In Other Words

How to Write a Cable

A veteran diplomat explains how it's really done.

Galbraith, right, in Zagreb in 1994 with Russia's then Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaly Churkin and the U.S. special envoy to Yugoslavia, Charles Redman.  

Contrary to what Julian Assange might tell you, most ambassadors do not worry that the wrong people will read their cables, but that the right people won't. The U.S. State Department receives several million cables a year, and while most deal with mundane administrative matters, several hundred thousand report on political and economic developments. The secretary of state reads just a handful of these, and assistant secretaries read a small portion of the cables from their geographic regions. Even the desk officer might only have time to scan the post's voluminous cable traffic.

How to have your cables read? Here are a few key guidelines. Some I followed myself as an ambassador. And as WikiLeaks has revealed, my fellow diplomats have adopted their own strategies for getting noticed. The cables show that the United States has a superb diplomatic service consisting of knowledgeable and literate realists. Even when U.S. policy seems divorced from ground reality, diplomats clearly understand what is going on around the world -- and how best to describe it for the folks back in Foggy Bottom.

1. Be strategically nasty. "Clientitis" -- the perception that an embassy is more interested in explaining the host country's view than in promoting U.S. interests -- can be fatal to an embassy's reputation. The WikiLeaks cables show U.S. diplomats to be realists with no illusions about the shortcomings of local partners or even allies. When President Barack Obama launched his "love offensive" last year in an effort to calm Afghanistan's erratic president, Hamid Karzai, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul weighed in to say it wouldn't work. But the easiest antidote to clientitis is an unflattering comment about the character or motives of a local figure, and the WikiLeaks cables are full of these. Take the 2009 characterization of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as "risk averse and rarely creative" for just one example.

2. A spoonful of Ukrainian nurse helps the cable go down. Exotic details help ensure readership -- like the "voluptuous" Ukrainian nurse in an otherwise mostly irrelevant cable about Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. One week after arriving in Zagreb in 1993, I edited a cable my staff prepared describing how the Serbian decision to cut the natural gas pipeline into besieged Sarajevo made a cholera epidemic likely, as Sarajevans could no longer boil their water. I decided to spice up a grim but dry message by including a macabre joke then circulating in the city: "What is the difference between Sarajevo and Auschwitz? At least in Auschwitz they had gas." This otherwise routine cable was given to President Bill Clinton, who issued an ultimatum demanding the Serbs reopen the pipeline. They did.

3. Accuracy is at a premium (except about the home team). In the summer of 2009, Karzai became unhinged in a meeting with Richard Holbrooke because he suspected -- rightly -- that Holbrooke wanted an honest count of the votes in the just-concluded Afghan presidential election. Four days later, in an Aug. 25 cable, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul assured Washington that it was hushing it up, correcting Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt's "misperceptions over a reported rift between SRAP Holbrooke and President Karzai." Reports of Karzai's outburst had hurt Holbrooke's bureaucratic position in an administration that did not entirely trust him and wanted to sweep Karzai's electoral fraud under the carpet. The embassy's message was a subtle way to ingratiate itself with Holbrooke in case he came out on top in the Washington bureaucratic battle.

4. Pretend you're a foreign correspondent -- back in the glory days. With posts all over the world, the State Department covers events that the media today do not. Deposed Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and his family turned out to be world-class kleptocrats, but readers of the New York Times would not have known this and consequently could not have anticipated the rapid events that led to his overthrow. U.S. diplomats, however, provided a graphic picture of the Ben Ali family's opulent lifestyle, and in fact their leaked cables helped fuel popular anger that triggered the so-called Jasmine Revolution. The analytical reporting in the cables on Afghanistan is far superior to the daily media coverage, and far more careful. Journalism's loss is diplomacy's gain.

5. Be literate. The State Department cables have attracted far more attention than a comparably large number of battlefield Pentagon reports that WikiLeaks released a few months earlier. Why? The State Department cables are easy to read, while the Pentagon cables are full of jargon and acronyms. If you want your message read, use simple declarative sentences, put your main points up front, and, above all, be brief. If your primary goal is to keep a secret, don't write at all. Use the phone, or don't say anything. When it really comes down to it, not all information needs to be shared.

ZLATKO DERMICEK/AFP/Getty Images

In Other Words

Nothing to See Here

What if the big message of the WikiLeaks cables is that there is no message?

