Pouring Cold Water on WikiLeaks

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The same pattern applied to specifics. He spoke in private to Western diplomats about a readiness to negotiate with Israel; but addressing the world, he rejected the very existence of the Jewish state as well as any compromise with it. After the 1967 war, for example, Abdel Nasser secretly signaled to Americans a willingness to sign a non-belligerency accord with Israel “with all its consequences” while publicly rejecting negotiations and insisting that “That which was taken by force will be regained by force.” The public statement, as usual, defined his actual policies.

Not only did Abdel Nasser’s shouts offer a far more accurate guide to his actions than his whispers, but he tacitly admitted as much, telling John F. Kennedy that “some Arab politicians were making harsh statements concerning Palestine publicly and then contacting the American government to alleviate their harshness by saying that their statements were meant for local Arab consumption.” Thus did Abdel Nasser precisely describe his own behavior.

Contrarily, when speaking privately not to Westerners but to their own, Arab leaders do sometimes reveal the truth. Memorably, the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat publicly signed the 1993 Oslo Accords recognizing Israel but he expressed his real intentions in private when he appealed to Muslims in a South African mosque “to come and to fight and to start the jihad to liberate Jerusalem.”

It’s intuitive to privilege the confidential over the overt and the private over the public. However, Middle East politics repeatedly shows that one does better reading press releases and listening to speeches than relying on diplomatic cables. Confidential views may be more heartfelt but, asDalia Dassa Kaye of the Rand Corporation notes, “what Arab leaders say to U.S. officials and what they might do may not always track.” The masses hear policies; high-ranking Westerners hear seduction.

This rule of thumb explains why distant observers often see what nearby diplomats and journalists miss. It also raises doubts about the utility of the WikiLeaks data dump. In the end, it may distract us more than clarify what we know about Arab policies.

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  • ObamaYoMoma

    I agree wholeheartedly that Muhammadans more often than not attempt to deceive than to reveal what they really think, but in this case, the Shi’a Iranians are the eternal enemies of the Sunnis. Plus it has been widely reported that the Saudis and the Gulf States have opened up their air space for Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. Even Egypt allowed two Israeli submarines to pass through the Suez Canal on their way to the Persian Gulf.

  • Rifleman

    The saudis are manipulating the USA every way they can. Like spying, every country does it, including us. The important thing is to bear that in mind and recognize it when we see it. The mad mullahs are the biggest threat to the saudis.

  • WarPossum101

    Well said. Also, it's important to remember that diplomatic communications represent various diplomats' current, personal understanding of other countries' statements and policies. Their facts and interpretations can be (as you say) based on host country deception, or subject to confirmation bias, or just completely wrong. The cables' contents probably tell us more about the workings of our government than the workings of other countries' governments. Although nobody's had time to analyze all the documents, the fact that so far no one has discovered any earth-shaking revelations about the Bush or Obama administrations seems to indicate that the cables contain routine diplomatic back-and-forth – not secret plans for world domination. The real story is the leak itself, not the leaks' contents.