Gates: Saudis want to fight Iran to the last American

The Saudis always want to "fight the Iranians to the last American" and it is "time for them to get in the game," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tells the French foreign minister in a newly released cable from February 2010. This captures perfectly the point I made yesterday about how to read the reporting in these cables about the private hawkishness of Arab leaders. The question of Arabs and Iran was never an information problem -- it's an analysis problem. The antipathy which many of these leaders feel for Iran has long been well known. But so has their reluctance to do anything about it. And so have the internal divisions within Arab governments and Gulf ruling families, and their deep fears of either Iranian retaliation or popular upheaval, and their bottomless hunger for U.S. weapons systems, and their hopes that the U.S. would magically solve their problems for them, and the disconnect between the palaces and the public.

Iran hawks have been gloating that the quotes from a few Arab leaders in the initial cable release vindicate their analysis and discredit skeptics of military action against Iran. It doesn't. Gates' comment about the Saudis needing to "get into the game" came almost two years after King Abdullah's now-famous "cut off the head of the snake" comment. And another cable from January 2008 shows Abdullah telling Sarkozy that Saudi Arabia "does not want to inflame the situation," recommends "continued international engagement" with Iran and "is not yet ready to take any action besides diplomacy." Maybe, just maybe, those private remarks weren't actually a very reliable guide to what the Saudis will really do in public?

The way the Iran hawks have been leaping at a few juicy quotes while ignoring the entire well-known context only shows the ongoing poverty of their analysis. I would expect better from the serious analysts on the hawkish side, but, well, there you are.

 (Note: updated to include the Sarkozy-Abdullah cable)

The Middle East Channel

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?).

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