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WikiLeaks and the Arab public sphere

I expect to delve into the substance of the WikiLeaks cables over the next few days -- I've been flagging noteworthy ones on Twitter all afternoon, and will keep doing so as I go along, and I will blog at greater length about specific issues as they arise. But I wanted to just throw some quick thoughts out there now after reading through most of the first batch. My initial skepticism about the significance of this document leak, fueled by the lack of interesting revelations in the New York Times and Guardian reports, is changing as I see the first batch of cables posted on WikiLeaks itself.

I don't think that there's going to be much revision of the American foreign policy debate, because most policy analysts have already heard most of what's in the cables, albeit in sanitized form. The cables still generally confirm the broad contours of what we already knew: many Arab leaders are deeply suspicious of Iran and privately urged the U.S. to attack it, for instance, but are afraid to say so in public. I haven't seen anything yet which makes me change any of my views on things which I study -- the cables show Arab leaders in all their Realpolitik and anti-Iranian scheming. I never thought that Arab leaders didn't hate Iran, only that they wouldn't act on it because of domestic and regional political constraints and out of fear of being the target of retaliation, and that's what the cables show. I'll admit that I'm finding a wealth of fascinating details filling in gaps and adding information at the margins. Nobody who follows regional politics can not be intrigued to hear Hosni Mubarak calling Iranians "big fat liars" or hearing reports of the astoundingly poor policy analysis of certain UAE royals. This will be a bonanza to academics studying international relations and U.S. foreign policy comparable to the capture of Iraqi documents in 2003 (I wonder what norms will evolve about citations to these documents, which the U.S. government considers illegally released?).

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?

Now those are interesting questions.

UPDATE: thus far, most of the mainstream Arab media seems to be either ignoring the Wikileaks revelations or else reporting it in generalities, i.e. reporting that it's happening but not the details in the cables. I imagine there are some pretty tense scenes in Arab newsrooms right now, as they try to figure out how to cover the news within their political constraints. Al-Jazeera may feel the heat the most, since not covering it (presumably to protect the Qatari royal family) could shatter its reputation for being independent and in tune with the "Arab street". So far, the only real story I've seen in the mainstream Arab media is in the populist Arab nationalist paper al-Quds al-Arabi, which covers the front page with a detailed expose focused on its bete noir Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the details are all over Arabic social media like Facebook and Twitter, blogs, forums, and online-only news sites like Jordan's Ammon News. This may be a critical test of the real impact of Arabic social media and the internet: can it break through a wall of silence and reach mass publics if the mass media doesn't pick up the story?

SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images

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