The List

Ten More WikiLeaks You Missed

From the Indian April Fools cable to Hanoi's sexy discos to China's dangerous nuclear plants, Julian Assange's hits just keep on coming.

The planets are out of alignment in India

The U.S. ambassador to New Delhi informed Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon "that he will go on a hunger strike until the UPA government submits the IAEA safeguards agreement to the Board of Governor," according to a 2008 cable. In a separate meeting, the U.S. envoy noted "that the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn in April would prevail on the Board to look more favorably on the [nuclear] agreement."

The cable continues in that vein for almost 1,000 words, discussing planetary alignments' effects on Indian politics and requesting $250 million to rotate the U.S. chancery 90 degrees, in order to provide more sunlight and eliminate shade, "which darkens the U.S. perspective towards India."

Had the U.S. ambassador drunk a spiked mango lassi before sending the cable? Not quite -- the explanation for this new age mumbo-jumbo lies in the cable's date: April 1. "Happy April Fool's Day from Incredible India!" it concludes.


Vietnam: Karaoke makes a man lonely

Seems like the U.S. embassy staff in Hanoi decided to get down and dirty researching this racy cable. Intended as a missive to Washington on how the government of Vietnam is combating the social ills of the sex industry, the excerpts from this partial cable meander into an exegesis on the varied opportunities that Hanoi's nightlife provides the single man.

It starts off reasonably seriously enough: "Apart from lamenting the problem, officials appear to do little to remedy this social evil -- partly due to corruption but perhaps more importantly because they cannot be sure whether the public would rather continue to enjoy such newfound freedoms or welcome a clampdown and return to ‘socialist morality.' Unfortunately, the health implications of the growing sex industry are no joke, with HIV/AIDs infections rising steadily...."

Of course, more digging was required. The November 2002 cable goes onto note three of Hanoi's finest discos -- New Century, Magic Moo, and Park -- and the "large numbers of unaccompanied young ladies who are remarkably friendly to strange men." Huh, wonder why....

But you can't call it a night without a bit of singing, right? And so, it seems, the nocturnal data collectors head off to sample Hanoi's profusion of karaoke bars which turn out to "employ a stable of usually very good-looking ‘hostesses,' whose singing abilities vary considerably. Vietnamese call this kind of karaoke bars ‘karaoke om' -- cuddle karaoke. The hostesses are generous with their enthusiasm for otherwise untalented renditions of popular tunes, but also willing -- nay, eager -- to keep the male singers warm against the chill of air conditioned rooms in the Hanoi heat."

It gets better (or worse). Late into the evening, we presume, our intrepid Foreign Service officers, exhausted from the night's exertions, head for a relaxing massage where, lo and behold, "an astonishingly high percentage of these masseuses appear to be attractive young ladies, many of whom claim to be from out of town.... One new multi-story ‘entertainment center,' whose elaborate statuary and other decoration have been described by some observers as ‘classic brothel style,' is just a couple of doors down the street from the U.S. embassy...."

At least they didn't have to go far.


Their man in Havana

Cuba's intransigent government has represented one of the most enduring U.S. foreign policy dilemmas over the past half-century. Relations between Washington and Havana, to the extent that there have been any for 50 years, have been fraught. But now, with the Castro regime showing tentative signs of loosening its grip on power, a U.S. Coast Guard officer has emerged as perhaps Havana's most trusted interlocutor with the U.S. government.

A series of cables, which WikiLeaks shared with McClatchy, described how Cuban officials had approached the narcotics officer on a range of issues outside of his official job description. In one 2009 cable, a Cuban Foreign Ministry official told the officer that upcoming migration talks should focus on how the United States and Cuba would respond to a "potential mass migration scenario" from the island. On another occasion, a Cuban diplomat told the Coast Guard officer that the Castro may reverse its long-standing rejection of U.S. aid for assistance rebuilding after a hurricane. "Check, Please!" read the subject line of the cable.

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden American Diplomat

A WikiLeaked diplomatic cable from 2007 described how an unnamed economics officer from the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou posed as a South Korean tourist to gain access to two "tiger reserves" in southern China, which cast doubt on the country's conservation efforts. While visiting the reserves, he witnessed tigers and bears, all of which are either endangered or nearly extinct, whipped and forced to perform in a mock "marriage procession." 

The gift store staff, convinced that the U.S. diplomat was a Korean tourist, was reportedly eager to sell him products from the animals themselves. "‘The Koreans were among the most enthusiastic purchasers of both the black bear bile and the tiger wine,' they explained."


