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WikiLeaks highlights diplomatic writing tradition

The diplomatic dispatch got straight to the point. "Emperor Dead," cabled John Foster from Russia to the U.S. State Department on the 1881 assassination of the Czar, Alexander II.

Then there was the 1946 "Long Telegram," George Kennan's treatise from Moscow (with apology for "this burdening of telegraphic channel") that laid down the philosophical underpinnings for the Cold War.

Today, the slow-drip release of U.S. cables by WikiLeaks shines a light on the inheritors of a fertile tradition of diplomatic writing, a mostly unheralded army of envoys whose messages from former imperial capitals and far-flung outposts help to shape American foreign policy.

For the United States, the WikiLeaks dump is a grave embarrassment. But if there is a silver lining, it is the revelation or reminder that American diplomats, often maligned at home and abroad, have a gift for language and detail, keen analysis, and a wry and occasionally mischievous sense of humor.

The cables strip away stereotypical images of American diplomats, or perhaps diplomats of any country, as bland bureaucrats, pampered socialites, or anonymous figures with muffled voices behind a thick glass window in the visa section.

"There's kind of an image of the striped pants set that's pushing cookies and attending cocktail parties," lamented Peter Eicher, a former American diplomat and editor of the book "'Emperor Dead' and Other Historic American Diplomatic Dispatches."

Such perceptions exist because much of what diplomats do happens discreetly, in private conversations and tough negotiations masked by the smooth veneer of protocol. Even so, the dispatches confirm that some diplomats just can't resist a dose of catty gossip.

Some of the most arch and entertaining observations have come from the embassy in Kazakhstan, where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was, uncomfortably, on a visit this week. A 2008 missive about a dinner hosted by tycoon Aleksandr Mashkevich for two visiting U.S. congressmen sniffs at the boiled meat and noodles.

"It is not clear what Mashkevich is spending his billions on, but it is certainly not culinary talent," a diplomat wrote. "The wine, at least, was somewhat upscale with reasonably good French vintage bottles uncorked for the guests."

The cables labeled Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as "feckless" and a party animal. One from 2004 cited contacts reporting that Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had Swiss bank accounts — which Erdogan called slander motivated by "the personal hatred" of a former ambassador.

Yet a 2010 cable from Ankara grasps the complexity of Turkey, a NATO member and EU candidate with an Islam-inspired government that has sought more robust ties in the Balkans and the Middle East. The country has been seen as veering away from the Western line in its close ties with Iran and harsh criticism of Israel.

"Does all this mean that the country is becoming more focused on the Islamist world and its Muslim tradition in its foreign policy? Absolutely," read the cable. "Does it mean that it is 'abandoning' or wants to abandon its traditional Western orientation and willingness to cooperate with us? Absolutely not."

It makes for colorful if controversial reading in its descriptions of the "special yen for destructive drama and - rhetoric" of Turkey's political leaders, as well as the nation's "neo-Ottoman posturing" and "Rolls Royce ambitions but Rover resources."

Christopher Dell, U.S. ambassador in Kosovo, wrote a sober assessment of Zimbabwe before leaving the top diplomatic post there in 2007, describing the opposition as "far from ideal" and President Robert Mugabe as "more clever and more ruthless" than political rivals.

"I don't know whether to be pleased or annoyed that the reaction seems to be 'gosh, they know what they're doing after all,'" Dell wrote on his Facebook page after WikiLeaks began dumping embassy files onto the Internet.

Literary figures who served as American diplomats include Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, all of whom were posted to Europe in the 19th century. James Russell Lowell, poet and essayist, made trenchant observations during a royal palace ceremony while stationed in Spain.

"It was a very picturesque spectacle, and yet so comically like a scene from Cinderella as to have a strong flavor of unreality," he wrote in 1878. "It was the past coming back again, and thus typified one of the chronic maladies of Spain."

Later, Lowell joined other diplomats at a dinner hosted by the king: "A dinner where one is planted between two entire strangers, and expected to be entertaining in an alien tongue, will, one may hope, be reckoned to our credit in another world."

Modern cable-writing begins when an embassy's political section advises the State Department on what topics they plan to report — for example, a country's political opposition — and then Washington signs off on the plan. Once dispatched, the cables circulate among agencies in the American capital.

"A lot of these things don't get read, which is why, not unlike in the news business, people start writing snappier subject lines. It might include a little more humor," said Christopher Hill, a former U.S. negotiator on the Balkans and North Korea, as well as a former U.S. ambassador in Iraq and South Korea. He is now dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver in Colorado.

"As ambassador, I would always say, 'What are you guys doing here? You should be out talking to people,'" Hill said. "People don't tell you interesting things on the phone. They'll tell you in the coffeeshop, or in their office, or taking a walk somewhere."

He described the potential damage of the leak by using a comparison from journalism.

"It would be like every source of the New York Times is somehow put on the front page of the Washington Post," Hill said. "People are reluctant enough to spill their guts to an American diplomat and now it's going to be even worse."

Diplomatic parties are more than an opportunity to sip champagne and nibble on hors d'oeuvres. They can be a vital way to pick up titbits of information and communicate with foreign governments in a way that would be impossible in a more rigid setting, flanked by aides and note-takers.

"If you happen to sort of bump into the foreign minister, and there she is, you can deliver a very informal, sometimes not that easy a message, sometimes a message of caution ... You don't want to build a whole formal meeting around you," said Brandon Grove, a U.S. ambassador in Zaire under President Reagan and author of "Behind Embassy Walls: The Life and Times of an American Diplomat."

Grove said diplomatic dispatches fell into categories: the "straight reporting" cable on, for example, a meeting with an official; the cable about an event such as an election, written from the viewpoint of U.S. national interests; the analytical summary, often crafted by the chief of mission; and the "predictive" cable that recommends a course of action. Only the ambassador is entitled to write in the first person, a technique that grabs the attention of cable-weary officials in Washington.

"A good ambassador will use the word 'I' sparingly," Grove said. "It's valuable currency."

The State Department sees a positive glimmer, noting the cable dump shows American diplomats at work.

"What you see in the full context of these documents is United States diplomats fully engaged around the world," said Philip J. Crowley, assistant secretary for the bureau of public affairs. "And that is not going to change."

Some of the most celebrated American citizens have reported on some of the most epic world events. Thomas Jefferson wrote — and yes, dispatches were hand-written in the days before "cables," itself an outdated term — about the 1789 storming of the Bastille in Paris, and John Quincy Adams updated Washington on Napoleon's retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812.

"The diplomatic archives are largely unmined and they're full of nuggets," said Eicher, the "Emperor Dead" editor. "The stuff that's being done now isn't so different from what was being done then."