Diplomatic incontinence strikes Slovenia too. Once again this sorry excuse for a country is front-and-centre on the international stage, courtesy of Julian Assange and his Wikileaks. OK, so we’re still just a comical sidekick, but there you go. Slovenia was put forward as prime example of US diplomacy bullying other countries into doing what Washington wanted. The story made the timing of my yesterday’s letter to PM Borut Pahor a bit unfortunate, as a plethora of issues was overshadowed by Cablegate – The Slovenian Edition. Well, there’s little use crying over spilled milk.. eerr… cables.
Obama: “Yo B., wassup?!” Pahor: “Make me an offer I can’t refuse” (source)
So, what’s the story (morning glory)? The esteemed New York Times (one of only a handful of media to have been granted advance access to 250k+ US State Department cables) reported that Slovenia was pressured by the current US administration to take in at least one Gitmo prisoner and that Slovenian leadership could look forward to some quality time with Barack Obama in return. The story was picked up by The Beeb and (naturally) every Slovene media. Big bad America picking on someone not even a tenth of it’s size. Not nice.
But then came the twist. Spanish El Pais, another paper with advance access to Cablegate material, posted the “problematic” cable (one of about 900 pertaining to Slovenia). Assuming that he cable is genuine, it was Slovenian PM Borut Pahor who floated the idea of Slovenia accepting a prisoner from Guantanamo in exchange for 20 minutes with President Obama.
And then, another twist. According to Der Spiegel, it was actually foreign minister Samuel Žbogar who was asking around what would the US give in return if Slovenia were to take over a Gitmo detainee. (link kindly provided by alcessa)
Yeah, I know. Embarrassing, to say the least. Naturally, all hell broke loose. Spineless begging. Sellout. Corruption. Ass-kissing. Those were prevailing reactions in Slovenia yesterday. However, there’s more to this than meets the eye. We’ll deal with differing versions of the story a bit later on, but for the sake of the argument let’s assume that the cable as published by El Pais is genuine.
The said cable was sent from US Embassy in Ljubljana on 5 January 2010 and detailed a visit by PM Pahor to the embassy on 30 December 2009, where he was hosted by Charge d’Affairs Bradley Freden, at the time the top-ranking US diplomat to Slovenia. The cable summarised the meeting (requested by Pahor) as follows:
CDA [charge d’affairs] and Pahor discussed political and economic priorities for 2010, including the relocation of Guantanamo detainees, stability and integration of the Western Balkans into the EU and NATO, and Westinghouse involvement in the planned second nuclear plant at Krsko.
At this point it should be noted that this was apparently the second such visit Pahor made to the US embassy which (obviously) did not go unnoticed by Freden and was interpreted as “the U.S.-Slovenian relationship [being] one he [Pahor] seeks to cultivate.“.
I won’t bother you with the actual cable, as you can read it here. Let us focus on analysis instead.
Borut Pahor goes shopping
In pengovsky’s opinion this cable shows (if anything) that Prime Minister Pahor, rather than spinelessly licking American ass, actually knows how to play the foreign policy game. Bear in mind that the meeting took place a little less than two months after Slovenia and Croatia signed the Arbitration Agreement on the border dispute, where apparently it was the US who manhandled Croatia into signing the paper which was decried as “high treason” on both sides of the border. Also bear in mind that Slovenia was in 2004 indeed bullied into the “Coalition of the Willing” by the Bush administration just prior to the illegal invasion of Iraq and there was plenty of (needless) embarrassment over a leaked Slovenian cable from Washington on how to handle the imminent declaration of independence of Kosovo. In short, Slovenia-US relations have not been entirely rosy, courtesy of both sides, and PM Pahor saw it fit to keep the current good streak going.
So what Pahor did, apart from going above and beyond the call of duty to show how important the US is (by visiting the embassy in person rather than having the charge d’affairs – then the top ranking US diplomat – come to see Pahor), was actually outlining how he saw US interests in Slovenia and the region. Broadly, these interests include security in the Balkans, a Westinghouse investment into Krško nuclear power plant and relocation of Guantanamo prisoners.
