I’m not going to try to get deeply into the whole Wikileaks issue, but the release of a huge collection of US diplomatic cables clearly has policy implications in the Middle East. There’s more than enough commentary on the overall diplomatic embarrassment caused, and on the question of how to stop these sorts of leaks. And I certainly haven’t read all 250,000 cables, but the ones spotlighted so far seem more embarrassing than revelatory. But the issue has some region-specific implications in the Arab world.
Issandr El Amrani and Marc Lynch both address this issue today. As Issandr notes:
There is so much information flowing around about US policy — and often, a good deal of transparency — that a smart observer with good contacts can get a good idea of what’s happening. Not so in the Arab world, and the contents of the conversations Arab leader are having with their patron state are not out in the Arab public domain or easily guessable, as anyone who reads the meaningless press statements of government press agencies will tell you. Cablegate is in important record from the Arab perspective, perhaps more than from the US one.
Lynch echoes this and then raises a key dilemma for the Arab media:
But, as Issandr el-Amrani pointed out earlier today, the real impact may well be in the Arab world, where rulers go to great lengths to keep such things secret. The Arab media thus far is clearly struggling to figure out how to report them, something I’ll be following over the next week. One of the points which I’ve made over and over again is that Arab leaders routinely say different things in private and in public, but that their public rhetoric is often a better guide to what they will actually do since that reflects their calculation of what they can get away with politically. Arab leaders urged the U.S. to go after Saddam privately for years, but wouldn’t back it publicly for fear of the public reaction. It’s the same thing with Iran over the last few years, or with their views of the Palestinian factions and Israel. But now those private conversations are being made public, undeniably and with names attached.
So here’s the million dollar question: were their fears of expressing these views in public justified? Let’s assume that their efforts to keep the stories out of the mainstream Arab media will be only partially successful — and watch al-Jazeera here, since it would traditionally relish this kind of story but may fear revelations about the Qatari royal family. Extremely important questions follow. Will Arab leaders pay any significant political price for these positions, as they clearly feared? Or will it turn out that in this era of authoritarian retrenchment they really can get away with whatever diplomatic heresies they like even if it outrages public opinion? Will the publication of their private views lead them to become less forthcoming in their behavior in order to prove their bona fides — i.e. less supportive of containing or attacking Iran, or less willing to deal with Israel? Or will a limited public response to revelations about their private positions lead them to become bolder in acting on their true feelings? Will this great transgression of the private/public divide in Arab politics create a moment of reckoning in which the Arab public finally asserts itself… or will it be one in which Arab leaders finally stop deferring to Arab public opinion and start acting out on their private beliefs?
All countries are more candid in private diplomatic exchanges than in public statements, of course; that’s why diplomatic exchanges are not published until years after the fact. But the disconnect between public positions and private assessments is usually not as great in the West, where there is plenty of public debate about policy issues, as in the Arab world. (There are exceptions; the release of the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War showed such a divergence between public statements and actual policy as to provoke scandal.) But the culture of secrecy in the West is nowhere near as pervasive as in the Middle East, where even things that are well-known are routinely denied.
One of the most-headlined revelations, that Saudi Arabia is so concerned about Iran that it urged a US attack, is not a huge revelation to most Westerners who follow the region, but it no doubt comes as a surprise to many Saudis, since it doesn’t reflect official statements. Certain realities that “everybody knows” or at least suspects, may not in fact be known to Arab populations back home. Some things, especially surreptitious cooperation with Israel, are absolutely taboo and always resolutely denied. Exact details of military cooperation with the United States are equally sensitive, even if details are easily learned from US military veterans returning home.
The US has always honored these local sensitivities, and thus certain questions remain unanswered. Certain aspects of the US air war against Iraq in 2003 have never been fully documented because of sensitivity over where the sorties originated. The Wikileaks documents apparently address the not-so-secret US role in air strikes in Yemen, also never publicly acknowledged.
As Lynch notes, the Arab media face a dilemma here: secrets that were fairly openly known in the West have just been publicly released, with names and direct quotes. Some in the West may say, “Oh, I knew that already, or strongly suspected it.” But what in the past was coolly denied is more credible when a Ruler is being quoted by a US Ambassador. The tendency to distrust the US and question its reliability as a partner may be the first instinctive response. While the excessive culture of secrecy in the Arab world is easy to deplore, it is, for now, a fact of life in the diplomacy of the region. The harm created by these leaks is less likely to be a direct unraveling of policy than a growing unwillingness of diplomatic partners to confide their true thoughts for fear of reading them in the newspapers.
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