OP-ED CONTRIBUTORPublished: December 4, 2010
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on December 5, 2010, on page WK9 of the New York edition.
By CHAS FREEMANTHE editor of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, has much in common with the anarchists of the early 20th century: he aims to disrupt the established order by impairing its alliances and violating its proprieties. With the release of a quarter-million documents written by American diplomats at home and abroad, many of them shockingly candid, he has gone some distance toward accomplishing this. Take the Middle East, for example.
Most striking were the leaks regarding Arab concerns about Iran’s aspirations for regional hegemony and its nuclear programs. According to the documents, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia exhorted the United States to cripple Iran’s nuclear programs with air strikes, urging us to “cut off the head of the snake.“ While some hard-line analysts and pundits are relieved to find the Arabs “on our side” and feel that this disclosure will help us form a stronger alliance against Tehran, it’s more likely that the leaks will simply raise Iran’s prestige by adding to the persistent overestimation of its influence and abilities.
More troubling, the leaks will reduce the candor of American dialogue in the region and elsewhere. Arab leaders in particular will now think twice before either speaking honestly or telling American visitors or diplomats what Washington wants to hear.
In addition, Arab rulers, despite all the weapons their states have bought from America and elsewhere, again find themselves exposed to their own people as impotent to handle a serious regional problem. They appear totally dependent on the United States, a country that is deeply unpopular among Arabs for its policies in the region, to take care of it for them.
What comes through loud and clear in these cables is a familiar Gulf Arab refrain: “We have a problem we don’t know how to deal with. You Americans must solve it for us. Do what you think best. We’ll look the other way if necessary.”
Israel, for its part, has been quick to assert that the leaks show that it and the Gulf Arab states have a common outlook regarding Iran. “More and more states, governments and leaders in the Middle East and the wider region and the world believe this is the fundamental threat,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said when asked about the cables.
“No one will now be able to allege that Israel is acting irresponsibly,” wrote Aluf Benn, a columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz. “When the King of Saudi Arabia and the King of Jordan call for lopping off the head of the Iranian snake, no one will believe them when they denounce an Israeli operation.” But there is little to back up such claims. Israel has long wanted the United States to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. It has also strongly implied that if Washington refuses to do so, it will go ahead on its own — in a manner calculated to leave the United States no choice but to join it in war with Iran.
The Gulf Arabs want to forestall Iranian nuclear ambitions, but they are willing to defer to American judgment about how best to achieve that, and they certainly don’t want it to result in a war in their own neighborhood. Clearly, this is a very different position from the one held by Mr. Netanyahu.
There are other ways in which the Arabs and Israelis are at odds on Iran policy. The leaks show that Gulf Arab rulers are concerned above all that a nuclear-armed Iran would have greater prestige in the region and ever-greater influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. The nuclear weapons themselves, they feel, are primarily a threat to Israel and American forces in the region.
Yes, Israelis fear that Iran might gratuitously attempt another Holocaust by attacking them. But the leaked documents also show that one of the main worries Israel has about Iran’s nuclear ambitions is that it could lose its regional monopoly on nuclear weapons, limiting their leverage on a whole range of issues. One doubts the Gulf Arabs share that concern.
In the end, contrary to the hopes and fears of some, the leaks do not make war with Iran more likely or demonstrate a basis for Arab-Israeli solidarity against Tehran. Mr. Assange’s grand accomplishment will be nothing more than to make it far harder for American diplomats to get candid answers from their Gulf Arab and Israeli counterparts.
The Middle East is a place where yes means maybe, maybe means no, no is never heard (except in Israel), and a plea for a foreign solution to regional problems is a cop-out, not a serious request for action. It is where hypocrisy first gained a bad name. WikiLeaks has hurt America without changing that.
Chas Freeman was an assistant secretary of defense from 1993 to 1994 and the United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf war.