Diplomacy, intelligence, sophistication

by Chris Bertram on November 28, 2010

One method of getting a psychological assessment of the national character of potential antagonists would be to go to a local bar and ask people, any people. A few glasses of scotch would be a lot cheaper than the cost of intelligence and diplomatic services, and would doubtless come up with similar results .

{ 23 comments }

1

JH 11.28.10 at 11:55 pm

I should stop being surprised by this, but I just never am. The commanding heights of world power – government, finance, business, etc – are top-heavy with utterly talentless incompetents. No one is in charge of this world.

2

Unsurprised 11.29.10 at 12:25 am

I sat the US Foreign Service exam during grad school when I wasn’t sure what to do next. Other than a few trivial working-with-other-people questions*, it was entirely about the history and government of the United States. Apart from a question about fluency in other languages, the only questions asked about other countries was if the test-taker often watched foreign movies or ate exotic foods.

(*) “In dealing with a coworker who has underperformed, is it better to (a) confront them publically, (b) do nothing and wait to see if it happens again (c ) discuss it with them in private, (d) none of the above?”

3

James Conran 11.29.10 at 1:12 am

Hold on, the US doesn’t have an embassy in Tehran.

4

James Conran 11.29.10 at 1:16 am

Ah, 1979, I see.

5

EH 11.29.10 at 1:20 am

Well, I amused myself with that cable anyway.

6

James Conran 11.29.10 at 1:22 am

Oh and that’s a fucking hilarious document by the way.

7

bjk 11.29.10 at 1:30 am

What they need is a large database and sophisticated game theoretic analysis like that guy Bueno de Mesquito touts and then when everything gets really screwed up they can shrug their shoulders and blame the “models.”

On the other hand, “the Iranians are real rug merchants, they lie and cheat and rob you blind if you give them a chance” sounds like something worth knowing, even if it’s not very sophisticated. So I don’t see what’s wrong with this. And in all likelihood, this was written by a low-level second or third tour FSO for an audience of similiarly low-level functionaries. The “SecState” is not the audience.

8

NotSure 11.29.10 at 1:56 am

Hmmm—am I perceiving an almost-religious commitment to scorn the points in the memo? A faith that that “can’t be true”? Cultures *can* be like that–reminds me of my Persian room-mate at UCLA!

9

MS 11.29.10 at 2:10 am

It’s almost too overwrought to be real. I mean, really? It reads more like a caricature you’d find in post-colonial fiction than a person.

10

derrida derider 11.29.10 at 2:57 am

“The commanding heights of world power … are top-heavy with utterly talentless incompetents. No one is in charge of this world.” – JH@1

Yup. I once had dinner with someone who was seconded to a senior positon in the Clinton White House from academia. He stated he was terrified the whole time, because soon after he arrived he realised that “These people are running the world. And they know nothing – they’re doing it all by the seat of their pants!”.

I leave it to the imagination just how terrifying the Bush White House must have been.

11

politicalfootball 11.29.10 at 3:26 am

On the other hand, “the Iranians are real rug merchants, they lie and cheat and rob you blind if you give them a chance” sounds like something worth knowing, even if it’s not very sophisticated.

I think you’re missing the objection here. Not just any old thing is “worth knowing.” True things are worth knowing. Silly ethnic stereotypes? Not so much.

It’s interesting, however, that you didn’t see any need to characterize the memo accurately. Sure, the memo was full of silly ethnic stereotypes, but not the ones you identified. You seem to have an interesting epistemic approach: All ethnic stereotypes, regardless of their content, are functionally identical, and all are “worth knowing.”

The memo’s author was Bruce Laingen, the chargé d’affaires in Iran at the time of the hostage incident in the late ’70s.

12

Substance McGravitas 11.29.10 at 6:24 am

- –FIFTH, CULTIVATION OF GOODWILL FOR GOODWILL’S SAKE
IS A WASTE OF EFFORT. THE OVERRIDING OBJECTIVE AT ALL
TIMES SHOULD BE IMPRESSING UPON THE PERSIAN ACROSS THE
TABLE THE MUTUALITY OF THE PROPOSED UNDERTAKINGS, HE
MUST BE MADE TO KNOW THAT A QUID PRO QUO IS INVOLVED
ON BOTH SIDES.

