Amidst WikiLeaks documents, novel diplomacy

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was wicked mad over WikiLeaks. "This disclosure is not just an attack on America's foreign policy interests," she declared Monday. "It is an attack on the international community."

Why so glum, Madam Secretary?

Yes, there was that unfortunate description of the president of France as an "emperor with no clothes." And it won't help our Saudi friends that the world now knows they wanted the United States to bomb Iran.

But look on the bright side: The leaks have shown the world that somewhere within the U.S. diplomatic corps lurks literary genius.

This classified contribution to the canon came with an unpromising title, cable number MOSCOW 009533. Its subject line, "A Caucasus Wedding," was only slightly more provocative. But over the next 3,400 words, this August 2006 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow gives an account worthy of a Graham Greene novel as it describes the wedding of the son of state oil company chief and Duma member Gadzhi Makhachev.

Along the way, we are told about U.S. diplomats' ride in Gadzhi's Rolls-Royce Phantom ("the legroom was somewhat constricted by the presence of a Kalashnikov carbine at our feet"), the wedding feast ("the cooks seemed to keep whole sheep and whole cows boiling in a cauldron somewhere day and night, dumping disjointed fragments of the carcass on the tables whenever someone entered the room") and the entertainment ("Gadzhi's main act, a Syrian-born singer named Avraam Russo, could not make it because he was shot a few days before the wedding").

The embassy reported to Foggy Bottom that Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov "danced clumsily with his gold-plated automatic stuck down in the back of his jeans" and reportedly gave the bride and groom "a five-kilo lump of gold." Ramzan threw $100 bills at the dancers, who "probably picked upwards of USD 5000 off the cobblestones." But things took a dangerous turn when a "colonel sitting next to us, dead drunk, was highly insulted that we would not allow him to add 'cognac' to our wine."

It may have been illegal to leak the cables, but it was a crime to keep "A Caucasus Wedding" hidden from the world. Even now, its authorship remains shrouded in secrecy. It is signed by then-Ambassador Bill Burns (now an undersecretary of state) and was classified by Daniel Russell, then the deputy chief of mission. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Burns wasn't the author but declined to say who was.

But how long can this talent be hidden? The cable writer(s) described the Gadzhi summer home as "attached to a 40-meter high green airport tower on columns" with "a grotto whose glass floor was the roof of a huge fish tank." He/she/they described the arrival of guests: "Another group of Gadzhi's boyhood friends from Khasavyurt was led by a man who looked like [slain Chechen rebel leader] Shamil Basayev on his day off - flip-flops, t-shirt, baseball cap, beard - but turned out to be the chief rabbi of Stavropol Kray."

The cable writers' description of their host was mercilessly comic: "The 120 toasts he estimated he drank would have killed anyone, hardened drinker or not, but Gadzhi had his Afghan waiter Khan following him around to pour his drinks from a special vodka bottle containing water. Still, he was much the worse for wear by evening's end. At one point we caught up with him dancing with two scantily clad Russian women who looked far from home."

And the prose had just the right note of detached amusement : "The main activity of the day was eating and drinking - starting from 4 p.m., about eight hours worth, all told - punctuated, when all were laden with food and sodden with drink, with a bout of jet skiing in the Caspian. . . . To the uninitiated Westerner, the music sounds like an undifferentiated wall of sound. This was a signal for dancing: one by one, each of the dramatically paunchy men (there were no women present) would enter the arena and exhibit his personal lezginka for the limit of his duration, usually 30 seconds to a minute."

The wedding guests, "most of whom carried sidearms," had been asked not to fire them. "Throughout the wedding they complied, not even joining in the magnificent fireworks display." But trouble came for the American guests when the rector of the local law school, "too drunk to sit, let alone stand, pulled out his automatic and asked if we needed any protection."

Guns, gold, vodka, showers of $100 bills, a Chechen rebel leader, a shady oil oligarch, and wedding guests on Jet Skis with bellies full of boiled sheep: This is diplomacy as it ought to be.

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