Who’s Who in WikiLeaks

The world leaders embarrassed by Cablegate.

By , an associate editor at Foreign Policy from 2014-2015.


Than Shwe, leader of Burma’s military junta and devoted astrologist, is apparently also a soccer fan. A June 2009 cable revealed that Shwe was urged by his grandson to drop $1 billion to buy a majority stake in ownership of English football club Manchester United — the same amount that the United Nations estimated would pay for the relief effort for 2008’s Cyclone Nargis. While some football fans might see the notorious Burmese junta as a natural fit for ownership of United, Shwe opted against the plan, thinking it would “look bad.” As an alternative, Shwe ordered the creation of a domestic Burmese football league, forcing businessmen into ownership of teams — and making them pay for all attendant costs.

More damaging for Burma’s formal international standing are the new allegations, contained in the cables, that it received North Korean assistance in fostering the development of a secret nuclear program.



Second-time Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has plenty of history with the United States, so it was little surprise to see his name surface in the cables this week. A May 2008 cable titled, “Petulant Teen or Axis of Evil Wannabe,” described Ortaga as a “Chavez mini-me” that had received “suitcases full of cash” totaling $1.4 billion over the last four years from his Venezuelan benefactor. Ortega allegedly diversified his income with “regular” payments from international drug traffickers in exchange for leaning on judges to drop criminal charges against them in Nicaraguan courts. More embarrassing for Ortega — if only because they reveal his utter incompetence — cables claim that Ortega himself was seen on hidden cameras loading cocaine on a plane in Managua. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is suspected to have grown annoyed by Ortega’s constant need for cash, but he probably also wonders whether it’s worth giving money to a world leader foolish enough to be in a room with dope on the table.



According to a  March 2009 cable, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki is a pretty bad leader: “Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea’s prisons are overflowing, and the country’s unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant.” It would seem Eritrea’s neighbors hold similar views of Afwerki:. Djiboutian Foreign Minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf rather bluntly told U.S. officials that, “This man is a lunatic.” Eritrea is accused of maintaining contact with the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab, though the country maintains that their communication is only “infrequent and indirect.” Afwerki should pay close attention to the Asmara embassy’s warning in a February 2009 cable: “Eritrean support for Somali extremists obviates closer ties and Eritrea will be held accountable for any al-Shabaab attack on the United States.” But the Eritrean president may be too busy spending his days “painting and tinkering with gadgets and carpentry work,” according to one of his bodyguards, who defected to Ethiopia.



Of all the world leaders featured in the WikiLeaks cables, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has probably been the most positive about the revelations, saying, “The documents show many sources backing Israel’s assessments, particularly of Iran.” All the same, the documents present the voluble Israeli leader in some illuminating candid moments. In a February 2009 meeting with visiting Sen. Ben Cardin, Netanyahu is reported as describing the Iranian regime as “crazy, retrograde, and fanatical” and believing that “75 percent of the Iranian people” oppose it. A description of a meeting with another congressional delegation shows Netanyahu repeatedly demanding an explanation of how the U.S. would respond to a nuclear armed Iran. Netanyahu is also reported to have supported the concept of “land swaps” with the Palestinians as he “did not want to govern the West Bank and Gaza.” But his office now says he was misinterpreted on this issue.  



A former dentist, in 2007 Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, president of Turkmenistan*, had the honor of taking over the presidency from Saparmurat Niyazov, the eccentric authoritarian leader who renamed the months of the year after members of his family and built a giant gold statue of himself that automatically turned to face the sun. Berdimuhamedov isn’t quite that colorful, but he does have his quirks. According to diplomatic cables, he’s apparently a neat-freak who requires that men who work with him have creases in their pants. The cables also report that “Berdimuhamedov does not like people who are smarter than he is. Since he’s not a very bright guy… he is suspicious of a lot of people.” In one particularly bizarre episode, Berdimuhamedov feared that he was the target of an assassination attempt when a cat ran in front of his car, leading to the firing of a local military commander. No word on whether the cat survived.


*Update, Dec. 6, 2010: This sentence has been updated to specify that Berdimuhamedov is president of Turkmenistan.


