Saturday, December 4, 2010

A week of WikiLeaks and not one mention of the State Department's "cookie pushers"

Apparently coined by US diplomat Hugh S. Gibson in 1924, the term Cookie Pusher has been applied as a reference to diplomats in general and members of the United States Foreign Service in particular, and not in a good way.

Whenever the State Department diplomats made the news in our 24 hour news cycle, some journalists, commentators and opinion makers more often than not, bring up the pejorative term to refer to our diplomats.

Former Ambassador and former "P," R. Nicholas Burns, once lamented:

We are also the victims of an unfortunate caricature of our profession. That is, a lot of people think we are pin-striped cookie pushers. I know that because I am a regular guest, for better or worse, on the Ollie North Show. His listeners often tell me that I'm a pin-striped cookie pusher. So we have got to find a way to communicate to the public what it is we do and who we are and why we're worth supporting.

I think another part of this caricature of the Foreign Service is that they think that we go to cocktail parties and that we negotiate grand treaties. Well, we do both of those things. But we also -- especially the modern foreign service -- spend a lot of time trying to stop drugs from coming into the United States; trying to combat terrorist groups around the world; trying to deal, as Tim Wirth I'm sure told you, deal with the global problems, environmental problems that are increasingly at the forefront of our diplomatic agenda. It doesn't leap to the mind of most people in this country that career diplomats, or political appointees who are diplomats, undertake those challenges for the United States just as we undertake the challenges of throwing a good reception-if you're an ambassador-public representation or negotiating treaties.

Former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Wendy Chamberlin was quoted here:
The American press, not known for its gentle touch, refers to diplomats as cookie pushers, or more charitably, as the stripe pants set. My mission today is to make a plausible case that the newest gladiators in the international crime arena are the diplomats.

Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on this stereotype:
...[W] we all know the other stereotype, about cookie-pushers, just isn’t true, in the sense that our colleagues, regardless of what “cone” or office they may be in are putting their lives on the line for the American people every day, just like all of you are. In this Department of State family, we have the privilege of working with some of the most talented and dedicated people in this nation and we are all in this together. The pinstriped stereotype is also untrue in another sense. The people who actually execute the diplomacy, the ones who negotiate treaties and write reporting cables, they are actually a very small part of our overall workforce. Approximately 11 percent, I believe. Moreover, they could not accomplish their duties without the other 89 percent. ...

This past week, after days of classified embassy cables dripping out of selected news outlets and the WikiLeaks servers when they were not under denial of service (DoS) attacks, there was no single mention of US diplomats as "cookie pushers."

Not one single one.

Of course, NYT's Mark Landler in From WikiLemons, Clinton Tries to Make Lemonade, made up for the media's oversight by describing our diplomats as "pinstriped authors who pour their hearts and minds into cables that are filed to Washington and often not even read by desk officers, let alone senior diplomats or the secretary herself."

But -- still no mention of the "cookie pushers ..."

Fareed Zakaria writes, "the sum total of the output I have read is actually quite reassuring about the way Washington - or at least the State Department - works. [,,,]When foreigners encounter U.S. diplomats and listen to their bland recitation of policy, they would do well to keep in mind that behind the facade lie some very clever minds.

David Rothkopf writes in FP: "The leaked cables for the most part show professional diplomats doing their job with intelligence, wisdom, candour and even humour.

Here is Leslie Gelb:
"Our diplomats were doing a good job. [...] U.S. policymakers and diplomats are shown, quite accurately, doing what they are supposed to do: ferreting out critical information from foreign leaders, searching for paths to common action and struggling with the right amount of pressure to apply on allies and adversaries. And in most cases, the villain is not Washington, but foreign leaders escaping common action with cowardice and hypocrisy."

From the other side of the pond, Timothy Garton Ash: "my personal opinion of the state department has gone up several notches....[...[ what we find here is often first rate."

Roger Cohen in NYT: "Let's hear it for the men and women of the U.S. Foreign Service! They are, to judge from the WikiLeaks dump of a quarter-million of their private or secret cables, thoughtful, well-informed and dedicated servants of the American interest who write clear, declarative English sentences. I've not heard much in the torrent of Wiki-chatter about these admirable career diplomats whose diplomacy is now condemned to be unquiet. Yet it is they whose lives have been upturned."

Nicholas Kralev who has written quite a bit about the Foreign Service has this: "The silver lining for U.S. diplomats of this week’s WikiLeaks release of secret State Department cables is that there is more buzz about their work than there has been in years.[...] Members of the U.S. Foreign Service often complain that it’s an unknown entity to the very people diplomats represent abroad. My extensive research in the last seven years confirms that concern. Most Americans have no idea what their representatives do every day — and many have no interest in learning about it, either."

An unnamed foreign diplomat in WDC's Embassy Row was quoted here saying: "If I had been the author of some of them, I'd be proud. They're good quality, professional products, and they show these diplomats doing precisely what they're supposed to be doing -- providing unvarnished assessments to headquarters from the front lines." 

Former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson says "We've always prided ourselves in the foreign service that in order to succeed, you had to be a talented stylist as well. Writing a great cable is a bit of a lost art, and it's great to see the Americans restoring it." 

Of course, there's also Kashmir Hill in on the sexy factor in all this: "Cablegate may be for the State Department what Top Gun was for the Air Force — a great recruitment tool. This is the sexiest the State Department has been since then-Secretary of State Condi Rice strapped on knee-high black boots in Wiesbaden…"

Well, I don't know about 'em boots but we agree that this might be the sexiest State has been since .... well, in a long while.  And it's the US Navy - TOPGUN is for the US Naval Aviators (Marine and CG also) not the Air Force. 
Perhaps one of the strangest thing to come out of this -- is that in releasing these diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks have succeeded in redrawing the "unfortunate caricature of our profession" in the words of Nick Burns, into a fuller picture of what it is to be an American diplomat -- the "thoughtful, well-informed and dedicated servants of the American interest" -- dealing with problems in a global scale.

I'm sure this was not the intention of WikiLeaks, and we're not about to pen a thank you note to Julian Assange, but it is what it is -- the unintended consequences of WikiLeak's action is its inadvertent education of a disinterested American public about foreign affairs and the building blocks in our country's foreign policy.     

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