This is how U.S. diplomats used to talk about their work in the Middle East: “Every American ambassador in the region knows that official meetings with Arab leaders start with the obligatory half-hour lecture on the Palestinian question,” one with a long tenure in the Middle East told the New York Times before Thanksgiving. “If we could dispense with that half-hour and get down to our other business, we might actually be able to get something done.”
But that was in the pre-Cablegate age. One of the surprising (to some) revelations of the leaked diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks is that, counter to what we’ve been told for over a half century, the Palestinian question does not dominate the thinking of Arab officials.
American journalists still get the “half-hour drill”—I’ve gotten it most recently from the prime minister of Lebanon—but with U.S. diplomats, Arab rulers have more pressing issues to discuss. Indeed, the Wikileaks cables seem to confirm that our Arab allies are consumed by their fear of the Iranians. But are they really?
A number of analysts have spent the first weeks of the post-Cablegate era fighting a rear-guard action against the reality of Mideast diplomacy portrayed in the Wikileaks cables. Some are claiming that what the Arabs say in private to U.S. diplomats about Iran is not what they really mean, or that Arab security regimes do not represent the will of the Arab people. Others argue that those American analysts who find their positions vindicated in the released cables are just looking for any evidence to justify their desire to make war on Iran.
Even if these critics are just trying to cover their tracks, their remarks raise, albeit indirectly, an essential point: We know what the Arabs tell diplomats and journalists about Iran, but we don’t know what they really think about their Persian neighbor. The gap between internal Arab discourse and statements made to Westerners is a staple of that branch of intelligence work often neglected here in the United States known as counterintelligence, which helps sift out truth from noise.
Perhaps it is helpful to think of the Wikileaks cables in lay terms as a transcript of a guy (in this case, the Saudis) trying to pick up a pretty girl (the Americans) at a bar. What the boy says to the girl may or may not be true. What is most significant is the effect he means to produce, which is to convince the girl to go home with him. Hence, for observers what’s most interesting about the boy’s end of the conversation is the insight it offers into his own psyche—is he subtle, overbearing, self-obsessed, sensitive to others?—and into his perceptions of the girl.
For example, it is well known that during the Cold War the U.S.-Saudi alliance was facilitated by the fortunate fact that the adherents of an austere brand of Islam known as Wahabism who preside over the world’s largest known reserves of oil feared godless communists as much as we did. Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite true.
While the United States ensured the steady flow of Saudi oil that stabilized world markets—and the constant stream of oil receipts that filled Saudi bank accounts—Riyadh flirted just enough with Moscow to keep Washington on its toes. Even before the Saudis’ 1988 purchase of Chinese missiles, it was obvious that what the house of Saud feared was not communism so much as the Soviet alliance with radical actors—from Nasser’s Egypt to Saddam’s Iraq—who were opposed to Riyadh.
The Saudis told U.S. officials they hated communists because it flattered their American protectors who were fighting Moscow on four continents; the notion of a shared ideological passion, as well as a common strategic interest, gave the Saudis special status in Washington. Yet it was clear after Sept. 11 that our feckless petro-billionaire allies were themselves a strategic threat, a perception that the Saudis countered by telling us that they feared Iran—just as we do, and just as Washington’s nearly omnipotent Israel lobby does.
Seduction, or seeming to make your own the fears and desires, the habits and anxieties, of your allies is one of statesmanship’s more useful arts. The Wikileaks cables have very handsome examples of diplomatic seduction, most notably the emir of Qatar’s sympathizing with poor Israel, America’s ally, who he says can’t be blamed for not trusting Arabs. The Israelis, said the emir, nearly Shakespearean in his unctuousness, “have been under threat for a long time.”
American officials do it, too, which is the original reason why U.S. diplomats ever sat still for the “half-hour drill” in the first place. However, the Washington policy establishment’s obsession with the Arab-Israeli peace process shows the danger in using seduction as an instrument of statecraft—less-clever diplomats are susceptible to seduction and easily led astray from pursuing the interests of their own country.
Here, for instance, is Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri fixing on a vital American interest, terrorism, in a recent interview with the Washington Post. According to him, terrorism and violent extremism are the result of a failed peace process.
“In the ’90s there wasn’t al-Qaeda, there wasn’t Hamas, there wasn’t all these extremist groups,” Hariri claimed, incorrectly, but with an eye trained on getting the sympathetic attention of Washington. “The main problem that we have in Lebanon, and in the region,” he continued, “is we don’t have a real peace process. … A lot of people talk about arms and smuggling and Hezbollah and all of this. But if we have a comprehensive peace, would we be talking about this?”
In other words, if you don’t have a peace process, you get terrorism. Never mind that Hariri here effectively blames the stalled peace process for the murder of his father, Rafiq Hariri, killed in a spectacular terror operation almost six years ago. What is important is that U.S. officials have come to mouth the same commonplaces: Without peace in the Middle East, they say, you are going to have terrorism in the region. But by that reckoning, since the United States has a central role in the peace process, a lack of peace is also going to bring terror to American shores. In this interpretation, there can be no other explanation for Sept. 11 except that the United States brought those attacks upon itself by failing to create peace. But an interpretation that exculpates not only al-Qaida but also the Middle Eastern intelligence services responsible for the preponderance of terrorism must lead to irrational policies that are invariably detrimental to U.S. interests. The lesson is that if you do not do counterintelligence, or sift out the noise, you cannot understand what is in your own national interest.
As it turns out, the debate over what our Arab allies say to U.S. diplomats in the released Wikileaks cables is mostly noise. The pro-Israel side now has more evidence to show that it is not just Jerusalem that fears Iran, while the opposing faction contends that it doesn’t matter because no matter what anyone says the problem really is Israel. In the end, both camps have some truth on their side.
The anti-Israel camp is correct insofar as there is no obvious reason why we should act at the behest of the Gulf Arabs. The fact that the Sunni Arab regimes “hate” Shia and Persians should disgust us rather than please us. The Saudis are the same rulers who also hate Jews and, as the cables show, still back anti-American terrorism, while they repress their own subjects.
What the Saudis have provided that’s useful is not their counsel but rather insight into their efforts at seduction, which convey their understanding of how we perceive our own national interest, and how easily they believe we can be seduced. If they repeat obvious lies about the depth of their feeling for the Palestinians enough, we will take them at face value. If they say that the communists and then the Iranians are their deadly enemies, we will accept this commonality of interests without question.
Just as the Saudis accurately mirrored Washington’s fears of the Soviet Union in order to seduce us into protecting their own interests, they are now reflecting our fears of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It is likely they fear Iran as much as they say they do, even as they are already moving to make certain accommodations with the Shia power. The fact is that the Arabs live in the Middle East and understand that someday, even if that day is far off in the future, the United States will leave, either by choice or coercion, and they will be stuck with their Iranian neighbors whether they like it or not.
In the meantime, 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. Accordingly, once we have dispensed with the noise, it should not matter one whit to U.S. policymakers whether Iran is a danger to the Arabs or, for that matter, to Israel: Tehran represents a major strategic threat to American interests.
Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).