Much of the furor over last November's WikiLeaks release of US diplomatic cables concerned the alleged harm that the airing of sensitive American intelligence would do to the United States on the global stage. Vice President Joe Biden denounced WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as a "high-tech terrorist," with plenty of conservative commentators chiming in to call for Assange's prosecution under treason, espionage, or conspiracy charges—or for, what the hell, his contract assassination by the CIA.
True, the cables show that there was plenty of unsavory, if unsurprising, behind-the-scenes intrigue at most US embassy operations, involving everything from the proposed wiretapping of UN diplomats to the packaging of ambassadorial favors as inducements for lesser European powers to house terror detainees in extralegal "black sites." In the main, however, bombshell revelations didn't abound. Indeed, the leaked cables were more noteworthy for their rendering of the telling details and catty observations that make up the often-mundane business of embassy work abroad. The cables reveal far more about the simple human vanity that comically undermines the sober public images cultivated by autocratic ruling families than they do, for instance, about how this or that major player planned to radically alter the balance of power in the Middle East.
The WikiLeaks cables, in other words, read more compellingly as a kind of literature. True, they don't exactly evoke Tolstoy, Graham Greene, or even John le Carré. But diplomats are trained to chronicle the same tics and quirks of character that masters of fiction carefully record—and often with the same aim, of penetrating the surface equanimity of the characters they depict in order to win through to some more essential truths about their motivations. There's a reason, after all, that the fictional world, like the diplomatic one, is governed by plots—and that both fields share a comfort with moral ambiguity and casual deception that you don't find in most other endeavors. So it's probably a good idea to approach the cables not as the work of grand strategists like George Kennan, but rather as something akin to the chill, satiric portraits brought off by Patricia Highsmith, who famously said she was principally "interested in the effect of guilt" on her creations.
I've read a good number of the WikiLeaks cables and have found plenty of material that could have come straight from Highsmith's caustic pen. And when you see the written work of our diplomatic corps from that slantwise perspective, it can allay some of your worst fears about the course of American empire. As the catastrophic invasion of Iraq should have taught us, it's always better to have connoisseurs of human folly implementing your policies than true believers. Here, at any rate, is a fairly representative sample of the genre, filtered through my own obsession with the global energy business.
In the initial entry of a series of cables on the most influential families in Azerbaijan—titled, with refreshing candor, "Azerbaijan: Who Owns What?"—an embassy hand notes that the country's First Lady has managed a sort of trifecta in phony civic achievement: "Mehriban Aliyeva, besides being the wife of the President, is a Member of Parliament and head of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, a non-transparent organization that bills itself as a vehicle for charitable works."
Things get less decorous from there. "The Pashayev women are known to be fashion-conscious and daring, far more so than the average woman in majority-Muslim Azerbaijan," we learn. And then, with the word-mincing prelude out of the way: "Mehriban Aliyeva appears to have had substantial cosmetic surgery, presumably overseas, and wears dresses that would be considered provocative even in the Western world. . . . On television, in photos, and in person, she appears unable to show a full range of facial expression."
The First Lady's reconstructive work also created an issue of some delicacy when Second Lady Lynne Cheney arrived for a state dinner in September 2008. Flanked by her two daughters, Aliyeva didn't immediately present herself as the matron of the trio, so the crack embassy staff had to make some quick calculations in order to tell the Secret Service whom to introduce to whom. "Emboffs"—embassy officials, in cable jargon—"and White House staff studied the three for several moments, and then Emboff said, 'Well, logically the mother would probably stand in the middle.'"
Then there's Aliyeva's better half, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, whom a cable sums up as "Michael (Corleone) on the outside, Sonny on the inside." As the dispatch explains, "He typically devises [foreign policy] with pragmatism, restraint and a helpful bias toward integration with the West, yet at home his policies have become increasingly authoritarian and hostile to diversity of political views."
A waggish dispatch called "Lifestyles of the Kazakhstani Leadership" begins by drily recounting that political elites in the former Soviet republic "appear to enjoy typical hobbies—such as travel, horseback riding, and skiing." But then the cable goes on to observe that the country's oil-besotted leaders "are able to indulge in their hobbies on a grand scale, whether flying Elton John to Kazakhstan for a concert or trading domestic property for a palace in the United Arab Emirates."