Neil Sheehan, the legendary reporter who acquired the Pentagon Papers for the New York Times, tells us that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who had commissioned that history of the Vietnam War, declined to read it. Perhaps the task itself was forbidding: 1.5 million words of historical narrative and a million words of documents. Then again, McNamara had had a seat at the table; he knew the history inside out; he had experienced the full range of attitudes toward that divisive war; he had been a booster of the effort and had turned against it. He needed no classified documents to tell him about the great debacle he had helped bring about.

Most of us who turned to the WikiLeaks documents flooding out over the Internet in recent months don't have McNamara's privileged attitude toward official paper. We approach the cable traffic from Ankara and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi with a certain kind of deference. At a minimum, there is the understandable urge to look in on those encrypted emails, and there is no denying the voyeuristic satisfaction of catching the mighty as they make bargains behind closed doors. That sense of satisfaction is doubtless compounded for those in closed societies who are being let in on the secret dealings and private language of their rulers. The Pax Americana bulks large in the consciousness of politically active populations the world over. And there is a measure of popular glee at being able to eavesdrop on what the Americans think of the local strongman.

Libyans already know plenty about Muammar al-Qaddafi. They have endured his erratic tyranny and bizarre showmanship for more than four decades. Still, they can savor what these U.S. diplomats write about his flamenco dancing and Botox use. Yemenis know all too well the cunning of the despot in their midst. Grant them a moment of satisfaction as they are treated to a vignette of their ruler telling Gen. David Petraeus that the U.S. drone attacks in Yemen present no problems for local politics. You have to hand it to the Yemeni dictator: Where most rulers brag about the efficiency of their regimes, he warns U.S. diplomats that his country is on the verge of becoming another Somalia, the prospect of catastrophic failure an inducement for outside powers to pour more treasure into Yemen.

In the West, however, the response is -- or may eventually end up being -- closer to McNamara's: Why study what we already know? No one needed WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, to convey the depth of the animus of the Sunni Arab regimes to the Iranian theocracy, their fear of the Shiite in their midst. Ever since U.S. forces struck into Iraq in 2003, the neighboring Arab regimes have dreaded this new Iraq and viewed the American project as a war of folly that handed Iraq to Iran. We now have dated and signed documents to confirm that, though it's nothing new.

When the Pakistan documents came out, there was the "discovery" that America had been played by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, that the men of the ISI took America's coin at the same time that they did business with the Taliban. That knowledge has long been an open secret, and Robert Gates, the prudent defense secretary, was quick to state that no "sensitive intelligence sources and methods" had been compromised by that flood of documents, that they were, in the main, about "tactical military operations." After the thrill of outing the ISI, the documents slipped into a great void, where they are likely to remain. It's hard to see historians writing great works of diplomatic history out of such material.

Sure, the American empire that Assange and his like detest has been embarrassed. The secretary of state had to travel to far-flung countries to apologize for these disclosures -- the apology tour, as she dubbed her recent travel. But there is something about our culture today, about the ceaseless chatter on the Internet, that will soften the blow. In this culture, little is remembered or retained. The Bolsheviks genuinely embarrassed Britain and France in 1917 when they opened the czarist archives and revealed the secrets of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, an accord between these two powers to divide the Middle East between them when the Great War ground to a halt. But we're beyond embarrassment now. Our culture trivializes history: It turns it into gossip, and gossip is short-lived. Already, as I write, the WikiLeaks revelations seem ever more trivial despite the massive scale of the disclosures. Pity the publisher who gave Assange a huge advance for a tell-all book. By the time the book sees the light of day, I hazard to predict few will pay it serious attention.

In Barry Unsworth's exquisite novel, Pascali's Island, Basil Pascali, a petty informer on a small Greek island in the final days of the Ottoman Empire, had reported on his neighbors for 20 years, sending a steady stream of dispatches to the authorities in Constantinople. Now the empire is coming apart, and an Englishman disturbing the peace and the monotony of the place strips Pascali of the faint illusion that his work mattered. "Imagine the paperwork," says the Englishman. But Pascali had harbored doubts of his own. "He was right, Excellency," he writes to the sultan. "I knew it then, as I know it now. My reports have not been read. Worse, they have not been kept." Our world differs, of course. These messages will be kept, but they are both massive and frivolous at the same time, and they are, most of them, certain to go unread.