Russia's Frat House Foreign Ministry

According to an October 2008 cable from the U.S. embassy in Moscow, reported this week by the Moscow Times, Russia's Foreign Ministry "remains a bastion of Slavic males who went to Moscow's top schools." The ministry's director of personnel, Vladimir Morozov, is quoting as saying that diplomacy is traditionally the "domain of the stronger sex" and argues that "men were better equipped to handle long-term absences from home, harsh climates, and the 'complex political and military situations' in which Russian diplomats often found themselves." According to the cable, while the number of women in the institution is increased, they are traditionally limited to public affairs, or secretarial work rather than diplomatic assignments.

Overall, the author reports that the culture of sexism, micromanagement, limited technology and rigid top-down management style, limited use of modern communications technology, "a Soviet-like effort to maintain control of information" all contribute to a "challenging environment" for conducting diplomacy.

Another gripe at the ministry is the low pay. Sources within the Foreign Ministry told the cable's author that diplomats' wives who work in the private sector frequently earn more than their husbands do. Seems there are a lot of good reasons smart women would rather work elsewhere.

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Huntsman: watch out for China's single males

Jon Huntsman, the Obama administration's former envoy in Beijing and now a GOP presidential hopeful, warned in a 2010 cable that China's one-child policy was leading to social instability and a dangerous gender imbalance in the country. The glut of males, caused both by sex-selective abortions and the higher mortality rates of female babies, has led to 30 million "unmarriageable" Chinese men, who could "cause unrest in the most economically marginalized areas, and could lead to increased gender violence through demand for prostitution and trafficking in girls and women."

But while most U.S. officials have blanched upon seeing their name in WikiLeaks, Huntsman's campaign advisors have used the cable as evidence that their candidate will take a tough line on China's human rights record. Particularly following Vice President Joe Biden's remark in Beijing that he was "not second-guessing" China's one-child policy, Huntsman has seized on the issue to distinguish himself from his former employers.

"One-child runs counter to the fundamental value of human life and has myriad other negative consequences including an increase in sex trafficking and prostitution, as well as a destabilization of the family unit," Huntsman's campaign spokesman told The Cable.

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Bibi for Mideast peace?

With Israeli-Palestinian negotiations moribund and the Palestinian leadership planning to take their statehood bid to the U.N. General Assembly in September -- a move bitterly opposed by Israel -- even the most die-hard optimist would be hard-pressed to find a bright spot regarding the peace process. And while there is plenty of blame to go around, the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- which has expanded settlements in the West Bank and insisted on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state -- is no doubt partially responsible for this lack of progress.

But in April 2009, the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv was singing a different tune: Netanyahu "is keeping all options open regarding a two-state solution, and may be willing to advance the process significantly as long as he is not forced to publicly acknowledge the extent of such progress," read one cable. Maybe, but we'll believe it when we see it.

On other issues, however, the judgment of the U.S. embassy proved more accurate. Another cable, sent on the same day in April 2009, judged that Israel's coalition government, while unwieldy, "may provide Netanyahu with his best hope for long-term stability." With Netanyahu's government still looking strong over two years later, the embassy officials may feel vindicated by its prediction -- even as they regret its accuracy.

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Child Smuggling in Sweden

You wouldn't immediately peg the Swedish capital as home to a sophisticated international human smuggling ring, but according to this newly released 2006 cable from the U.S. embassy in Stockholm, 120 Chinese children who arrived there over the course of 18 months just up and disappeared.

Most of the children, the cable reports, arrived directly from Beijing or via Moscow, with little but a cell phone and "small amounts of cash" -- all requesting asylum. Hans Ihrman, the senior state prosecutor in Stockholm, briefed the U.S. embassy on the fishy business, which he believed was managed by organized traffickers: "The children's asylum requests are all identical. When pressed, they make vague references to having relatives persecuted for links to the Phalun Gong religious movement; beyond that they say nothing. Ihrman said the children appear to have been ‘very professionally coached' in responding to interview questions."

The children were then sent to immigration reception centers, but not detained due to their status as minors. All then disappeared shortly thereafter. In one instance in summer 2005, the children, according to Ihrman, received instructions on their cell phones and subsequently purchased bus tickets to Copenhagen. As Swedish law prohibits wiretapping and restricting the children's movements, authorities could only follow the bus to the Denmark border, where Danish police picked up the trail. From Denmark, the Chinese children boarded another bus to Germany, but restrictions on surveillance prevented German officials from following the trail. "Danish police literally had to watch the bus drive away at the border, said Ihrman. The children have not been seen since."

