November 29, 2010

Article at Reuters

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Washington Extra - Diplomatic niceties

WASHINGTON, Nov 29 (Reuters) - To an outsider, diplomacy sometimes looks like an exercise in smiling and being nice to people who you secretly dislike or even scorn. The trouble is, these days your real feelings may not be a secret.

Perhaps it’s no surprise to discover that a U.S. diplomat found Britain’s Prince Andrew to be cocky and verging on rude, and maybe it doesn’t matter that much.

But you can’t help wondering how Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will feel about being called “Robin” to Vladimir Putin’s “Batman” and how German Chancellor Angela Merkel will react to being called “risk averse and rarely creative.”

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi tried to laugh off being called a “feckless” and “vain” partier but one can’t help feeling the comments must have stung at a sensitive time for the embattled leader.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s relationship with the United States has already deteriorated dangerously but it cannot be helped by the certain knowledge his main foreign allies think he is “weak” and “easily swayed.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to laugh off the diplomatic awkwardness: “I can tell you that in my conversations at least one of my counterparts said to me ‘Well don’t worry about it, you should see what we say about you’.”

Of course, there are much more serious implications than a few bruised egos and awkward diplomatic dances. It is worth remembering that the failure to stop the Sept. 11 attacks was blamed in part on a failure of intelligence sharing.

Now that very intelligence sharing is being blamed for the ease with which the information was downloaded.

Experts say there is likely to be a rollback, a battening down of the hatches, a reluctance to share information electronically in case it leaks. That could make vital intelligence more difficult to cross-check and correlate and leave dangerous holes in the West’s defenses.

Finally, interesting stuff in this cable about the lifestyles of the Kazakhstani leadership. We liked the tale of Prime Minister Masimov dancing alone on an empty stage above the dance floor at one of Astana’s trendiest nightspots and of President Nazarbayev flying Elton John to headline the 41st birthday party of his son-in-law, for a reported fee of $1 million.

And this direct quote: “Kazakhstan’s political elites also have recreational tastes that are not so exotic. Some, in fact, prefer to relax the old-fashioned way. Defense Minister Akhmetov, a self-proclaimed workaholic, appears to enjoy loosening up in the tried and true ‘homo sovieticus’ style -- i.e., drinking oneself into a stupor.”

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Here are our top stories from Washington today:

The U.S. government said it deeply regretted the release of classified information and would tighten security to prevent leaks such as WikiLeaks’ disclosure of a trove of State Department cables. [ID:nN29213257]

The diplomatic cables so far released by WikiLeaks might embarrass U.S. diplomats but probably won’t shatter any international relationships. The key lesson so far seems to be just how much easier the information age has made it to steal vast quantities of data -- and how much harder it is to keep secrets. [ID:nLDE6AS0LN]

President Obama proposed a two-year freeze on the pay of federal workers. The freeze is part of an effort to push back against Republicans, who have labeled Democrats big spenders while taking aim at policies such as an $814 billion stimulus package and healthcare reform. The White House estimates the pay freeze would save about $2 billion in the current 2011 fiscal year and $28 billion over five years. [ID:nN29213625]

President Obama is not expected to reach a deal with Republican leaders on whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts when he meets them on Tuesday, spokesman Robert Gibbs said. He said he hoped there would be agreement on the need to reach a tax deal by the end of the year, when the cuts are due to expire. [ID:nN29586189]

Tax, spending divide hampers U.S. deficit cut push

Two more proposals to cut the budget deficit emerged on Monday, underscoring a deep divide on taxes and spending that is likely to blunt the impact of a plan due in two days from a presidential panel. The White House sharpened its focus on the issue, saying President Obama will propose a two-year freeze on the pay of civilian federal workers. [ID:nN29223514]

US, South Korea trade chiefs to meet on deal

Top U.S. and South Korean trade officials will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday in Columbia, Maryland to try again to resolve differences blocking U.S. approval of a free trade agreement. It will be the first meeting between Trade Representative Ron Kirk and South Korean Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon since the two sides failed at the recent G-20 summit to reach a deal on outstanding beef and auto trade concerns. [ID:nN29204802]

Legislation to postpone for one month a hefty cut in payments to doctors who participate in the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly and disabled won final congressional passage. [ID:nN29229319]

The acquittal of a man on all but one of the charges related to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa has had no impact on deciding the fate of terrorism suspects at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Attorney General Eric Holder said. [ID:nN29190382]

Diet drug faces U.S. test after rivals fall short

The last of a trio of diet drug hopefuls faces scrutiny next week, after two rivals failed to convince regulators that marginal weight loss associated with their drugs made up for major health risks. Orexigen Therapeutics hopes its experimental obesity drug Contrave can tap into the potentially huge U.S. market, where sales could reach more than $1.2 billion by 2018. [ID:nN24231336]

Pence in Detroit: A campaign prelude?

Prominent House Republican Mike Pence has been mentioned as a potential 2012 presidential candidate. On Monday, he played the part. In a speech to the Detroit Economic Club, a favorite campaign stop for many aspiring White House contenders, Pence pushed the idea of a flat tax, a rollback of regulatory standards and a constitutional amendment to limit spending to 20 percent of GDP.

Some of the tidbits from the secret diplomatic cables unleashed by WikiLeaks show that diplomatic analysis can sometimes sound a whole lot like gossip. And just as when any private conversation goes public, it can be embarrassing for all involved. In the Case of the Compromised Cables, unflattering descriptions of some world leaders will require all the diplomatic skill that U.S. officials can muster to soothe some of the world’s healthiest egos.

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