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Of all the WikiLeaks revelations, the most captivating may be learning that several Arab leaders have urged the U.S. government to attack Iranian nuclear facilities. Most notoriously, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called on Washington to “cut off the head of the snake.” According to nearly universal consensus, these statements unmask the real policies of Saudi and other politicians.
But is that necessarily so? There are two reasons for doubts.
First, as Lee Smith astutely notes, the Arabs could merely be telling Americans what they think the latter want to hear: “We know what the Arabs tell diplomats and journalists about Iran,” he writes, “but we don’t know what they really think about their Persian neighbor.” Their appeals could be part of a process of diplomacy, which involves mirroring one’s allies’ fears and desires as one’s own. Thus, when Saudis claim Iranians are their mortal enemies, Americans tend uncritically to accept this commonality of interests; Smith maintains, however, that “the words the Saudis utter to American diplomats are not intended to provide us with a transparent window into royal thinking but to manipulate us into serving the interests of the House of Saud.” How do we know they are telling the truth just because we like what they are saying?
Second, how do we judge the discrepancy between what Arab leaders tell Western interlocutors sotto voce and what they roar to their masses? Looking at patterns from the 1930s onwards, I noted in a 1993 survey that whispers matter less than shouts: “Public pronouncements count more than private communications. Neither provides an infallible guide, for politicians lie in both public and private, but the former predict actions better than the latter.”
The Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, would have ended long ago if one believes confidences told to Westerners. Take the example of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s strongman from 1952 to 1970 and arguably the politician who most made Israel into the abiding obsession of Middle Eastern politics.
According to Miles Copeland, a CIA operative who liaised with Abdel Nasser, the latter considered the Palestine issue “unimportant.” In public, however, Abdel Nasser relentlessly forwarded an anti-Zionist agenda, riding it to become the most powerful Arab leader of his era. His confidences to Copeland, in other words, proved completely misleading.
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