Swedish officials reportedly raised the matter with counterparts in Beijing, who "assured the Swedes that it would be impossible for a child to leave China on an international flight unaccompanied by an adult."

The cable concludes with both a finger pointed at European security services and a plea for help: "While we admit we have only a superficial grasp of this situation, we are nonetheless incredulous about the narrow interpretation of laws and implementation of strict rights of privacy that paradoxically result in a basic loss of human rights of these minors.  We report this to our neighboring posts in the hope they may have some complimentary information.

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Syria's leadership is nasty, untrustworthy -- and effective

President Barack Obama came into office determined to attempt a difficult diplomatic reengagement of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, designed to pry it away from the Iranian orbit. But behind the diplomatic niceties, the U.S. embassy in Damascus had a vicious appraisal of their host government.

Assad "would prefer to see himself as a sort of philosopher-king," read one June 2009 cable, which suggested that U.S. diplomats may be able to play on the president's "intellectual pretentions" to gain his trust. The cable was not any kinder to Assad's subordinates, describing the Syrian diplomatic practices as "at best abrasive and, at its worst, brutal."

Even worse than being obnoxious, the embassy described Syrian diplomats as unreliable. "SARG [Syrian Arab Republic Government] officials at every level lie," the cable stated bluntly. "They persist in a lie even in the face of evidence to the contrary. They are not embarrassed to be caught in a lie."

And despite it all, the cable concludes, the U.S. effort to engage with the Syrians may be the only way for the United States to resolve its problems in the Middle East. "At the end of the day, there are few who really like to deal with the Syrians," the cable read. "The SARG, well aware of its reputation, however, spends much of its energy ensuring that we have to."


China's dangerous nuclear power industry

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster and with the world more attuned to the dangers of nuclear power than ever before, a series of State Department cables reported in the Guardian warned that China's new power plants will be old before they're even switched on. But there might be more than just environmental worries at play here -- there's money to be made.

"China is currently in the process of building as many as 50 to 60 new nuclear plants by 2020; the vast majority will be the CPR-1000, a copy of 60's era Westinghouse technology that can be built cheaply and quickly and with the majority of parts sourced from Chinese manufacturers."

That's a concern for U.S. nuclear suppliers like Westinghouse and General Electric. With China's vast energy demands and a tightening global market for nuclear power, the country is exceedingly important.

Perhaps that's why one cable seems to be trying the old scare-tactic sales pitch: "China is assuring that rather than building a fleet of state-of-the-art reactors, they will be burdened with technology that by the end of its lifetime will be 100 years old.  Finally, by bypassing the passive safety technology of the AP1000, which, according to Westinghouse, is 100 times safer than the CPR-1000, China is vastly increasing the aggregate risk of its nuclear power fleet."

China's not listening, though: the cable notes that the vast majority of the technology purchases for the planned nuclear plants are "political decisions."


The List

The Black Hole of 9/11

As we assess the legacy of the 10th anniversary of America's seminal terrorist attack, it's worth looking at 10 events from the past decade that have actually been more important.

Recently, I've started to get calls from reporters doing pieces on the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11. The thrust of the conversations is the same: How were we changed by that watershed moment?

But in responding to their questions and mulling the question in my head, I keep coming back to the same conclusion: 9/11, for all its tragic and heroic drama, is an easy event to overestimate. Indeed, we have been overestimating its significance since almost the moment it happened. (According to President George W. Bush, his chief of staff, Andrew Card, leaned forward to whisper the news of the attack in his ear and said, "America is under attack." Although factually accurate, the statement was in the language of traditional wars with traditional enemies and implied that the United States as a nation was somehow at risk in ways much broader than was actually the case.)

In fact, the success of Osama bin Laden was in masterminding a low-cost, comparatively low-risk action by a handful of thugs that produced one of the most profound overreactions in military history. Trillions of dollars were expended and hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the emotion-fueled maelstrom unleashed by a shaken and clearly disoriented America. Bin Laden aimed for Wall Street and Washington, seeking to strike a blow against symbols of American power, but in so doing he also hit us where it would hurt the most -- right in our sense of perspective.

