In Other Words
How to Write a Cable
A veteran diplomat explains how it's really done.
Galbraith, right, in Zagreb in 1994 with Russia’s then Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaly Churkin and the U.S. special envoy to Yugoslavia, Charles Redman.
Contrary to what Julian Assange might tell you, most ambassadors do not worry that the wrong people will read their cables, but that the right people won’t. The U.S. State Department receives several million cables a year, and while most deal with mundane administrative matters, several hundred thousand report on political and economic developments. The secretary of state reads just a handful of these, and assistant secretaries read a small portion of the cables from their geographic regions. Even the desk officer might only have time to scan the post’s voluminous cable traffic.
How to have your cables read? Here are a few key guidelines. Some I followed myself as an ambassador. And as WikiLeaks has revealed, my fellow diplomats have adopted their own strategies for getting noticed. The cables show that the United States has a superb diplomatic service consisting of knowledgeable and literate realists. Even when U.S. policy seems divorced from ground reality, diplomats clearly understand what is going on around the world — and how best to describe it for the folks back in Foggy Bottom.
1. Be strategically nasty. “Clientitis” — the perception that an embassy is more interested in explaining the host country’s view than in promoting U.S. interests — can be fatal to an embassy’s reputation. The WikiLeaks cables show U.S. diplomats to be realists with no illusions about the shortcomings of local partners or even allies. When President Barack Obama launched his “love offensive” last year in an effort to calm Afghanistan’s erratic president, Hamid Karzai, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul weighed in to say it wouldn’t work. But the easiest antidote to clientitis is an unflattering comment about the character or motives of a local figure, and the WikiLeaks cables are full of these. Take the 2009 characterization of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as “risk averse and rarely creative” for just one example.
2. A spoonful of Ukrainian nurse helps the cable go down. Exotic details help ensure readership — like the “voluptuous” Ukrainian nurse in an otherwise mostly irrelevant cable about Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. One week after arriving in Zagreb in 1993, I edited a cable my staff prepared describing how the Serbian decision to cut the natural gas pipeline into besieged Sarajevo made a cholera epidemic likely, as Sarajevans could no longer boil their water. I decided to spice up a grim but dry message by including a macabre joke then circulating in the city: “What is the difference between Sarajevo and Auschwitz? At least in Auschwitz they had gas.” This otherwise routine cable was given to President Bill Clinton, who issued an ultimatum demanding the Serbs reopen the pipeline. They did.
3. Accuracy is at a premium (except about the home team). In the summer of 2009, Karzai became unhinged in a meeting with Richard Holbrooke because he suspected — rightly — that Holbrooke wanted an honest count of the votes in the just-concluded Afghan presidential election. Four days later, in an Aug. 25 cable, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul assured Washington that it was hushing it up, correcting Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt’s “misperceptions over a reported rift between SRAP Holbrooke and President Karzai.” Reports of Karzai’s outburst had hurt Holbrooke’s bureaucratic position in an administration that did not entirely trust him and wanted to sweep Karzai’s electoral fraud under the carpet. The embassy’s message was a subtle way to ingratiate itself with Holbrooke in case he came out on top in the Washington bureaucratic battle.
4. Pretend you’re a foreign correspondent — back in the glory days. With posts all over the world, the State Department covers events that the media today do not. Deposed Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his family turned out to be world-class kleptocrats, but readers of the New York Times would not have known this and consequently could not have anticipated the rapid events that led to his overthrow. U.S. diplomats, however, provided a graphic picture of the Ben Ali family’s opulent lifestyle, and in fact their leaked cables helped fuel popular anger that triggered the so-called Jasmine Revolution. The analytical reporting in the cables on Afghanistan is far superior to the daily media coverage, and far more careful. Journalism’s loss is diplomacy’s gain.
5. Be literate. The State Department cables have attracted far more attention than a comparably large number of battlefield Pentagon reports that WikiLeaks released a few months earlier. Why? The State Department cables are easy to read, while the Pentagon cables are full of jargon and acronyms. If you want your message read, use simple declarative sentences, put your main points up front, and, above all, be brief. If your primary goal is to keep a secret, don’t write at all. Use the phone, or don’t say anything. When it really comes down to it, not all information needs to be shared.