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Profane foreign relations

Posted: February 11, 2014 - 2:25pm

Call it “gall” or “brass” or “chutzpah,” whichever you prefer, but the State Department has an abundance. At State, there’s quite a bit of embarrassment over a surreptitious recording that’s gone public of a telephone call between Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary for European Affairs, and the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine. They were discussing possible intervention in a crisis there, where Russia was successfully muscling its former satellite away from the European Union. During that four-minute chat, Nuland was moved to use some truly undiplomatic language: “F--- the EU,” she blurted. After all, this was supposed to be a confidential chat. Turns out it wasn’t.

But it’s not the spicy language that’s the real issue. As a State Department spokeswoman for quite some time, Nuland certainly had a venue for expletives. However, it’s usually avoided in public diplospeak, so it was a tad embarrassing when someone, apparently the Russians, released a copy of the conversation via a Twitter link. That’s not so brassy, either.

What takes the prize is the administration’s indignant reaction. At State, spokeswoman Jen Psaki stated the obvious when she accused the Moscow government of recording the call. Psaki said the video was “a new low in Russian tradecraft,” which refers to the spy trade. That takes gall.

This from a United States government that has been exposed by Edward Snowden, outed for its massive surveillance of everyone on the planet, including heads of friendly countries, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel is still bent about that, so imagine her reaction to the dismissive expletive about the EU she so dearly embraces.

Suffice it to say, the chancellor was not amused. In fact, she was f---in’ furious. (By the way, I understand if some parents, who don’t want their kids to see words with hyphens in them, will hastily shield their eyes.)

As for the Russians, they’re right up there in the chutzpah department. They accused the U.S. of “crudely interfering” in the Ukraine. In Moscow, crude interference is what passes for Soviet foreign policy. Oh I’m sorry, it’s not the Soviet Union anymore. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, certainly in the mind of the supreme leader, Vladimir Putin.

He’s doing little to hide that; in fact, he’s doing little these days to hide much of anything. His bare-chested picture is posted all over Sochi. It’s not exactly clear what he’s trying to communicate, but a good diplomatic rule of thumb is to be wary of leaders who don’t wear a shirt sometimes, particularly if they are physically incapable of smiling. The reporters assigned to cover the Olympics are just finding that out. They have been harshly put in their places. Their places being the hotel rooms from Hell. It’s not just the journalists. A member of the U.S. bobsled team had to break through the door to escape his bathroom. His pictures have gone viral, just like Victoria Nuland’s candid assessment of the EU.

Once they take their potty breaks, and then escape, the athletes are joining the competition, going for the gold. In the national-security games, no one is winning any prizes, unless someone is giving out medals for clumsiness.

It’s no wonder that the American administration is so angry at Snowden. He has exposed those who run our national apparatus as feckless and unwilling or unable to recognize that there needs to be a balance between protection and a right to a modicum of privacy.

For the rest of us, it’s probably a good thing that we’re getting to see beyond the sloganeering and propaganda. Imagine the language officials use when we get to see a system that is operated and often mismanaged by mere humans who can be careless and even buffoonish while they have the gall to conduct their deadly mischief.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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