The WikiLeaks cables as literature.

The WikiLeaks cables as literature.

The WikiLeaks cables as literature.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Dec. 1 2010 4:27 PM

Dispatches

The WikiLeaks cables as literature.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Click image to expand.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

"President Nazarbayev, like many of his countrymen, has a strong affinity for horses." Thus begins a cable by an American diplomat titled "Lifestyles of the Kazakhstani Leadership." It goes on to introduce a cast of quirky characters, including Defense Minister Danial Akhmetov ("a self-proclaimed workaholic [who] appears to enjoy loosening up in the tried and true 'homo sovieticus' style—i.e., drinking oneself into a stupor"), the president's son-in-law (Elton John played his 41st birthday), and oligarch Aleksandr Mashkevich ("it is not clear what Mashkevich is spending his billions on, but it is certainly not culinary talent"). The cable also contains a vignette about Prime Minister Karim Masimov partying late into the night at an upscale club called Chocolat: "His companions quickly tired but Masimov remained, dancing alone and animatedly on the stage"—the sad personification of decadent, post-Soviet nihilism.

Is the Pulitzer board reading this stuff? The disclosure by WikiLeaks of 250,000 diplomatic cables this week doesn't just shed light on international issues like what to do about Iran's nuclear ambitions or a collapsing North Korea. The leaks also illustrate the art of cable-writing itself. True, most of the documents don't rise above stenography—diplomat X met with foreign leader Y to talk about Z. But at their best, these cables read like their own literary genre, with an identifiable sensibility and set of conventions.

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When it comes to the style of diplomatic cables, context matters. Like journalists or novelists, diplomats are writing for a market. Cables are meant to brief the diplomatic and military communities on a particular issue, whether it's Afghan power broker Ahmed Wali Karzai or Muslim unrest in France. But they're also written to impress the boss back home. State Department officials receive thousands of cables a year. If you're a foreign service officer stationed in Molvania who wants to stand out, writing a colorful cable could be your ticket. Diplomacy requires observation, intelligence, and a keen understanding of people and their motivations. Cables are an opportunity to show off.

Hence the now-famous dispatch by a diplomat in Moscow who attended a wedding in Dagestan, a region in the North Caucasus. The author opens with a thesis ("The lavish display and heavy drinking concealed the deadly serious North Caucasus politics of land, ethnicity, clan, and alliance"), narrates the wedding itself ("The alcohol consumption before, during and after this Muslim wedding was stupendous"), provides dry commentary (the wedding singer "could not make it because he was shot a few days before the wedding"), and ties it all together with a pithy analysis of how the ceremony reflects the politics of the region. Part sociology, part travel writing, the cable uses the techniques of journalism to draw conclusions about policy.

Other cables read as psychological profiles straight out of John le Carré. France Ambassador Charles Rivkin presents a portrait of a "hyperactive," "mercurial" President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose wrath his aides fear. Zimbabwe Ambassador Christopher Dell calls Robert Mugabe "a brilliant tactician" doomed by "his ego and belief in his own infallibility; his obsessive focus on the past as a justification for everything in the present and future; his deep ignorance on economic issues (coupled with the belief that his 18 doctorates give him the authority to suspend the laws of economics, including supply and demand); and his essentially short-term, tactical style." Dell predicts that Mugabe's days are numbered, but doesn't expect repentance: "Mugabe will not wake up one morning a changed man, resolved to set right all he has wrought. … He will cling to power at all costs and the costs be damned."

The best cables show diplomacy in action, mind games and all. A report on a meeting between American diplomats and Afghan power broker Ahmed Wali Karzai notes that Karzai is "widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker." Distrust of Karzai is sometimes explicit ("he also demonstrated that he will dissemble when it suits his needs") and sometimes implicit: An American representative "was clear the coalition would not tolerate individuals working at odds to ISAF campaign aims. [Karzai] stated 'nobody is that stupid.' " I double-checked, and the cable was not written by Aaron Sorkin.

