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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Just Enough Cable to Hang Yourself

Dr. Mary Manjikian
Robertson School of Government

In 1946, George F. Kennan, a senior foreign service officer at the American Embassy in Moscow sent the so-called “Long Telegram” back to Washington. In the five cables which comprised the telegram, he speculated about how the United States should proceed in crafting its foreign policy toward the Soviet Union in the post-World War II era. These cables became the basis of the US foreign policy of containing the Soviet Union for, arguably, the next forty years.

And George Kennan became a sort of folk hero at the State Department. At that moment, he created the gold standard of what a diplomatic cable could be and the ends which it ultimately might serve. For junior foreign servicers stationed throughout the world, writing the next “X telegram” is a sort of lovely daydream. It’s the State Department’s equivalent of winning the Oscars or Dancing with the Stars. One day, you might be a low-level functionary toiling away in relative obscurity as you report on oil futures, grain shipments or the ways in which the Netherlands deals with its aging population, and the next day you might be recalled back to Washington to enjoy a position of power and influence as you live out your days testifying before Congress and appearing on morning talk shows.

However, it’s interesting to speculate about what might have happened had his cables been “Wikileaked” rather than analyzed at the State Department. Had Wikileaks had the X telegram, international newspaper coverage might have generated the following headlines: “Kennan accuses Russians of Fanaticism” or “Russians called Jealous and Fierce.” Perhaps they would have accused Kennan of mindreading or prophesying about the future since he speculated about what might have happened “had Lenin lived.”

But what would have been missing was the valuable context which could only be generated by reading the entire cable, by placing it in context, and by knowing the players and what they represent.

Because the State Department cable is a highly specialized sort of communication. First, it is not an academic analysis nor is it journalism. It is often written on an extremely tight time-frame with the overarching goal of quickly reporting back to Washington about urgent developments. Here the writer might be less exacting with language than is always prudent. Though a cable needs to be “cleared” and signed off by several layers of hierarchy before going out, no one wants to hold up a cable for three or four hours while he or she searches for the best synonym for “belligerent.”

Next, a cable is written in insider-speak for a known audience. Many phrases are recycled in cables so that they serve as a sort of shorthand to those who have read the author’s previous work or the work of others in a particular bureau. (For example, “narcissistic” might be a kind of shorthand to signal a dispute between those who believe that terrorists have a particular personality versus those who believe that terrorism is largely a product of one’s environment.) An outsider is unlikely to know what the phrases really mean without this valuable context.

Finally, cable writing is a competitive sport among foreign service officers, all of whom are vying for a limited number of promotions in any career cycle. In the cable writing event, points are given for speed, creativity (including the ability to craft a good phrase or metaphor) and productivity. Here, one needs to picture the thousands of cables which come into the State Department every day from embassies all over the world on a myriad of subjects. How does the aspiring junior foreign service officer make a name for himself? How does he assure that someone important will read his cable and pluck him from the masses, impressed by his insights and his ability to analyze? Often, the junior analyst attempts to get noticed by saying something controversial or by using a colorful description or turn of phrase to get the attention of his readers. That, at any rate, is my explanation for the characterization of Putin as an “alpha dog.” This catchy phrase is pithy, descriptive and memorable. Someone might even have been promoted on the strength of this description. (Likely we will never know.) It also explains the cable on the “Wedding in Dagestan” which reads like a freshman composition assignment.

As a former foreign service officer and current academic, I am saddened by the facile way in which these documents are being “analyzed” – if that is indeed the right word – by those who do not know the writers, the seriousness with which they do their jobs, and the pressures which they face. I feel for the friends of mine who are being mischaracterized and maligned by those who do not know them, the sacrifices they have made or the patriotism they feel for their country. It is my hope that as newspapers continue to report on this story, they will do a better job of considering the context and the culture of this beloved artifact, the diplomatic cable.

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