I've been devouring Wikileaks' backstage dips' (diplomats') gossip about Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm writing a play set in Iraq in the 1920s and my research involved reading the equivalent of today's cables. The parallels are fascinating. Now, Hamid Karzai's described as "extremely weak" and "easily swayed" and according to US ambassador Karl Eikenberry, split between being "a paranoid and weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation building and overly self-conscious that his time in the spotlight of glowing reviews from the international community has passed" and "an ever-shrewd politician who sees himself as a nationalist hero who can save the country." In the 1920s, Sir Percy Cox, Iraq's High Commissioner, said of Feisal, who he had installed as Iraq's first king, that he had "unmistakeably displayed the cloven hoof. I have endeavoured to be absolutely straightforward and frank with him, and to treat him like a brother, but there you are, when he is scratched deep enough, the racial weakness displays itself." Cox's successor Sir Henry Dobbs reflected that "[Iraq] may be able to rub along in a corrupt, inefficient, oriental sort of way, something better than she was under Turkish rule...If this is the result, even though it be not a very splendid one, we shall have built better than we know." And Gertrude Bell, the heroine of my play, and the woman who essentially created the Iraqi state, was unwaveringly honest about both her shifting feelings about Feisal and her own failings. Feisal got his own back, saying "European statesmen are like impressionist paintings. The effect at a distance is excellent". I'd love to know what Karzai says about Eikenberry.
Whenever I hear a diplomat being bland and glossy for the press, I wonder what they really think, if there's anything real behind the spin. And for all the bitching (calling Kim Jong-Il flabby, and speculating on Qaddafi's botox and the Putin-Berlusconi bromance) it's reassuring, in a way, to find that there is.