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The Art and Romance of the Diplomatic Cable

With Wikileaks's most recent release of official U.S. documents, I experienced again one of the best things about having left government service: I don’t have to read State Department “telegrams” anymore. This is not to say that such cables are of no value. Foggy Bottom traffic has its virtues. As a rule, it’s better written than what comes through CIA channels, although Langley’s cable traffic—what case officers used to call the “back-channel” stuff, which has increasingly been relegated to secure telephone conversations and classified emails—has often been more entertaining, since the CIA has fewer rules of politesse. (This was changing in 1994 when I left the Clandestine Service, since the number of women entering the agency was rising, thereby increasing office decorum and the institution’s general sensitivity toward human beings.) (Click here to read all of TNR's obsessive coverage of the juicy State Department cables.) 

State Department telegrams can be beautiful. After Robert Finn, a Princeton Ph.D. in Ottoman studies with an exuberant love of all things Turkish, opened the U.S. embassy in Azerbaijan after the collapse of the Soviet Union, his peripatetic writings on the country and neighboring Armenia were brilliant, equal to the best of Paul Theroux. (Click here to view a slideshow of the silliest, scariest, and most NSFW Wikileaks.) 

Scanning the telegrams dumped by Wikileaks, I haven’t found anything that could remotely be called literature. Yet, the 2006 “Caucasus Wedding” cable of William Burns, then the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, is an insightful, literate, and wry field report. The reporting by the multi-lingual Tatiana Gfoeller, the U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, on the rudeness and intellectual crudeness of Britain’s trade-pushing Prince Andrew, is very good stuff. She and her husband, the equally polyglot and irrepressibly curious Michael Gfoeller, who is the deputy chief of mission in Saudi Arabia, give the impression here (as they have always done) that they could easily cut loose from Foggy Bottom’s monochrome prose and produce powerful, unorthodox reporting that could be of real value to historians, let alone Hillary Clinton. 

Nor have I found anything yet in this Wikileaks dump that would likely put American officials’ lives in danger. The telegrams codifying procedures for handling “walk-ins,” folks who walk into a U.S. embassy or consulate volunteering information or seeking refuge, are interesting in that such rules in the past had always been informal, allowing for variations at post. Walk-ins can always produce bureaucratic headaches (if walk-ins have intelligence value, case officers—and no one else—should have authority over them). There may well be an unpleasant history of bureaucratic tension and operational cock-ups behind these lengthy cables, but it’s hard to see how evildoers can exploit the tactical information within them. 

Julian Assange is obviously a deranged, conspiracy-obsessed fellow (and it’s distressing to see how he’s been applauded by the American leftists who populate Public Radio International). He should be locked up. But I’m hard-pressed to see—at least now—the significant damage that he has caused. 

The Pentagon, whose classified Internet system was breached, looks stupid. The State Department, which had no business putting sensitive discussions with foreign leaders on this system, looks silly. (I can imagine CIA officers already saying to Middle Eastern officials, “See, we told you to talk to us, not State, about anything of importance. We are manly men and we don’t have leaks.’”)

The old-fashioned, office-designated way of distributing State telegrams in Washington and abroad was just fine, and vastly more secure. But foreign officials are unlikely to restrain themselves for long in expressing their opinions to U.S. officials, even leak-prone American diplomats. As long as the United States is a superpower, foreigners will need us—they will desperately want to talk to us—a hell of lot more often than the reverse. 

Wikileaks’s diplomatic dump reveals two things. First, and the less important, is how routine reporting is. I may have tough standards for informative and salacious diplomatic telegrams, but what is most striking is how bland and underreported these cables generally are. Contrary to the press hype, they are not brutally frank. 

Calling French President Nicolas Sarkozy “thin-skinned” and “authoritarian” or German Chancellor Angela Merkel risk-averse and “ seldom creative,” or suggesting that Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin likely share a lot more than cigars, or that Putin’s Russia is a mafia-state, or that Prince Andrew is a convincing argument for English republicanism is hardly cutting-edge.

And these cables really are not that insulting (except for the sublime commentary on Prince Andrew, who really seems to be an awful, spoiled, ill-educated jerk). With friends, as the oh-so diplomatic French nicely put it: qui aime bien, châtie bien

Secondly and more significantly, diplomats, even more than spooks, are America’s official journalists. They are—or at least should be—after stories. And they should develop those stories beyond the foreign ministries and cocktail parties where they spend so much of their time. But diplomats should be more than journalists: They should be analysts, too. State’s reporting cables released so far by Wikileaks are analytically thin: Description (even good description) usually leads to a conceptual dead-end, where the author’s official commentary, if it’s even given, is small in scope. 

Foreign Service Officers by design, and bitter experience, are not a brave lot. Any commentary offered beyond immediate concerns or the departmental line isn’t encouraged. It’s a pity. In the past, the “commentary” section of State Department telegrams could be long and eye opening. This is seldom true now, for which the Wikileaks telegrams give ample evidence. 

The great foreign correspondent Jon Randal once remarked that he loved Hume Horan, the legendary American Arabist, so much because Horan, unlike most of his colleagues, could write the stories—all Randal had to do was listen as Horan moved through time, space, foreign cultures and ministries, and the all-consuming passion of most American diplomats (though not of Horan), Washington politics. I have an idea about what Michael Gfoeller thinks of Saudi King Abdallah’s strongly held views on the urgent need for the United States to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, but everyone in the government would be better served by seeing him expound a bit more on Saudi–Iranian relations, on the collision between Wahhabism and Shia-Iranian militancy in the Middle East. 

American diplomats are often so dull—and so prone to misjudge foreigners who have little in common with them—because they are given so few opportunities to be otherwise. Wikileaks’s diplomatic dump puts on public display a competent, workmanlike foreign service: America’s diplomats are trying hard to enlist others against Tehran. And they deserve credit for that. Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad deserve more credit for aligning our allies and a few of our adversaries behind an increasingly painful sanctions regime. But our diplomats, who always define foreign policy as process, are doing their best. And, well, ça suffit.

And this Wikileaks dump reveals one other thing: The academics, pundits, and senior American officials who have suggested—or asserted boldly—that Arab leaders don’t want the United States to stop militarily Iran’s nuclear program have been (i) fibbing, (ii) hopelessly ill-informed, or (iii) so ideologically purblind that they now appear intellectually dishonest. It’s also possible, if not likely, that they have been all three at once. They at least owe Mr. Assange a “thank you” for helping them see, as the Quran says, “the straight path.”  

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard 

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