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WikiLeaks: The story that keeps on dripping

Thu, 02 Dec 2010

The drip-feeding of the WikiLeaks of some 250,000 confidential US diplomatic cables has provided a treasure trove for journalists, commentators and scholars alike.

Usually, you have to wait several decades for such material to surface, either confirming or rebutting the conventional wisdom of the day.

A recent book in the UK, Parting Shots, edited by Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson, is an anthology based on the tradition of British ambassadors sending a valedictory dispatch to the foreign secretary on leaving their post.

Douglas Hurd, himself a former foreign secretary, has revealed the tradition ended abruptly when Margaret Beckett, a two-year foreign secretary in Tony Blair’s cabinet, “took exception to a particularly brusque description by a departing ambassador of British foreign policy under Tony Blair as ‘bull- shit bingo.’”

Baron Hurd went on, in his Spectator book review, to say Mrs Beckett was not noted for a sense of humour and used a single exaggerated phrase to cripple a tradition that had “given mild pleasure.”

His choice of the best observation was ambassador Sir Roderick Braithwaite’s final dispatch from Moscow in May 1992:

All those who have dealt with the Russians over the centuries have commented on their indifference to the truth. The lie in Russia has indeed ... become an art form.

The latest example I have come across occurs in hotels frequented by foreigners: the notice in five languages on the lavatory reads ‘disinfected for your comfort and safety’. Every Russian knows that this cannot be true. Only the most naive of foreigners would think any different. Yet in a great country you disinfect the lavatory seat; so the notice has to go up.

Wild weddings and dandy dictators
Thanks to WikiLeaks, we can now savour many thousands of candid observations by American diplomats on events, leaders and countries in the past three years.

Most of the serious ones, about both friend and foe, have been well publicised. It is remarkable that most would not surprise anyone who follows world events.

The diplomats confirm what we already suspect: that North Korea ships nuclear-type weapons to Iran and elsewhere, Pakistan’s army runs a terrorist network and the mafia runs Russia, and that most of America’s Islamic allies, from the Saudis to the Afghans, are duplicitous, crooked or both.

The verdicts on world leaders are also spot on, and have caused little embarrassment. Labelled “feckless, vain and ineffective,” Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi’s party-animal antics are so well documented by his local media that he could dismiss the cables as something he could read every day in the papers.

By contrast, few would have known “mercurial and eccentric” Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi – also noted for his liking of young Italian women – had a “voluptuous blonde” Ukrainian nurse  to tend his every need.

Browsing of the cables has been made easier by WikiLeaks giving the cables to at least three major media outlets, the New York Times (“State secrets”), Spiegel Online and the Guardian (“The US embassy cables,”) which have been able to process them ahead of release.

You can take your pick from much riveting material. Three of my favourites are this account by Spiegel on living conditions in North Korea; the Guardian’s write-up of Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s responsibility for last year's massacre of Tamil rebels; and why the Arab media, suggesting another Israeli conspiracy, have censored most of what the US thinks of their leaders, also in the Guardian.

Among the best original cables are this portrait of Zimbabwe and dictator Robert Mugabe; one of four cables in which Prince Andrew sounds off on corruption, Russia and the media; and, most colourful of all, this “wild wedding” in lawless Dagestan. 

Answering Irish prayers
For many New Zealanders of Irish descent, the news that the Emerald Isle has been put in an EU-style receivership, if not liquidation, has shock value if not exactly a surprise.

The political management of Ireland has been as dire as its business acumen, and is trenchantly summed up in Fintan O’Toole’s Ship of Fools, a must read book, and more recently in Kevin Myers’ latest despatch in The Spectator.

This sentence is a good summary of the two cultural factors that plague Ireland:

The first is the who-you-know politics that is key to Fianna Fail’s style of government. The second is the other survivor from the pre-modern age: a tradition of flaithiúlacht, which means ruinous generosity, especially with someone else’s money.

It got me thinking what an opportunity Ireland presents New Zealand. In short order, we could solve all its problems, short of paying back the €85 billion of loans it has been given.

First, the banks should immediately be passed over to Australia, just as we have, to bring stability and prudent management to the financial system.

Ireland has a number of industries that would be better run by Irish Kiwis – dairy, the media, investing and horse breeding come to mind – while a clutch of out-of-work property developers (Nigel McKenna, for one) could be put back to work at home.

Then there’s all the US-based high-tech and pharmaceutical companies attracted by the low corporate taxes. Think what Ian McCrae and Rod Drury could do with them to make the Kiwi IT sector a global force.

Telecom could do wonders to Eircomm, the former state telecoms company that has been passed around, in O’Toole’s words, “like a joint at a student party.”

Air New Zealand has a thing or two it could learn from Michael O’Leary, but with a little bit of juggling you could have a new world aviation giant made of the Kiwi carrier, Ryanair and Aer Lingus.

Then there’s the punchline: In return for taking over the receivership, all New Zealanders could become Irish again, giving young Kiwis back their birthright OE of being able to live in London (a ritual the new UK immigration rules have ended by closing the country to “all non-Europeans").

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WikiLeaks: The story that keeps on dripping