In Praise of the Candid U.S. Diplomat

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.

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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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