We spoke of 9/11 as though it were somehow equivalent to Pearl Harbor, the beginning of a global war against enemies bent on, and at least theoretically capable of, destroying the American way of life (unlike al Qaeda, a ragtag band of extremists with limited punch). We spoke of cultural wars and a divided world. We reorganized our entire security establishment to go after a few thousand bad guys. We went mad.

And now, as we are recovering our senses, withdrawing from Iraq, and soon starting to exit Afghanistan, having buried bin Laden and hosts of his henchmen, we are beginning to be able to see this. At least in theory we can. For the next couple of weeks, we will witness documentary after editorial mega-feature, interviews with victims and heroes, the American legend machine producing historical bumpf at full blast. That is not, by the way, to diminish the brutal blows struck 10 years ago or the deeply felt human experiences associated with it and its aftermath. Rather it is to say that once again we will seek to frame 9/11 as a great event, the definer of an era, when in fact, its greatest defining characteristic was that of a distraction -- The Great Distraction -- that drew America's focus and that of many in the world from the greater issues of our time. That distraction and the opportunity costs associated with it were bin Laden's triumph and our loss -- and our ultimate victory will come as we get a grip back on reality.

One way to demonstrate that restoration of historical sensibility comes if we ask ourselves, looking back over the past 10 years, what other developments took place that exceed 9/11 in lasting importance? What events of the past decade will historians write of that will have them looking past or beyond the attack, its masterminds, or its immediate response? There are scores, I suspect. Here are just 10 that come to me off the top of my head.


10. The American Response to 9/11

While some might consider America's overwrought response to 9/11 to be proof of its significance, so much of that response was irrational and more directly related to issues in America's past (the invasion of Iraq, for example) that it needs to be seen as a thing apart. Indeed, we had been directly and indirectly fighting wars in and around Iraq for years. Further, that war was a "war of choice," just as the violation of our national principles at Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo was purely self-destructive, auto-terrorism if you will. We did more damage to ourselves than did the two-bit criminals who baited us. In any event, our response -- which extends on the positive side to our coming to better understand how to combat terrorism (the "intelligence war" and drone attacks bin Laden ended up bitterly lamenting) -- was both vastly bigger in scope and in consequence than the events that triggered it.


9. The Arab Spring

We have no idea how the string of revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa this year is going to turn out. But we do know that they are a sign of deep change that has toppled more governments in the region than either al Qaeda or the United States could. These revolutions are having a broader social impact than extremism and are linked more directly to the self-interest of the masses in the region -- which ought to have us handicapping it with better odds than we'd give fundamentalist murderers practicing their ancient, outmoded, and ineffective trade. The United States was right to focus on the rise of nonstate actors and asymmetric power -- it was just focusing on the wrong sources of that power.


8. The Rebalancing of Asia

This trend is related to the No. 1 story of the decade (keep reading), but it touches more lives and will be of far greater impact to global foreign policy than anything that happens in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or anywhere in the Middle East. In fact, the intensive efforts to forge new alliances and open new relationships among all the international players with interests in Asia will probably play a decisive role in AfPak as it encompasses developments like the U.S. embrace of India. That evolving partnership between the world's two largest democracies will have important regional consequences vis-à-vis the battle against terrorism and containing threats from within Pakistan while at the same time creating an important counterbalance to China. These strategic shifts across Asia touch far more countries than those, however, as they involve creating new alliances and deepened relationships to address, engage with, and at the same time, manage the consequences of China's rise -- as well as that of other emerging powers such as India and, someday soon, perhaps a reunified Korea. It's complicated, but it's the big leagues of foreign policy compared with the Middle East, which is attention-grabbing but over the long term strictly second division.


7. The Stagnation of the U.S. and Other Developed-World Economies

This trend started a few years before 9/11 with Japan's economic meltdown. But it really gained momentum in the 2000s, when the United States experienced its first-ever decade of zero net new job creation and declining median incomes. Europe also spluttered, especially in the south -- and this weakening of the pillars of the post-World War II world clearly fed a reordering of geopolitics. Entering an age of limitations is forcing big powers to work together differently and has put the kibosh on the momentary and misguided unilateralism of the Bush era in the United States.


6. The Invention of Social Media

What's more important? Knocking down the World Trade Center and killing several thousand innocents or linking half a billion people together as never before (as Facebook did)? Passing notes from cave to cave in Waziristan or fueling a Twitter revolution in Cairo's Tahrir Square? It's not even close.

