Turtle Bay

The editorial genius of U.S. diplomats

As Christopher Beam of Slate noted this week, the U.S. diplomatic cable may deserve recognition as its own genre of literature. But the headlines are pure tabloid. Indeed, WikiLeaks’ publication this week of several hundred U.S. diplomatic communications has cast a spotlight on the secret art of writing diplomatic cables, but its their titles that ...

As Christopher Beam of Slate noted this week, the U.S. diplomatic cable may deserve recognition as its own genre of literature. But the headlines are pure tabloid. Indeed, WikiLeaks’ publication this week of several hundred U.S. diplomatic communications has cast a spotlight on the secret art of writing diplomatic cables, but its their titles that makes them such an enticing read. Promising glimpses into Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi‘s phobias or the latest shenanigans of the Cuban-Venezuelan access of mischief, they seem to scream out: Read me!

Like good magazine editors, America’s cable writers have developed an ear for punchy, irreverent headlines, the better to attract readers’ eyes. U.S. diplomats from Buenos Aires to Moscow spare nothing in their competition for the attention of hyper-busy senior policy makers in Washington. Here’s a sampling of their best editorial artistry:

"Turkmenistan: Cat Implicated In Presidential Security Incident": Frankly, how could even the most staid policymaker not spare a moment from his or her busy date to dip into this account of a Turkmen officer being fired after a cat ran across President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov’s motorcade en route to the presidential dacha. The confidential cable, which was approved by the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Sylvia Reed Curran, also noted "several high ranking police officials" were fired after a motorist crossed a blocked intersection in front of the president motorcade. "The driver was reportedly beaten ‘black and blue’," according to the cable. "According to some, he was charged with attempted assassination and sentenced to 25 years in prison."

"Rule of Law: Lipstick on a Political Pig": This cable reports on the "politically motivated trial" of former Yukos chief Mikhail Khordokovsky and his associate Platon Lebedev. It describes an alleged effort by Russian authorities to pressure accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers to disavow its previous blessing of Yukos audits of the company’s book during Khordorkovski. The December 2009, cable, approved by the U.S. political counselor in Moscow, Susan Elliot, laments the apathetic public reaction to the trial. "Despite the case’s wide implications, it continues to be a cause celebre only for foreigners and a minority of Russians."

"President Ilham Aliyev–Michael (Corleone) on the Outside, Sonny on the Inside": This cable contrasts the Azeri president’s "pragmatism" and "restraint" in matters of foreign policy with his "increasingly authoritarian" rejection of political dissent. "This divergence of approaches, combined with his father’s omnipresence, has led some observers to compare the Aliyevs with the fictional ‘Corleones’ of Godfather fame," according to the September 2009 cable approved by Chargé Donald Lu. The godfather figure is Heydar Aliyev, Ilham’s late father, who appointed his son head of the country’s major political party in 2003. "Either way, this Michael/Sonny dichotomy complicates our approach to Baku and has the unfortunate effect of framing what should be a strategically valuable relationship as a choice between U.S. interests and U.S. values."

"Israel A Promised Land For Organized Crime": This extraordinary account of the prevalence and power of organized crime gangs in Israel presents a side of America’s closest Middle East ally that one rarely hears in official U.S. statements. The May 2008 cable, signed off by U.S. ambassador James B. Cunningham, describes the expanding global reach of Israel’s crime families, and says the U.S. government is "utilizing all available tools" to deny them access to the United States.  The cable notes that one of Israel’s principal alleged crime families, the Alperon family, featured in an Israeli reality television program. In November 2008, Yaakov Alperon was "assassinated in broad daylight in a gruesome attack on the streets of Tel Aviv," according to the U.S. account. "According to media accounts, a motor scooter pulled up alongside Alperon’s car and the rider attached a sophisticated explosive device with a remote detonator to the car door. The bomb killed Alperon and his driver, and injured two innocent pedestrians."

"The End is Nigh": This 2007 account by then U.S. ambassador Christopher W. Dell offers a withering account of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe‘s 27-year rule in Zimbawe, and predicts that the Mugabe regime is in its final days. According to a July 2007 memo, Dell attributed Mugabe’s survival to the fact that he "is more clever and ruthless" than anyone else. "To give the devil his due, he is a brilliant tactician," he wrote. But Dell predicted that the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy was narrowing his prospects for survival.  "I’m convinced the end is not far off for the Mugabe regime. Of course, my predecessors have all said the same thing, and yet Mugabe is still with us." Yes, he is.

"U.S.-Argentine Relations: Dr Jekyl and Mr. Kirchner": President George W. Bush‘s envoy to Argentina, E. Anthony Wayne, signed off on this February 2007 cable that portrays the late President Néstor Kirchner‘s seeming schizophrenic efforts to balance relations with Bush’s White House and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The assessment noted that Kirchner saw the benefit of maintaining good bilateral ties with the United States on key strategic issues like counterterrorism policy and non-proliferation, but saw no political benefit from "aligning himself publicly with the U.S… He will cozy up to Chavez, and yet he will maintain a number of open doors to us."

"A Glimpse Into Libyan Leader Qadafi’s Eccentricities": Name me one person with security clearance in the U.S. State Department who hasn’t read this one. This secret September 2009 cable,  approved by Gene A. Cretz, the U.S. ambassador to Tripoli, recounts a number of the Libyan leaders’ phobias, including his fear of flying over water, his refusal to reside in any room above the first floor, and his utter dependence on a "voluptuous blonde" Ukrainian nurse who tends to his needs.

"Cuba/ Venezuela Axis of Mischief: The View from Caracas": This headline oversells its promise of revealing insights into the efforts of these leftist allies to roil the political waters in the region and beyond. But the secret January 2006 cable does warn that Cuba has "much to offer Venezuela’s anti-U.S. intelligence services." The document also provides a fascinating look at the conditions of Cuban doctors and workers in Venezuela — it notes that one Cuban doctor complained bitterly about having his wages withheld until he returned to Cuba — and it documents the struggles for influence between Venezuelan and Cuban intelligence serves in Caracas. "Cuban intelligence officers have direct access to Chavez and frequently provide him with intelligence reporting un-vetted by Venezuelan officers."

"To Hell and Back: Gitmo Ex-Detainee Stumps in Luxembourg": This January 2010 cable, written by a diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Luxembourg, tells the story of a former Guantánamo Bay detainee, Moazzam Begg, a British citizen of Pakistan origin, who was inadvertently helping the United States achieve its political goals by urging European leaders to allow the settlement of more detainees. Begg, who was released in 2005, set up an NGO called Caged Prisoners to press for their resettlement. "Mr. Begg is doing our work for us, and his articulate, reasoned presentation makes for a convincing argument," according to the cable, approved by Adam Center of the U.S. consulate. "It is ironic after four years of imprisonment and alleged torture, Moazzam Begg is delivering the same demarche to GOL [The Government of Luxembourg] as we are: please consider accepting GTMO detainees for resettlement."

"The Caucasus Wedding" and "Lifestyles of the Kazakhstan Leadership": These two cables have already achieved the status of overnight classics since their release provided graphic insights into the private lives of the post-Soviet strongmen. "Is the Pulitzer board reading this stuff?," Slate‘s Beam asks. In an artful summary of "Kazakhstan’s horse-loving President Nazarbayez’s inner circle," Beam cites a "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’)." Beam also points out "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."

If that’s not to your taste, try one of these other low- and high-brow offerings:

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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