WIKILEAKS HAMPERS U.S. DIPLOMACY…. American officials were bracing for a massive WikiLeaks document dump, and late yesterday, it arrived.

A cache of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables, most of them from the past three years, provides an unprecedented look at back-room bargaining by embassies around the world, brutally candid views of foreign leaders and frank assessments of nuclear and terrorist threats.

Some of the cables, made available to The New York Times and several other news organizations, were written as recently as late February, revealing the Obama administration’s exchanges over crises and conflicts. The material was originally obtained by WikiLeaks, an organization devoted to revealing secret documents. WikiLeaks posted 220 cables, some redacted to protect diplomatic sources, in the first installment of the archive on its Web site on Sunday.

The disclosure of the cables is sending shudders through the diplomatic establishment, and could strain relations with some countries, influencing international affairs in ways that are impossible to predict. […]

The cables, a huge sampling of the daily traffic between the State Department and some 270 embassies and consulates, amount to a secret chronicle of the United States’ relations with the world in an age of war and terrorism.

Some of the revelations aren’t surprising at all. The fact that U.S. officials believe corruption is rampant in the Karzai government, for example, isn’t exactly front-page news. Nor is it surprising to learn there’s plenty of spying going on at the United Nations, U.S. officials have been anxious to find countries willing to take Gitmo detainees, and that the Bush Administration didn’t want Germany to arrest CIA officials who accidentally kidnapped an innocent German citizen and held him for months in Afghanistan.

Plenty of other revelations, meanwhile, are rather startling. While details will likely be coming out for weeks as more people are able to go through more materials, it’s already surprising, for example, to see how many foreign governments, including the Saudis, have been supportive of a U.S. military strike on Iran.

I’m not convinced that the release of these secret materials — some have begun calling it “Cablegate” — will be too devastating to international diplomacy, though it certainly makes the State Department’s work much more difficult, especially in the short term. I don’t doubt that foreign diplomats will be reluctant to engage their American allies for a while, which may very well undermine U.S. foreign policy, but we’re still likely talking about bruised feelings and hurt egos, not blockbuster secrets from around the globe.

I would, however, like to know more about the motivations of the leaker (or leakers). Revealing secrets about crimes, abuses, and corruption obviously serves a larger good — it shines a light on wrongdoing, leading (hopefully) to accountability, while creating an incentive for officials to play by the rules. Leaking diplomatic cables, however, is harder to understand — the point seems to be to undermine American foreign policy, just for the sake of undermining American foreign policy. The role of whistleblowers has real value; dumping raw, secret diplomatic correspondence appears to be an exercise in pettiness and spite.

I’ve seen some suggestions that diplomats shouldn’t write cables that they’d be embarrassed by later if they were made publicly. I find that unpersuasive. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in the nuances of on-the-ground international affairs, but I am comfortable with the notion of some diplomatic efforts being kept secret. Quiet negotiations between countries can lead, and have led, to worthwhile foreign policy agreements, advancing noble causes.

If the argument from the leakers is that there should be no such thing as private diplomacy, they’ll need a better excuse to justify this kind of recklessness.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.