In Praise of the Candid U.S. Diplomat

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LONDON -- And let us now praise American diplomats. That is the compelling thought after, where are we now, day five, of the broader dissemination of the cables from the State Department.

A British journalist friend of had dinner with two senior British diplomats this week. Having read the cables, which have been spread over The Guardian in multiple pages, and picked up by other papers as well, they told her they were impressed by their American colleagues. "Maybe we've underestimated them," one said, in that wry British way. They added, with a bit of amusement, that diplomats spend hours crafting their cables only to have them read by three people. Some American diplomats must now be quietly pleased, they thought, that their words are being more widely read.

For candor and lively writing, it is hard to match the cable sent by the American ambassador to Kyrgyzstan about a visit there by Prince Andrew. The Queen's second son and third child is a special trade representative designed to drum up business for British companies. In Bishkek, he had brunch with a small group of foreign businessmen. The American ambassador, Tatiana Gfoeller, was in attendance -- "the only non-subject of the United Kingdom or linked to the Commonwealth invited to participate by the British ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic," she noted. It is an invitation he must surely rue having extended, with the leak of Gfoeller's cable about the lunch.

Ms. Gfoeller is a career diplomat who speaks a mere six languages, including Russian, Polish and Arabic -- "none of them, alas for her, is the patois of the British upper classes," a columnist for the conservative Daily Telegraph sniffed, calling the ambassador "cloth eared," following the release and broad dissemination here of dispatch. Whatever, her pen is sharp, her cable marked by delightful understatement.

The luncheon kicked off with the businessmen telling the Prince, albeit delicately, about "the appallingly high state of corruption." Of course, the businessmen all claimed that none of them ever paid any bribes, Gfoeller faithfully reported, though one did admit "it was sometimes an awful temptation."

She went on that "in an astonishing display of candor in a public hotel where the brunch was taking place, all of the businessmen then chorused that nothing gets done in Kyrgyzstan gets done" if the President's son does not get "his cut."

"Turning thoughtful, the Prince mused that outsiders could do little to change the culture of corruption here," Gfoeller wrote. " 'They themselves have to have a change of heart,' " she reported the Prince as saying. "Just like you have to cure yourself of anoxeria. No one else can do it for you."

The brunch was supposed to have lasted an hour, but it was already well into the second hour, and "the Prince looked like he was just getting started," Gfoeller wrote. Expanding beyond Krygystan, he turned more broadly to promoting British business abroad. They were being hampered by government and journalists. "He railed against anti-corruption investigators, who had had the 'idiocy' of almost scuttling" a deal with Saudi Arabia. "His mother's subject around the table roared their approval," Gfoeffler wrote spicily, The Queen's son (as Ms. Gfoeller might have put it), was referring to an investigation by Britain's Serious Fraud Office into allegations that BAE, the gigantic defense company, paid millions of dollars in bribes to Saudi officials in order to get a lucrative weapons contract. The investigation was halted by Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said that it would harm Britain's relations with Saudi Arabia.

The prince then turned on journalists. The Guardian had led the journalistic investigation into the BAE-Saudi kickback scheme. "These (expletive) journalists, especially from the National Guardian [it is just The Guardian, though a national newspaper, as are most British papers] , who poke their noses into everywhere," make it harder for British businessmen, the Ambassador quoted the Prince. "The crowd practically clapped," Gfoeller reported.

"He then capped this off with a zinger: castigating 'our stupid British and American governments which plan at best for ten years whereas people in this part of the world plan for centuries.'" That was greeted with calls of "hear, hear," the ambassador recorded.

The ambassador, seemingly more bemused than appalled, continued: "Unfortunately for the assembled British subjects, their cherished Prince was now late to the Prime Minister's." On the way out, one of the businessmen, confided to the ambassador, "What a wonderful representative for the British people: We could not be prouder of our royal family."

If Ms. Gfoeller isn't promoted in the State Department, she might consider becoming a playwright.

Diplomats are often afflicted with clientitis, the disease that causes them to appear an advocate for the country to which they are accredited, often in the interest of securing more economic or military aid from Washington. Reports on human rights abuses or corruption are suppressed.

Not so in the case of the American ambassador in Sri Lanka, Patricia Butenis. During the last months of the decades-long war between the government and the Tamil Tigers, some 10,000 Tamil civilians were killed, including woman and children. There have been credible reports of massacres by government troops, supported by photographs, and the U.N. has begun an investigation. Sri Lankan leaders have bristled at the massacre reports and the interference by the U.N., and have promised their own investigation.

In a cable last January, Ambassador Butenis told Washington any investigation or accountability was unlikely. "There are no examples we know of a regime undertaking wholesale investigations of its own troops or senior officials for war crimes while that regime or government remained in power," she forthrightly explained. "In Sri Lanka this is further complicated by the fact that responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country's senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers and opposition candidate General Fonseka. "

It's hard to be more straightforward and truthful than that.

What the cables show over all, is the "United States seriously and professionally trying to solve the most dangerous problems in frighteningly complicated world," Les Gelb, an astute observer of foreign policy, from inside the government and out since the Vietnam War, wrote at The Daily Beast. "U.S. policymakers and diplomats are shown, quite accurately, doing what they are supposed to do: ferreting out critical information from foreign leaders, searching for patsh to common action, and struggling with the right amount of pressure to apply on allies and adversaries."

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Raymond Bonner is an investigative reporter living in London. He was previously a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and is the author of Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.

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