But things don’t just happen by themselves. To make these the above possible, Slovenia obviously wanted something in return. And rather than saying outright what Slovenia wanted, Pahor basically said: “Make me an offer I can’t refuse“. He was, in fact, shopping. With some strings attached. Case in point being Gitmo prisoner(s) where Pahor made it plain that his government was willing to consider the relocation “as long as ‘political’ and ‘financial’ obligations were considered separately“. Translation: show me the money.
The main problem, according to Slovene media was the fact that “PM gently – but unambiguously – linked success on detainee resettlement to a meeting with President Obama. He said that “a 20-minute meeting” with POTUS would allow him to frame the detainee question as an act of support for Slovenia’s most important ally and evidence of a newly-reinvigorated bilateral relationship.”
Shit. Fan. Aim. Fire
This is where the shit hit the fan. Outrage was almost unanimous, especially in the media. One of my favourites was the conclusion that for the PM and – by extension – his government “a life of a (possibly illegaly) detained Arab prisoner is worth 20 minutes with Barack Obama” (Delo, yesterday, in Slovene only)
It was as if everyone was oblivious to the fact that the cable says in no unclear terms that Pahor linked Gitmo and meeting with Obama “in a one-on-one pull-aside with CDA“. In other words, he did this after the meeting, unofficially. This was neither his not his government’s official position. He floated an idea. Hinted. Tested the waters, if you will. But he never made it a precondition.
Did Pahor make a mistake?
Yes and no. Foreign policy is a dirty business (and yes, someone’s got to do it). Most of it is trade, tit-for-tat. Taking in Gitmo prisoners is not peanuts. Not just because there is no legal grounds for Slovenia to do it (a law would have to be passed to do it), but also because a) it is a security risk and b) means a country (in this case Slovenia) is really going above and beyond the call of duty to help the US solve a human-rights disaster of their own making.
So Pahor felt he could play the table a bit against the Americans. Maybe he miscalculated. But the point is that he was trading. The trade, however, was not just “Gitmo prisoner for quality time with Obama”, but rather “Westinghouse deal, help in the Balkans and Gitmo prisoner in return for more US investments into Slovenia, (officially) recognising Slovenia as an important player in the Balkans, some plain old cash plus 20 minutes with the Big. O (the last one would help, but is optional).
However, the problem with these 20 minutes of Obama’s time is not that the idea had been floated, but how it was floated. As @DC43 said on Twitter, the other day, this is not something a PM does personally, but has someone from his cabinet talk to someone from the embassy. That way neither side loses face in case the idea is nixed, plus the whole thing is absolutely deniable in case of a leak such as this one.
The mistake Pahor did – and subsequent damage control he and foreign minister Žbogar are engaging in today – is more of an embarrassment than anything else. On the other hand the media, both Slovenian and international, made some serious errors.
As already noted, Slovene media were over the “Gitmo-for-time-with-Obama” thing faster than you can say WikiLeaks. But only 24 hours earlier, they were all over the “US-is-blackmailing-Slovenia” story with virtually the same gusto. While right now no-one disputes authenticity of the cable as published by El Pais, we have yet to see anyone retract their statements about “big bad US diplomacy treating everyone else like shit”. Right now it is as if the original version of the story (published by NY Times) never happened.
Three newspapers with advance access to 250k+ cables. All three of them saw it fit to point out a specific Slovenia-US cable. And every one of them came up with a significantly different interpretation of the cable. How is this possible? The cable is about as unambiguous as they come. This is what makes it interesting. And yet we have three totally different stories. Are interpretations of other cables subject to this “variation” as well? And – last but not least – are most of the cables so uninteresting that a relatively unproblematic Slovenia with its globally unimportant issues is the best they can do?
If any of the above is the case, are we to take Cablegate seriously in the first place?