether the current revelations will produce something like the torrent of investigations by the several organs of the United Nations and other do gooders to match Goldstone on Gaza, and the numerous commissions intent on revealing truth about Israel’s attack on peace loving Turks. 
A rhetorical question if I ever imagined one. We all know there is one rule for Israel, and another for countries with more supporters in international organizations.
International concern may push Israel to look more closely at its own behavior. The IDF has tried and punished soldiers and officers for unnecessary civilian casualties, and for distorting reports about military operations. Much of this has come as a result of established internal procedures or in response to revelations by Israeli media. Israel has no lack of Hebrew language web sites that reveal stories the establishment would prefer to keep quiet. What they lack, however, is a prominent central address having international exposure equivalent to WikiLeaks.
It is hard to say if commissions responsible to international organs or self-appointed outsiders claiming a concern for human rights have produced more assiduous inquiries by Israel, or a greater sense of isolation and persecution. My own perception is that a “damn the world” mentality has not become chronic with anything more than a fringe of Israeli society. On the other hand, skepticism and cynicism toward those claiming a right to criticize Israel are justified when it is only Israel that receives such treatment.

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

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