WASHINGTON — Recently released confidential and secret cables show that U.S. diplomats have sought to help orchestrate the sale of about $4.4 billion worth of Boeing fighter jets to Brazil, but the French aerospace industry, a longtime Boeing nemesis, might have the inside track.
The cables, released online by WikiLeaks, offer an inside look at how U.S. officials sometimes act as super-salesmen in promoting American products abroad. They also give a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes diplomatic intrigue that the United States, France and others engage in as they court such emerging powerhouse nations as Brazil.
Boeing is caught in the middle, as a simple sale of planes carries international ramifications. It's not an unusual position for Boeing and other major U.S. exporters to find themselves in.
Over the years, Boeing often has been a pawn in the U.S. relationship with China. When Chinese leaders are angry with the U.S., they place multibillion-dollar plane orders with France-based Airbus, Boeing's chief rival in the commercial jet market. When relations thaw, Boeing receives an order.
In Brazil, Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet is competing with the Rafale, built by France's Dassault Aviation, and the Gripen, from Swedish company Saab.
But according to the diplomatic cables, Boeing also was competing with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose "charm offensive" apparently had seduced Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Lula has been an outspoken champion of the Rafale, even though many in Brazil's military support an F/A-18 purchase.
One cable from the U.S. Embassy in Paris to the State Department said the Sarkozy-Lula relationship was a "love fest," with the French president using the fighter jet sale as a model for French entree into Latin America and beyond.
Brazil recently signed a $12 billion deal with the French for five submarines, including a nuclear one, and 50 helicopters, the cable noted. The subs will be built at a new shipyard in Brazil.
Sarkozy has been "courting populous nonaligned nations to extend French influence worldwide," and Brazil was a top priority, the cable said.
The cables are part of a WikiLeaks cache of more than 250,000 State Department documents, many of them classified secret or confidential, that are being posted gradually on the WikiLeaks website. So far, fewer than 2,000 of the documents have been made public.
Boeing declined to comment on the cables and its effort to sell F/A-18s in Brazil.
"This is a matter for the U.S. State Department that involves confidential government correspondence, and Boeing has no comment at this time," said Phil Carder, a Boeing spokesman in St. Louis, where the F/A-18s are built.
Defense analysts say the backroom diplomacy over the Brazilian fighter jet sale isn't unusual. U.S. firms such as Caterpillar and Intel sometimes find themselves in the same situation as Boeing.
"There is always some French guy in the alley handing out money," said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based national security research center. "It's easier for the French to sell in developing countries because they can be more flexible."
Brazil wants to buy 36 jet fighters, which it will call the FX2. The deal eventually could involve 100 planes. Announcement of the contract winner is expected early next year.
Brazil currently has 110 aging jet fighters to patrol 5 million square miles, including most of the Amazon Basin and a vast new offshore oil field, the cable from the Paris U.S. Embassy said. While it didn't call it a Latin American arms race, the cable noted that Chile has 29 advanced F-16s and Venezuela 24 modern Sukhoi 30s.
Referring to Venezuela's president, the cable said, "With Hugo Chavez recently buying over $3 billion in aircraft, tanks and assault weapons from Russia, Brazil also seeks to enhance its regional military capabilities."
As the competition heated up early last year, the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia urged high-ranking U.S. officials to become more involved and to press the case for the F/A-18. A cable to the State Department in early January 2009 noted that the only one buying the Rafale was the French air force.
"French representatives have tried to spin the Rafale's dismal performance in the global market to be the result of U.S. government political pressure rather than the aircraft's shortcomings," the cable said, adding that the FX2 decision will only "marginally be based on price and Brazil is most interested in using the purchase to bolster its domestic defense industry."
Several months later, another cable from the embassy in Brasilia warned that U.S. government support for the F/A-18 sale was "lukewarm at best," as the Rafale sale was being managed "directly" out of Sarkozy's Cabinet and support for the Gripen came from the ministerial level in Sweden.
"We need to take steps to erode the French political edge," the cable said.
The cable also said there were Brazilian concerns that even if the F/A-18 were selected, the State Department would block the sale because it involved the export of sensitive technology, and financing could become an issue because the U.S. Export-Import Bank can't finance defense sales.
By the summer of 2009, President Obama had raised the issue with Lula, and other U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and James Jones, the national security adviser at the time, had weighed in with the Brazilians.
In the fall of 2009, with a visit to Brazil by Sarkozy looming, the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia was getting skittish again. Sarkozy had met with Lula four times in 2008, and in 2009 the two also held four meetings.
The Brazilians also were wondering whether the U.S. decision to block the sale of Embraer's Super Tucano to Venezuela because it carried sensitive U.S. technology was a sign that there would be problems with the export of F/A-18s. Embraer is Brazil's largest aerospace company, and the Super Tucano is a turboprop light attack aircraft.
By the beginning of this year, the Brazilians were expressing renewed interest in the F/A-18.
"There remains, however, the formidable obstacle of convincing Lula," said a January cable from the embassy in Brasilia.
The USS Carl Vinson, carrying a deck full of F/A-18 Super Hornets, arrived in Rio de Janeiro in February in what was seen as an effort by the U.S. to show off the Boeing jet fighter.
A cable in early February said the FX2 sale came up during a meeting between new U.S. Ambassador Thomas Shannon and Brazil's deputy foreign minister.
That's where the trail of WikiLeaks' released cables ends.