Apparently, Germany’s chancellor is known as Angela “Teflon” Merkel within some circles in the U.S. State Department for her ability to weather “hot” political situations, such as her 2009 campaign to retain the chancellorship in a trying parliamentary race. However, a March 2009 cable notes: “When cornered, Merkel can be tenacious but is risk averse and rarely creative.” It seems that earlier, Washington’s opinion of her political skills was somewhat in doubt. A cable from 2007 identifies Merkel as the “undisputed” leader of Europe, though it also suggests that she only plays that role because of the weakness of her counterparts.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images


The good news for U.S. diplomats is that French President Nicolas Sarkozy is the most pro-U.S. leader in Paris since World War II, according to a March 2009 briefing for Barack Obama, at a time when Sarkozy was reportedly very excited to meet the new U.S. president. The bad news, according to U.S. ambassador to France, Charles Rivkin*, is that he is “hyperactive” and “mercurial” and his newer staff may not be “willing to point out when the emperor is less than fully dressed,” as noted in a cable to the secretary of state in December 2009. Other cables describe the French president as living a celebrity-obsessed, billionaire lifestyle.


*Dec. 7, 2010: This corrects an earlier misspelling.


Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, is still living in the 19th century. At least that’s what it sounded like when he visited Kyrgyzstan in 2008 and had brunch with U.S. Embassy staff there. In a report back to Washington, the U.S. ambassador in Bishkek, Tatiana Gfoeller, recounts a conversation with Prince Andrew in which he said, “the United Kingdom, Western Europe (and by extension you Americans too)” are replaying the Great Game of 19th-century imperialism in Central Asia. “And this time we aim to win!” the British royal reportedly said. In this scathing and often sarcastic cable, the “cherished” Prince Andrew is described as evincing “almost neuralgic patriotism” and a reflexive anti-French bias, and is quoted as using expletives to describe journalists from the Guardian, who he said had the gall to “poke their noses everywhere,” referring to an investigation of Saudi arms-sales kickbacks.

Phil Walter/Getty Images


Perhaps the most colorful story to come out of the WikiLeaks cables thus far is the impressions of a U.S. diplomat after he attended the wedding of a son of a Dagestani oil magnate. (The diplomat calls the wedding a “microcosm of the social and political relations of the North Caucasus.”) The celebration featured dancing Gypsies and heavy drinking. Among the guests of honor was Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who attended in jeans and a T-shirt, carried a gold-plated automatic weapon, was surrounded by armed guards, and gave the newlyweds a 5-kilogram lump of gold as a gift.



Few heads of state have come out of the WikiLeaks release looking good, but for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh things are particularly bad. In a conversation with then CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus last January, Saleh confirmed that Yemen lies to its citizens about the U.S. bombing campaign against suspected al Qaeda targets. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh said, according to notes from the meeting. The president also joked that he doesn’t care about smuggled whiskey from Djibouti, provided it’s “good whiskey.” That one probably won’t go over well with Yemen’s very conservative Muslim population.



Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi is something of an international eccentric with his outrageous outfits, traveling Bedouin-style tent, coterie of Amazonian female bodyguards, and absurdly long speeches. But who knew that Qaddafi “relies heavily” on a 38-year-old Ukrainian nurse “who has been described as a ‘voluptuous blonde'”? The State Department, apparently. A cable titled “A Glimpse Into Libyan Leader Qadhafi’s Eccentricities” before the 2009 meeting of the U.N. General Assembly outlines some of the strongman’s peculiarities, including a fear of flying over water, his refusal to climb more than 35 steps, and an appreciation for flamenco dancing.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images


In a confidential diplomatic cable, then-Ambassador Eric Edelman describes Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the moderate Islamist AKP party, as being “charismatic, and possessing a common touch and phenomenal memory for faces and functions of thousands of party members across the country.” On the other hand, he also notes that Erdogan has an “unbridled ambition stemming from the belief God has anointed him to lead Turkey.” The cables didn’t have many kind words for Erdogan’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, either. One quotes a Turkish cabinet minister describing him as “exceptionally dangerous.” Erdogan, perhaps exhibiting some of the “authoritarian loner streak” that U.S. diplomats ascribed to him, has vented his fury with the characterization of him in the confidential cable and says he plans to sue.



In the leaked State Department cables, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah comes across as an old-fashioned monarch — and makes no bones about his distaste for Iran. The 86-year-old king is quoted telling Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, “You as Persians have no business meddling in Arab matters.” Another cable cites a Saudi official quoting King Abdullah likening Iran to a snake and suggesting that the United States “cut off the head.” The Saudi monarch can also be pretty creative in his problem-solving, according to the leaked cables. In a meeting last March, the king suggested that U.S. intelligence agencies implant Bluetooth-enabled chips into Guantánamo detainees before releasing them and then tracking their movements as one does for falcons and horses.*

AFP/Getty Images

*Correction, Dec. 2, 2010: This sentence was updated to indicate tracking as one does for falcons and horses, not tracking via hawks and horses.


Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, has basically run his country into the ground over the past decade, but at 86, he continues to hold on to power. Yet a 2007 cable from the U.S. Embassy in the capital city of Harare predicts that “the end is nigh” for Zimbabwe’s strongman. Mugabe is “fundamentally hampered by several factors: 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).” However, the cable notes, Mugabe is “a brilliant tactician.” And as of yet, he has shown no signs of disappearing.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images


For almost 30 years, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been one of Washington’s favorite strongmen in the Middle East, while episodically allowing for a measure of “democracy” at home. But according to a May 2008 cable, he’s not all that convinced the model works. Mubarak told a visiting U.S. congressional delegation to Egypt that it should give up on the idea of democracy in Iraq. “Strengthen the [Iraqi] armed forces, relax your hold, and then you will have a coup. Then we will have a dictator, but a fair one. Forget democracy, the Iraqis are by their nature too tough,” Mubarak said, according to the cable. Mubarak’s right-hand man, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, also makes repeated appearances in the leaked State Department cables, bragging about his intelligence operations in Gaza and even Iran.

Astrid Riecken/Getty Images


Some of the most candid and shocking assessments of world events in the WikiLeaks releases come from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi. The prince calls Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari “dirty but not dangerous” and describes former Pakistani prime minister and current opposition leader Nawaz Sharif as “dangerous but not dirty,” according to a July 2009 cable that details a meeting with a visiting U.S. delegation. At the same meeting, Zayed reportedly told the group of visiting officials “[Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is Hitler.”

Jim Watson-Pool/Getty Images


Amid political turbulence inside Pakistan, U.S. representatives tried to assist in finding a diplomatic solution to lawyers’ protests of the judiciary and forthcoming election that threatened to destabilize their important ally. During a meeting in March 2009, Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s top general, suggested to U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson that he might “pressure” President Asif Ali Zardari to resign, though this wouldn’t be a “formal coup,” according to a State Department report of the meeting. In cables from around the world, Zardari is savaged as a weak and ineffective leader.

Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted this week that the WikiLeaks release was actually good for Israel. Indeed, many of the leaked documents show an Arab concern surprisingly consistent with that of Israel’s position on Iran’s nuclear program. But the WikiLeaks cables also give readers insight into Israel’s prescient thinking on Iranian intentions. Meir Dagan, the outgoing head of Israel’s intelligence services, predicted in a March 2005 meeting with then Sen. John Corzine that Iran would never stop its nuclear program and the issue would eventually have to come before the U.N. Security Council, according to a State Department record of the meeting. Dagan pushed the same line in a meeting with Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns in August 2007 and provided the United States with intelligence about Iran and Afghanistan.



Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s licentious, bacchanalian lifestyle is something of an open secret. (After being tainted by proximity to a scandal involving group sex and an 17-year-old belly dancer, the prime minister retorted, “At least I’m not gay.”) But it’s another thing to read the State Department’s take on his evening escapades. An as of yet unreleased cable suggests that Berlusconi’s “frequent late nights and penchant for partying hard mean he does not get sufficient rest.” But more than just being a party animal, the Italian prime minister is “feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader,” according to press accounts of the cables.

Another cable relays reports that “Berlusconi and his cronies are profiting personally and handsomely from many of the energy deals between Italy and Russia.” According to the U.S. embassy, Berlusconi’s “overwhelming desire is to remain in Putin’s good graces” and the prime minister personally runs Italy’s Russia’s policy — without any input from the foreign minister.



According to the Guardian, a leaked U.S. Embassy cable compares Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to superheroes. But while Putin (Batman) may have come off looking pretty good, Medvedev might not be so thrilled with being called Robin. Another leaked cable describes Putin as an “alpha dog” and suggests that he runs the country like a “virtual mafia state,” according to the Guardian‘s reports. Meanwhile, the Russian president is apparently portrayed as “pale” and “hesitant.” But oddly, Amb. John Beyrle notes in a March 2009 cable titled “Questioning Putin’s Work Ethic” that the prime minister seemed to have lost his “edge” and was increasingly “working from home.”

Yet another cable quotes a Spanish prosecutor describing Russia as a “virtual mafia state” where one “cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and organized crime groups.” According to the prosecutor, Putin has amassed an illicit fortune through his ties to Russia’s energy sector



Mehriban Aliyeva, the first lady of Azerbaijan, might not be the most important political figure for U.S. diplomats, but she appears in a cable reported by Der Spiegel that seems to be little more than downright gossip. Der Spiegel reported that according to one of the leaked cables, “the wife of Azerbaijan leader Ilham Aliyev has had so much plastic surgery that it is possible to confuse her for one of her daughters from a distance, but that she can barely still move her face.”

Francois Durand/Getty Images

Dec. 7, 2010: This article was lightly edited after publication for clarity and accuracy.

Max Strasser was an associate editor at Foreign Policy from 2014-2015. Twitter: @maxstrasser

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