Superheroes, binoculars, parties and 5kg of gold. The pithy anecdotes and subtle judgments of US diplomats
It was as if WikiLeaks had turned a black and white photo of prime ministers and presidents into a Technicolor carnival fizzing with candour and comedy.
Leading the parade on Monday were Batman and Robin, aka Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister and president of Russia who were compared to the characters by the US embassy in Moscow, leading Putin to accuse the US of slander in an interview with Larry King on CNN.
Meanwhile Turkmenistan’s president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, donned a “navy blue sailing cap, a French-style white-and-blue striped shirt and binoculars hanging around his neck” to hold a cabinet meeting on his new yacht, donated by a Russian company. He had wanted a vessel the size of Roman Abramovich’s, but had had to settle for something smaller to get into the Caspian Sea.
And step forward, Silvio Berlusconi, whose “frequent late nights and penchant for partying hard mean he does not get sufficient rest,” Giampiero Cantoni, the then chairman of the Italian senate’s defence committee, told the US embassy in Rome. Berlusconi reportedly laughed at the leaks. It sounded like he might get on well with Kim Jong Il who was, according to the cables, “a good drinker” who liked to indulge in wine and spirits after talking shop with Chinese diplomats.
The president of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, also likes a celebration, according to William Burns , then US ambassador to Moscow, who attended a Dagestani wedding and watched as Kadyrov “danced clumsily with his gold-plated automatic stuck down the back of his jeans”. Kadyrov showered dancers with $100 notes and gave the happy couple an unusual wedding present – “a five kilo lump of gold”.
But this was just the start of a the revelations from the cables, thanks in part to the reporting skills of many of the diplomats writing back to Washington, who time and again pithily combined anecdote with subtle judgment.
The Paris embassy neatly skewered Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, as having “a thin-skinned and authoritarian style” and illustrated it with an account of how aides had diverted his presidential plane to avoid him seeing the Eiffel Tower illuminated in the Turkish colours for the state visit of Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They worried it would offend him because he is strongly opposed to Turkey’s application for EU membership.
For plain speaking, you need look no further than Britain. Prince Andrew could be found speaking in Kyrgzstan at a business hotel, where he “verged on the rude”, lashing out at “those (expletive) journalists … who poke their noses everywhere” and accusing corruption investigators of “idiocy”.
Sir Jock Stirrup, Britain’s then chief of defence staff, branded Pakistan president Asif Ali Zadari a “numbskull”.
And talking of speaking, George Osborne’s “high pitched vocal delivery” suggested he “lacked the necessary gravitas”, according to a report of the 2008 Conservative party conference by Richard LeBaron, deputy head of mission at the US embassy in London.Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, described as running government finances “like a petty cash fund”, booked himself and his entourage a $1.2m three week holiday by chartered jet to the French resort of La Baule. They took 43 rooms in two luxury hotels costing $60,000 a night, went on shopping sprees and splashed cash on casino nights.
“We have received first-hand accounts of Biya’s entourage paying to refuel his airplane with suitcases filled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash,” reported the US embassy in Cameroon. “When Biya traveled to the United Nations general assembly in September 2008, a member of his entourage was caught as he tried to escape from Biya’s Geneva hotel with a bag filled with 3.4m Swiss francs (about $6.8 million) in cash.”
Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman just beat Muammar Gaddafi of Libya to the award for world leader with biggest entourage. The sultan took off on a two month Mediterranean holiday in 2008 on his yacht with 700 people in tow, according to the Italian embassy in Muscat, who processed the visas.
Gaddafi, who was branded “just strange” by one of Sultan Qaboos’s advisers, wanted to go one better and travel with 800 acolytes to perform the Hajj in Mecca.
The Saudi Arabians declined his request, leading to bizarre recriminations involving Gaddafi trying to change the date of Eid because he said his scientists could see the crescent moon better than other authorities.