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5. The Proliferation of Cell Phones and Hand-Held Computing Devices

As big as the advent of social media is, the big technology story of the past decade is the unprecedented, mind-boggling, world-reordering spread of cell phones. In 1991, 10 years before 9/11, there were 16 million cell-phone subscribers worldwide. Today, we are rapidly approaching 6 billion cell-phone subscribers. Eight trillion text messages will be sent in 2011. Within three or four years, more people will access the Internet via phone than via computer. And growth is fastest in the emerging world. There are more cell phone cameras today than all other forms of camera added together. Everyone is connected. Everyone is a witness. Everyone is part of a global news network, an instant coalition, a mob, an electorate.


4. The Crash of 2008

The Dow Jones industrial average fell from a peak of 14,164 on Oct. 9, 2007, to 6,469 the following March, a decline of 54 percent. It took 17 months to "recover." (The jury is still out on what's next.) The U.S. housing market, which peaked in 2006, has plummeted virtually unabated ever since, and some experts expect that those past highs may be unattainable for years, if ever. The resulting tens of trillions of dollars in losses sent hundreds of millions of people deeper into poverty, crushed retirement accounts, impacted the well-being of billions of people, and called into question the viability of countries and companies in ways that cannot yet be calculated. It also had political and policy implications -- from reconsidering national priorities to changing global views toward "American capitalism" -- that will dwarf those associated with 9/11.

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3. The Eurozone Crisis and the Crash of 2011-2012

Don't believe point No. 4? Well, keep watching. The weakening caused by the decline of developed-world economies, the crash of 2008, reckless overborrowing by European governments, and lax management of the banking sector (as well as localized national problems such as the failure by the Spanish to learn the lessons of the U.S. housing crisis) has led to a crisis that could undo the European Union, blow up the euro, and -- even if neither of those things happen -- send the world's economy into another tailspin that could recall or exceed 2008's crash. If it does, it will have an even more devastating impact on already weakened economies worldwide; and if it undoes the European experiment, which has helped ensure decades of peace on a continent previously riven by conflict, well, then it will again on totally different grounds easily trump 9/11.


2. The Failure to Address Global Warming

While evidence piled up that man-made warming was accelerating in ways that outstripped all models and all precedent in human history, while the scientific community united in its agreement that the crisis would be existential for many forms of life and coastal communities where billions of people live, while the entire planet was threatened as never before, the leaders of the world were otherwise engaged. If global temperatures rise another degree or three this century, 9/11 will be seen as a comparative footnote to an event that could remake the nature of life on Earth and lead to a toll many, many times greater than either 9/11 or the wars it triggered.


1. The Rise of China and the Other BRICs

The only reason global warming is not No. 1 is that we haven't seen its full effects yet. But its contours -- and that of economic growth and political power on the planet -- will be shaped increasingly by the influence of the "new" powers of the 21st century, led by China, India, Brazil, and others. Of course, they're not new: China and India were the world's largest economies from the dawn of time until almost the mid-19th century. But still, on September 11, 2001, they were considered players to watch -- in the distant future. The past decade has seen them emerge to the point that they are now the engines of growth that will determine whether a market crash of 2011 occurs, whether the United States and Europe can borrow to fund their ailing economies, whether the world will reach an agreement to manage greenhouse gas emissions, whether we will truly contain the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and what the real future of international institutions and agreements will look like. The BRICs rose while the United States was distracted by bin Laden's sideshow; now, America's future will depend on how quickly Americans can refocus on what's really important.

So, does all this mean 9/11 was not important? Of course not. It was a significant day in the life of America, a turning point in our view of our vulnerabilities and of the nature of threats and real power in the world. It led us to question many of our assumptions about the nature of our country, our alliances, our military capabilities, and our worldview. It and its aftermath have had a horrific human cost -- on victims of the attack, on the families of our soldiers, and on the many victims and their families of the wars we subsequently conducted in the Middle East. It has changed America, taught us our limitations, and forced us to question ourselves. We have been diminished by it, raised up by the noble examples of individual Americans -- and in the end we have learned much from it. Foremost among those lessons, however, must be that we as a nation need to summon the discipline in times of great national challenges to frame events in the broader context of time and our larger interests. We cannot allow single isolated events to warp our view of all around them, like historical black holes twisting the fabric of adjacent time and events. It is important to our process of consigning 9/11 to history to understand both what it was and what it was not, why it was important and why it was just one of many even greater stories of the past decade.

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