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.
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.