Of the many classified diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, those quoting Arab leaders talking frankly about Iran were somehow least surprising and most titillating. To hear King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urging the U.S. to "cut off the head of the snake" in Iran was simply remarkable. George Washington University political science professor Marc Lynch says that compared to their Western counterparts, Arab media outlets were slow to report on the leaks but are quickly making up for lost time.
BOB GARFIELD: Of the many classified diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, those quoting Arab leaders talking frankly about Iran were somehow the least surprising and the most titillating. The public statements of Arab governments are often in stark contrast with their private negotiations, lest the leaders be seen by their people as insufficiently Islamic or, worse, as siding with the West or Israel. And so, to hear King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urging the United States to, quote, “cut off the head of the snake in Iran” was, well, remarkable. Officials in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and elsewhere in the region were similarly blunt in their concerns over Iran and its nuclear ambitions and what to do about them. And then there were the cables about corruption in Afghanistan, state support of terrorism in Saudi Arabia and state support of Hezbollah in Syria, all previously known or suspected, and yet, all fascinating to see discussed so candidly in diplomatic circles. George Washington University political science professor Marc Lynch blogs about the Middle East for Foreign Policy Magazine and follows media throughout the region. He says that compared to their Western counterparts, Arab media outlets were a bit slow to report on the leaks but that they're quickly making up for lost time.
MARC LYNCH: Now, they're starting to find their way into the local papers, so the Egyptian independent newspaper, Al Masry Al Youm and the Lebanese independent newspaper, Al Akhbar, have now begun publishing their own little caches that they apparently have been given of specifically Middle East-focused documents. Some of the reports that we're starting to see from Lebanon could be politically explosive as they shed some light on the special tribunal which is investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri. There are some Egyptian cables that are showing Egypt’s role in the blockade of Gaza, which could prove quite embarrassing. In Kuwait there’s already been a big controversy about a cable about the Guantanamo detainees. There was a front page article in one of the Kuwaiti newspapers with the title The Wife Spills the Secrets of the Husband.
BOB GARFIELD: The wife disclosing secrets of the husband? What’s the reference?
MARC LYNCH: Well, the United States is the wife in this scenario.
[BOB LAUGHS] And this has been all the talk in Kuwaiti society. It - it’s very difficult to predict which things are going to really have that kind of impact. But I think it is fair to say that the regimes are trying to put in place defensive mechanisms. This is a big test of the Internet and of social media because we're seeing the documents and analysis of the documents all over places like Facebook, Twitter, online news sites. And there’s always been a big question of whether information and opinion on these websites and on social media can break out into the mass public, as opposed to this relatively small number of wired, plugged in, elite youth.
BOB GARFIELD: In terms of governments threatened by these revelations, it seems to me that the Gulf States are like right at the top of the list. The Saudis have been particularly embarrassed because of cables concerning the funding of terrorists in the kind of double game that the kingdom is playing. How is that being reported in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere?
MARC LYNCH: Well, the Gulf States are particularly threatened because of those revelations and also because they generally maintain tighter control over the media than in countries like Egypt or Lebanon, which, for all their flaws, have a pretty open and contentious press, as it is. The flip side of that is that these governments have a lot of resources to fight back with. For example, the fact that the Saudis control and own major television stations, major newspapers means they've powerful mouthpieces to fight back against criticism. So, for example, in a Saudi newspaper today there’s an editorial suggesting that some of the websites and newspapers are fabricating cables or they're mistranslating quotes from the cables, so trying to discredit them in advance.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about the “beheading the snake” comment from Saudi’s King Abdullah. This has gotten a lot of coverage, and so has the general issue of Arab leaders’ desire for Iran to be neutralized, especially its nuclear program, but their absolute unwillingness to do it themselves, their wish that Israel or the U.S. does the dirty work for them. How is this revelation being covered?
MARC LYNCH: You’re getting some denials of specific phrasings or the like, but you have to remember that the hostility towards Iran in the Gulf is, is not a secret. This has been a staple of Saudi propaganda in the Saudi media for years. The real issue is that even though they talk tough about this in public or in private, they're not willing to do what they say.
BOB GARFIELD: You, in one of your posts wrote, I think, you know, most provocatively, about the wishful thinking that sometimes surrounds the back channel private thoughts of Arab leaders. We come to assume that the real policy is hidden there, whereas their public statements can be safely ignored. But you argue that rather the opposite is true.
MARC LYNCH: Right, because the public statements have the politics factored in already. That represents what these leaders think they can get away with and what they think is gonna sell with the audiences they care about. So the conversations you get in private, those are more likely to be what they feel in their hearts, but it’s not necessarily a reliable guide to what they're actually going to do. And you read through the cables and you see leaders say one thing but then when pressed to deliver in public, they say, it’s too dangerous, I'd never get away with it. And in the comments by embassy officials, you often see this frustration of the Saudis want to fight Iran to the last dead American, or the Emirates talk a big game but once again they're failing to deliver. You hear something in private, you think that that means that they're going to do what they say, and then they don't do it. And at this point, we really shouldn't be surprised by it.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Marc. Thanks so much.
MARC LYNCH: Well, thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Marc Lynch is a professor of political science at George Washington University. He blogs about the Middle East for Foreign Policy Magazine.