Philip Fernando **
The WikiLeaks that Dr. Michael Roberts crisply detailed in his Blog confirms that the US embassy in Colombo looked woefully uninformed during the last phase of Eelam War IV. The US ambassadors and their cohorts knew only an inkling of what they constantly thought they were on top of. Countering Sri Lanka’s drift towards an Asia-based (China in particular) alignment – away from US radar, the Colombo embassy changed gears from good intelligence gathering to a more subjective probing — and seems to have been sucked into a quicker ‘regime-change mode’. WikiLeaks indicates that the Rajapaksa administration—indeed the Sri Lankan polity- -and the US embassy were on two parallel lines that never met. Here are a few instances where the US embassy failed to grasp or interpret data …. With the WikiLeaks quotations being in italics and numbered 1 to 6 – and my comments following).
— 1. “a conclusive military victory (by Sri Lanka) will be very difficult:” That statement illustrated US embassy’s failure to size up which way the war went and that the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary had known by early 2009 that the LTTE would not survive much longer after their supply routes were cut off and their ships sunk.
2. “Social Services Minister Douglas Devananda for example, would not be a suitable choice because of his paramilitary, the EPDP-.”— (the US embassy in Delhi had similarly recommended that Narendra Modi –then Chief Minister of Gujarat be denied a visa to USA) —here both the Colombo and Delhi embassies completely overstepped their boundaries for it is not the US embassy staffs that determine how countries pick their leaders. Ironically, the numbers of former legislators and governors in USA indicted or imprisoned has become a recurring phenomenon (latest is Texas governor Cruz being indicted).
3. “ US Ambassador took the opportunity to re-state the urgency of Sri Lanka ensuring that the TMVP release all remaining child soldiers and stop new recruiting:’ Strictures on child soldiers being used came only after Karuna defected –LTTE had from the outset used child soldiers. SL army never recruited a single child. US embassy just took a pot shot at Sri Lanka.
— 4. “President Rajapaksa told Ambassador on January 8, 2009 that it could take several months (for end of war) because he was intent on avoiding large-scale civilian casualties.” US embassy conveniently forgot President’s directive to the armed forces to avoid civilian casualties and the use of low calibre weapons—if not war would have ended by February 2009. US embassy never gave credit to Sri Lankan moves to reduce collateral damage-it looked either the suppression of facts or just plain callousness?
What is and what ought to be: Most of the US ambassadors to Colombo in recent times exhibited scant respect for the political environment, personification of diverse cultural traits and the level of political awareness of the people. The gap between ‘what is” and ‘what ought to be’ regarding the ethnic divide had thus been abysmally misconstrued by the US ambassadors.
Here are two WikiLeaks’s dispatches pointing to US embassy’s “kite flying.” 5. “Unproductive one-upmanship and mistrust between president’s SLFP and the main opposition UNP have been the single most destructive political trend since the mid-1950s, stalemating any effective moves toward national reconciliation.” US embassy either ignored or was unaware of the functioning two– party system that had been one of the salient democratic features of Sri Lankan politics. (In contrast, the two party system in the US caused the closing down of the US government several times in history)—US embassy again hit Sri Lanka below the belt.
- “We do not consider the President to be an extremist, but there are key figures in his entourage who hold chauvinist views.” This charge by the US embassy would stick much better if referred to the US presidents since 2001–—there are chauvinists hovering the political landscape of USA—Ferguson is the most recent one under Obama.
The US ambassadors may have brought with them ideas about sociological theories about why prejudice, discrimination, and racism exist in some societies. But how should the situation in Sri Lanka be judged? By intelligence gathering, using the proven methods with which most US ambassadors should be familiar with. However, the gathering seemed confined to Siri Kotha sources—looks like the embassy’s main pipeline to politics. The US State department was fed one-sided information. Post war Sri Lanka was a store house that needed mining with professional acumen. That fell by the wayside.
Boilerplate Intelligence portfolio: Boiler-plating decades of Sri Lankan political issues to palatable one-liners for the receptive US State Department ears had been the hallmark of the US embassy dispatches. This is a stock in trade of the US embassy under most ambassadors. The embassy intelligence gathering had missed the see-saw battles since 1956 between the SLFP versus UNP that provided the best in-depth assessment of how the pendulum shifted in Sri Lankan politics. None of that mattered to the US embassy analyses because it had abandoned good fact-based Intelligence gathering to some hand-picked slogans.
What had been brewing inside the Colombo US embassy could be summed up well by the words of the philosopher and historian David Hume: many make claims about what ought to be on the basis of statements about what is. However, there seems to be a significant difference between descriptive statements (about what is) and prescriptive or normative statements (about what ought to be), and it is not obvious how one can get from making descriptive statements to prescriptive.
The’ is–ought’ problem is also known as Hume’s law and Hume’s Guillotine—US embassy fantasized far more than they could chew.
** Philip Fernando domiciled in USA since 1978 graduated in Economics and Political Science from Peradeniya University. He was the formerly a Deputy Editor of the Sunday Observer and authored several books on politics and worked as a professional urban planner in Los Angeles.