Thanks to that latest Internet spawn called WikiLeaks, the world now knows that diplomats, like all other human creatures, gossip, tattle on each other and even on occasion bend the truth to their own purposes.
This disclosure calls to mind that delicious scene in "Casablanca" wherein Claude Raines closes Rick's Cafe for permitting gambling, even as the house croupier slips the Vichy official his latest roulette winnings.
A significant element in the art of diplomacy has always been dissembling. Customarily, though, it's couched in careful observations designed to persuade, rather than in offhand comments that alienate, as much of the latest WikiLeaks "dump" seems bent on achieving.
The most salacious of the revelations appear to use distinctly undiplomatic descriptions of certain foreign leaders that are so simplistic that they reflect more on the speaker than on his target. Example: that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev "plays Robin to (Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin's Batman." Holy funny papers! How has international discourse sunk to this level?
Other U.S. cable leaks put into words what had long ago been said or known publicly, such as the characterization of French President Nicolas Sarkozy as "thin-skinned and authoritarian." Or that of Afghan President Hamid Karzai as "extremely weak." Nothing there to stop the presses or to sue for libel over.
Nor is King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia likely to be challenged to a duel by President Nouri al-Maliki for calling the Iraqi leader a "liar," though such personal accusations are clearly beyond the traditional diplomatic etiquette, just as they are forbidden on the floor of the United States Senate.
But courtesy seems to have become a general casualty in the current breakdown of discourse in both public and private conversation. One longs for a return to the balanced slander of the late Democratic Sen. Robert Kerr of Oklahoma, who once, after calling Republican Sen. Homer Capehart of Indiana "a rancid tub of ignorance," tempered the remark by adding "whom I hold in minimum high regard."
More than discourteous language is at stake, however, in the leaks of the American diplomatic cables. The report that North Korea has shipped advanced missiles to Iran through China seemingly acknowledges the State Department's failure to achieve cooperation with Beijing in curtailing such arms traffic. And several cables reflect intense concerns among Arab states over Iran's political influence in Iraq, as well as over its continuing pursuit of nuclear weapons.
More directly involving American interests is a leaked cable in which President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen is represented as telling Gen. David Petraeus he would continue to cover for him on U.S air strikes against suspected terrorists sites in Yemen.
The cable says President Saleh complained to General Petraeus about the collateral damage to innocent civilians, which were attributed to the Yemeni air force but actually were from missions flown by American pilots. But President Saleh is represented as telling General Petraeus, then running the U.S. Central Command in the whole region but now the American commander in Afghanistan: "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours."
The comment is not the sort needed to sustain the reputation for candor and the general credibility that General Petraeus has so widely enjoyed, particularly in his own country, as he continues to be the point man in President Barack Obama's efforts to extricate America from the Middle East quagmire.
This latest avalanche of leaked diplomatic cables has offered little of the punch of the earlier documents that graphically challenged administration representations of military progress in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The many raw field reports of combat missions reignited criticisms of continued U.S. engagement there as Mr. Obama has labored to find an acceptable way out of the two wars, one of which, in Iraq, he strongly opposed.
Nevertheless, the American news media, a select segment of which got the cables from WikiLeaks and others that have piggy-backed on them, have devoted an immoderate amount of space and on-air commentary to the combination of insight, intrigue and just plain gossip.
Meanwhile, the professional journalism trade increasingly limps along with diminished revenue and manpower, and in many cases diminishing initiative, to do the investigative work of its own that once was its brightest light.