You have to firmly insist that the hostages be traded for the arms.

13

Phil 11.29.10 at 9:14 am

It’s a cable from Greeneland, surely…

Adjusting the blinds against the watery morning sun, the Deputy Consul sighed and attempted to ignore the headache gripping his temples. His thoughts turned momentarily to the bottle of whisky at the bottom of the filing cabinet, but (he ruefully conceded) that particular remedy had a habit of turning out worse than the disease. Best get it done.

“The Sylvanians are a proud people,” he wrote. (Was the cliche too obvious? Worse, had he used it before? Never mind, never mind, it’s not as if anybody reads these things. Onward.) “Formed by the glaring sun and the rocky soils of this land, so rightly called a land of contrasts” (no, that really is too much) “the Sylvanian demands much and yet expects little. These are haughty folk” (ye Gods) “and yet the experienced observer knows that they are ready to show remarkable flexibility where tangible gains are in prospect.”

And so on, and on. It wasn’t that hard once you got started. When he reached the bottom of the first sheet of foolscap (“but this ostentatious greed goes along with unostentatious generosity”) he paused and looked up at the clock. 10.30. At least, it was 10.30 local time, which would be… no, that didn’t help. Oh, never mind, there was plenty more paper to blacken and the headache hadn’t got any better. He got up and walked the three paces to the filing cabinet.

14

Chris Williams 11.29.10 at 9:58 am

“the ease with which our Platypus had qualifed.”

15

ajay 11.29.10 at 10:17 am

11: yes indeed.
It’s interesting that it was still house style to talk about Persians, given that Persia had been Iran for a good half-century or so by that time.

9: Not just any old thing is “worth knowing.” True things are worth knowing. Silly ethnic stereotypes? Not so much.

That rather assumes that the description in the cable isn’t accurate. Is it?

16

bjk 11.29.10 at 2:15 pm

What’s the opposite of the soft bigotry of low expectations? We need a phrase for that. Something shorter than the “foolish arrogance of assuming that everybody is just like you.”

17

ajay 11.29.10 at 2:24 pm

14: it’s not particularly short, but the phrase used in Full Metal Jacket was “inside every gook is an American fighting to get out”.

18

Maurice Meilleur 11.29.10 at 3:22 pm

bjk, agreed. In fact, I learned a lot about the US by replacing the nouns and adjectives ‘Persian’, and ‘Iranian’ with ‘American’.

19

politicalfootball 11.29.10 at 3:40 pm

ajay, I think bjk understands the contents of Laingen’s cable better than you do. Laingen wasn’t calling Iranians liars, cheats or rug merchants, as bjk incorrectly said, but bjk still got the thrust of it right.

Laingen was – as bjk understood – insisting on evaluating Iranian behavior in terms of absurdly oversimple ethnic stereotypes, and neglecting to discuss Iranian actions in terms of Iran’s interests or its actual history – particularly its history with the U.S.

Phil and Maurice articulated better than I did what is inherently wrong with that approach.

20

bjk 11.29.10 at 3:44 pm

21

Anderson 11.29.10 at 4:06 pm

In fact, I learned a lot about the US by replacing the nouns and adjectives ‘Persian’, and ‘Iranian’ with ‘American’.

My own substitution was “Wall Street,” which worked very well indeed.

22

ajay 11.29.10 at 4:10 pm

17:ajay, I think bjk understands the contents of Laingen’s cable better than you do. Laingen wasn’t calling Iranians liars, cheats or rug merchants, as bjk incorrectly said, but bjk still got the thrust of it right.

I’m loving the fact that, while you normally manage to insult a maximum of one person per comment, you’ve managed two here in as many sentences. You should be a diplomat!

23

Mike Otsuka 11.29.10 at 8:29 pm

The ALL CAPS of the cable adds to the impression of an extended rant in a pub.

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