When Russian politician Gadzhi Makhachev invited a United States ambassador to the lavish wedding of his son, he probably didn’t expect him to pen a 3,500-word critique.
But William Burns documented every last tacky detail for his superiors in Washington: the silver Rolls-Royce Phantom packed with Kalashnikov rifles; the scantily-clad dancers who were showered with $100 U.S. bills; the invite list that included a drunken wrestler, a nano-physicist, a rabbi in flip flops, and some “stupendously fat guests” who performed a traditional lezginka dance. He even pointed out that he refused to allow a colonel to add “cognac” to his wine.
If the world were one big high school then this week the United States became that unfortunate teenage girl whose diary was stolen, photocopied and plastered in every hallway for all to see. And though the initial cache of diplomatic cables released by whistleblower website WikiLeaks don’t appear to reveal highly-classified state secrets that could jeopardize the safety of the U.S. or its citizens, they’re certainly not going to help diplomats win – or keep – many friends.
The thousands of pages of leaked cables – occasionally glowing, but more often critical, and sometimes down-right cutting – offer frank commentary on all manner of world leaders, as well as their deputies and family members. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is described as “feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern European leader.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel is “risk-averse” and portrayed as the type of manager who promotes incompetent people to make herself look better.
Like any good diplomats, the officials rarely criticize cultural quirks – though a quick review of the material coming from Eurasia suggests the U.S. state department takes a nearly universal, condescending view of that region’s drinking habits. John Ordway, a former ambassador to Kazakhstan, described a Kazak defence minister in one cable: “a self-proclaimed workaholic, appears to enjoy loosening up in the tried and true “Homo Sovieticus” style – i.e., drinking oneself into a stupor.”
In an interview, Fred Bild, a former Canadian ambassador to China, said that even in the days before WikiLeaks, most diplomats were usually aware of the danger of using too many colourful adjectives in a cable. “The way I was trained, you didn't say blatant things – even in top secret material that you sent home from abroad. You pulled some of your punches… because you never know what can happen to documents,” Mr. Bild said.
With thousands of pages still yet to be released, it remains to be seen whether the complete horde will offer more substantial revelations. It also remains to be seen how the author of these scandals will bounce back from their disclosures: are American dignitaries now officially off the guest list for weddings in the Caucasus region? Or will the candour win some new-found respect from a profession that rarely speaks its mind?
For now, The Globe and Mail offers you a gallery of politicians and monarchs who were on the receiving end of that sharp pen.
A who’s who of the WikiLeaked world leaders
Embassy bulletins are blunt and reveal often gossipy details
President of Zimbabwe
July 13, 2007: “Robert Mugabe has survived for so long because he is more clever and more ruthless than any other politician in Zimbabwe. To give the devil his due, he is a brilliant tactician and has long thrived on his ability to abruptly change the rules of the game, radicalize the political dynamic and force everyone else to react to his agenda.
However, he is fundamentally hampered by several factors: his ego and belief in his own infallibility; his obsessive focus on the past as a justification for everything in the present and future; his deep ignorance on economic issues (coupled with the belief that his 18 doctorates give him the authority to suspend the laws of economics, including supply and demand); and his essentially short-term, tactical style.”
THE LOSER Guenther Oettinger German provincial governor
Dec. 31, 2009: “Chancellor Angela Merkel nominated Baden-Wuerttemberg (BW) Minister President Guenther Oettinger as EU Energy Commissioner primarily to remove an unloved lame duck from an important CDU bastion. The move was not the promotion of a valued colleague as Merkel’s allies sought to portray it. Rather, Oettinger’s increasing loss of party support in BW compelled Merkel to push Oettinger out to protect her support base there. Oettinger is noted for a lacklustre public speaking style, and some commentators have asserted that Mr. Merkel, who has often stood out at EU meetings, wanted to appoint a German Commissioner who would not outshine her.”
THE CREEP Moammar Gadhafi Libyan dictator
Sept. 29, 2009: Mr. Ghadafi “relies heavily on his long-time Ukrainian nurse, Galyna Kolotnytska, who has been described as a ‘voluptuous blonde.’ Of the rumoured staff of four Ukrainian nurses that cater to the Leader’s health and well-being, [redacted] emphasized to multiple [embassy officers] that [Mr. Ghadafi] cannot travel without Ms. Kolotnytska, as she alone ‘knows his routine.’”
THE PLAIN-SPEAKING King Abdullah bin Abulaziz Saudi Arabian king
Feb. 10, 2010: “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques will offer you a traditional Saudi welcome at the desert “encampment” outside Riyadh, where he likes to spend his winter vacations.
You will find in 86-year old King Abdullah a wry and forthright interlocutor. Having struggled with a speech impediment throughout his life, he tends to express himself tersely.”
THE LONER Recep Tayyip Erdogan Turkish prime minister
March 25, 2005: “PM Erdogan is isolated. He has lost touch with his Cabinet and parliamentary group. We hear MPs and Ministers alike, [redacted] who is close to Erdogan, complain they no longer have comfortable access, or feel obliged to kowtow for fear of incurring Erdogan’s wrath. Business associations, strong advocates of AKP economic policies, tell us they feel they have lost the PM’s ear. Erdogan has cut himself off from his closest spiritual advisers in the Iskender Pasa Naksibendi brotherhood in which he grew up, as we have heard directly from [redacted].”
THE WANNA-BE Nicolas Sarkozy President of France
Dec. 11, 2007: “An activist on the international scene, with an opportunistic eye for grabbing attention and credit, Sarkozy will remain a challenging partner despite his desire to improve the bilateral relationship.” Also called an “emperor with no clothes.”
THE BROTHER Ahmed Wali Karzai Brother of Afghan president Hamid Karzai
Oct. 3, 2009: “The meeting with AWK highlights one of our major challenges in Afghanistan: how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt … Given AWK’s reputation for shady dealings, his recommendations for large, costly infrastructure projects should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.”
THE STRIVER Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan AKA Mbz, Crown prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi
Aug. 31, 2009: “Aged 47, MbZ is a leader not just in the UAE, but more broadly in the Middle East, where he is seen as a particularly dynamic member of the generation succeeding the geriatric cases who have dominated the region for decades. He is a reformer, actively seeking to improve the life of his citizens and the UAE’s future through better education and health care, and through economic diversification, including investments in clean energy to prepare his citizenry for a post-hydrocarbon future. He is proud of the fact that despite having had the option of life of privilege, he rose through the ranks of the UAE Armed Forces, earning his wings as a helicopter pilot and retains a common touch that appeals to Emiratis.”
THE TOADY Dmitri Medvedev President of Russia
2008: He might be the ostensible man in charge of Russia, but according to one cable, he is really just a highly-decorated wingman to his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, who is nominally the second in charge. A cable describes Medvedev as a pale, hesitant figure who “plays Robin to Putin’s Batman.”