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Even the most mundane dispatches often provide color. A Canadian intelligence officer doesn't just complain about his countrymen's view of terrorism, he ascribes to them an "Alice in Wonderland" worldview. Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev doesn't merely say that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin disagree: "We have a saying in Azeri, 'Two heads cannot be boiled in one pot,' " he tells a diplomat, who calls this "crude street slang suggesting that two leaders are spoiling for a fight." A diplomat in Fiji carefully notes the wording of Commonwealth Political Director Amitav Banerji when Banerji says that Prince Charles doesn't "command the same respect" as the Queen.

This is the jaded, worldly voice of diplomacy. Humor tends toward the ironic. For example, a dispatch by the American ambassador to Kyrgyzstan barely conceals her disdain for Prince Andrew: At a brunch with business leaders in the capital of Bishkek in 2008, the prince "railed at British anticorruption investigators, who had had the 'idiocy' of almost scuttling" an arms deal with Saudi Arabia. When a member of the audience suggested that operating in Kyrgyzstan means accommodating corruption, "the Duke of York laughed uproariously, saying that: 'All of this sounds exactly like France.' " A cable titled "A Glimpse Into Libyan Leader Qadhafi's Eccentricities" stops short of outright mockery, but notes that "Qadhafi relies heavily on his long-time Ukrainian nurse, Galyna Kolotnytska, who has been described as a 'voluptuous blonde.' " We are also told, with scornful precision, that the Libyan leader is incapable of climbing "more than 35 steps" at a time.

Condescension is another defining feature. An American official posted in Tehran in 1979 opines that "perhaps the single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism" that "leaves little room for understanding points of view other than one's own." The diplomat in Libya notes that Qaddafi requested a tent at the United Nations, "as it offers him a non-verbal way of communicating that he is a man close to his cultural roots."

There's a power imbalance in the cables, too. The foreigners laugh, joke, crack wise. The Americans are calm, aloof, observing but not participating. According to one cable, the Kuwaiti minister of the interior "sardonically questioned why US NAVCENT forces had gone to the trouble of rescuing foundering Iranian hashish smugglers two weeks earlier, saying 'God meant to punish them with death and you saved them. Why?' " The minister later suggests a method for getting rid of Guantanamo detainees: "You picked them up in Afghanistan; you should drop them off in Afghanistan, in the middle of the war zone." The Americans never crack a smile. Another document recounts a meeting in which Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed "slapped his knee and said 'you'll never guess what [Pakistani General Pervez] Musharraf asked me ... he asked me whether the UAE had received approval for the Predator!' (Note: the USG's inability to meet the UAE's request for an armed Predator remains a sore point for MbZ, although he has not directly raised the issue with us for some time.)" In the moment, the Americans probably laughed. In the dispatch, they're a giant blank.

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Occasionally, the clinical distance of the American narrator disappears, and the dispatches take on the personality of their authors. Kazakhstan Ambassador Richard Hoagland describes a meeting with the vice president of a large oil company "in a nearly empty restaurant (times are still hard!) at the Radisson hotel in Astana." The businessman "is effusive, even theatrical, by nature," Hoagland writes. "When he trusts, he spills his heart. Of course, there's no doubt he also spins his own narrative, as we all do."

Spinning narratives is an important skill for diplomats. Aside from storytelling as a social grace, they must be able to communicate how other countries fit into the American narrative and vice versa. Stories help highlight shared histories and mutual interests. That's how politicians think, too: "Sarkozy identifies with America," writes Ambassador Rivkin in a cable. "[H]e sees his own rise in the world as reflecting an American-like saga."

Stories are especially useful when dealing with hypotheticals, as diplomats constantly do. They can show that one event leads to another—how, say, Saudi Arabia might pressure Iran to back down from its nuclear ambitions. The ability to tell a convincing narrative may be the difference between strengthening an alliance and weakening it. If the WikiLeaks cables are any indicator, this job is in capable hands.

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