As a representative study, the cable notes that in 2007 "President Nazarbayev's son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, celebrated his 41st birthday in grand style. At a small venue in Almaty, he hosted a private concert with some of Russia's biggest pop-stars. The headliner, however, was Elton John, to whom he reportedly paid one million pounds for this one-time appearance. (Note: The British Ambassador relayed a slightly different story, with an unknown but obviously well-heeled friend arranging and paying for Sir Elton's gig. End Comment.)"
There are also several illuminating cables from Uzbekistan, another former Soviet republic now run by an autocratic clan. One cable from 2005 recounts a powerful First Daughter who is looking to burnish her public image. The Uzbek press, the cablist informs us, has lately run an "unusual series of articles promoting the virtue and selflessness of Gulnora Karimova," who is said to harbor ambitions of succeeding her father (perhaps best known internationally for gunning down and periodically boiling alive his political opponents).
But the strategy doesn't seem to be taking. "Most Uzbeks see Karimova as a greedy, power hungry individual who uses her father to crush business people or anyone else who stands in her way," said the cable writer. In one interview with an Uzbek paper, the dispatch continued, Karimova portrayed herself as "a highly principled person who listens to her conscience" and "went so far as to say that people treat you the way you treat them, and if you don't treat others well, you will 'find yourself in a blind alley.'" The correspondent then archly noted: "The many people crushed by Karimova would likely relish the chance to catch her blind in an alley." Even with the press campaign to improve her image, Karimova's "charm offensive will not likely make her more popular; she remains the single most hated person in the country. (Comment: We have no polling data to support that statement, but we stand by it. End comment.)"
Incidentally, some five years later, Karimova launched a new line of attack in her charm offensive by bringing Sting to Uzbekistan for a concert and to accompany her to a "cultural festival" she sponsored. When attacked by critics, Sting, who was reportedly paid as much as three million dollars for the trip, defended himself by saying that UNICEF had cosponsored the concert, which turned out to be false, and that while he was "well aware of the Uzbek president's appalling reputation in the field of human rights," he went to Uzbekistan anyway because he had "come to believe that cultural boycotts are not only pointless gestures, they are counter-productive, where proscribed states are further robbed of the open commerce of ideas and art." The statement didn't specify whether Sting reached that conclusion before or after he cashed his check.
Nor do the subtler protocols of a foreign political order escape the discerning eye of a properly trained US embassy official. In the staggeringly grim republic of Turkmenistan, one cable notes somewhat ruefully that given the rampant state of official bribery in the capital city of Ashgabat, "U.S. anti-corruption laws [add] a new layer of complexity and uncertainty for U.S. firms wishing to do business here." Another dispatch, meanwhile, handicaps the prospects for enhancing public trust under the rule of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov as dim indeed. "Berdimuhamedov does not like people who are smarter than he is," this cable writer relates. "Since he's not a very bright guy, our source offered, he is suspicious of a lot of people."
The point about the president's suspicious nature certainly seems well founded, as another cable from Turkmenistan shows: "There have been reports about a recent incident in which a motorist crossed an intersection in front [of] President Berdimuhamedov's motorcade as it moved through Ashgabat. Several high-ranking police officials were fired after the incident, and the driver of the vehicle was reportedly beaten and charged with attempted assassination. In another incident, a military official was fired after a cat ran in front of the president's car as he was traveling to his dacha."
Of course, WikiLeaks detractors wave away such vignettes as a sign of the petty, status-obsessed outlook of the genteel US diplomatic corps. But I prefer to think that, like many a literary innovator, the authors of these cables point a way forward to a fuller account of our common life in the not-too-distant future. It was, after all, Shelley who said that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
As any impartial observer will tell you, our own resource-rich republic shows plenty of civic wear and tear these days, with oligarchs of the political class freed under the dispensations of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling to convert all manner of public institutions into private playthings. And if the rulers of the Caspian have bought Elton John and Sting, we have the example here of David Brooks—a defense contractor who grew rich selling body armor of dubious quality to the Pentagon and who was recently sentenced to prison for stock fraud and looting his own company—having hired 50 Cent, the Eagles, Tom Petty, and Aerosmith to perform at his daughter's bat mitzvah.
While we may still be some distance from career military leaders being cashiered over the sudden appearance of a wayward cat, it's not that big a leap. The only significant difference may be that in a Sarah Palin administration—speaking of vainglorious custodians of oil-republic wealth—civil servants will be advanced by a strict count of the number of cats they bag.
Ken Silverstein, the former Washington editor of Harper's Magazine, is a fellow at the Open Society Institute and the author of Turkmeniscam (Random House, 2008).