When I arrive in a foreign country to write a piece, I ask journalistic colleagues, NGO types, and whatnot which diplomats are worth talking to. If it's a country in the developing world, I usually get directed to the embassy of the ex-colonial master and often to the Brits, even outside the Commonwealth. (British diplomats have a reputation for acumen which might mostly have to do with their accent and air of amused detachment.) As for the United States, people will say, "There's a political attaché who's been here for years and really gets around." What about the ambassador? "Only if you feel the need to touch base." The feeling is that the U.S. ambassador is so swaddled in security and bureaucracy, so restricted to the la-di-da realms of the country, that he or she might as well be living in the clouds.
WikiLeaks has done U.S. ambassadors a favor by allowing us to read their homework. And it turns out that there's more to be said for the privileged perch they occupy than I had realized. None of the cables I've read so far sound like George Kennan, much less John Quincy Adams, whose dispatches from the Court of Prussia at the turn of the 19th century were devoured back home, including by President George Washington in retirement; either U.S. diplomacy no longer attracts literary intellectuals, or they keep it to themselves. But they do show a high level of clarity, of analytical rigor, even occasionally of amused detachment.
The chief flaw the embassy officials exhibit in the documents is one to which journalists, too, are very much prone: the tendency to give too much credence to the people you like. The diplomats in Tbilisi who, as the New York Times points out, swallowed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's version of the 2008 war with Russia whole, may have been guilty of believing what they wished to be true. So, in a very different way, was the departing U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, Christopher Dell, who in 2007 optimistically predicted President Robert Mugabe's impending demise. But none (so far) are clueless; as yet there's no Ellsworth Bunker reporting from Saigon on the battle for hearts and minds. The cables may have the unexpected effect of countering the stereotype of diplomats as lickspittles with a mastery of etiquette.
I can think of no better example than Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan until this past October. Patterson was a career diplomat; I first met her when she was acting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 2004 to 2005, and then again in Pakistan in 2008. Our conversation in New York had been notably bland, and in Islamabad she seemed quite comfortable defending -- off the record, of course -- the George W. Bush administration's unwavering support for Gen. Pervez Musharraf in the midst of massive demonstrations calling for civilian democratic government, a policy that had come to seem increasingly tone-deaf.
Why expect otherwise? The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, like most U.S. embassies in trouble spots, is a big, ugly installation (an earlier iteration had been bombed) located on a lonely road behind a series of gates. Security was so tight that I had to provide, in advance, my cab driver's name and license number. Diplomats only ventured out in convoys. Patterson, in short, operated from a bubble.
And yet it turns out you can learn a lot in a bubble. On Sept. 23, 2009, Patterson sent a cable in response to an inquiry from an unspecified source in the National Security Council. The debate over AfPak strategy inside the White House was then at its height. The military brass were pushing a full-bore counterinsurgency strategy calling for 40,000 troops; Vice President Joe Biden and other senior officials were arguing for a more modest program of counterterrorism in Afghanistan paired with a much greater focus on Pakistan. It wouldn't work, Patterson said: "It is not/not possible [the double "not" appears to be a peculiar convention of the diplomatic cable] to counter Al Qaeda in Pakistan absent a comprehensive strategy that 1) addresses the interlinked Taliban threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2) brings about stable, civilian government in Afghanistan, and 3) reexamines the broader role of India in the region."