This commentary was published in the New York Times on 1/12/2010
It is sad and shocking — pitiful, even, in many cases — how Arab leaders are portrayed in the U.S. State Department cables released by WikiLeaks earlier this week.
The most shocking revelation — not a revelation, really, as many of us had warned about this for decades — is that Arab governments that have spent hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars on buying American and other foreign arms still find themselves totally helpless, vulnerable and fearful in the face of what they see as growing Iranian power and influence in the region.
The assorted Arab leaders who are quoted as asking the United States to hurry up and do something about Iran’s growing nuclear technology capabilities reveal an apparent inability to care for their own countries and citizens.
Those who privately called on, or expected, Israel and/or the United States to do their dirty work for them did so because of their own inability to make the decisions and pursue the policies that could have transformed their countries into more viable states, ones that could undertake the tasks of statecraft — whether diplomacy or war — with some credibility.
It is bad enough that a host of Arab countries have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on “security” systems that in the end saw them asking others to make preemptive attacks against neighboring Iran, a country that should have been a partner, friend and even ally.
It is worse that the Arab leaders who looked to the United States and Israel to protect them by attacking Iran asked for this course of action quietly, surreptitiously, without standing up for their positions in public.
But it is far, far worse that all of this should have taken place in a context in which the Arab leaders in question seem to have had zero conclusive proof — zero — that Iran was planning to produce nuclear weapons. Indeed, their policies instead may prompt Iran to consider this option. A collective Arab policy of covert appeals for American and Israeli foreigners to carry out aggression against a (Muslim) neighbor without evidence of that neighbor’s culpability — affirming that one’s own immense, nearly immeasurable, Arab national wealth spent for security in the end is not able to provide that security — is a sad testament to the poor quality of leadership in the national security realm, to say the least.
Arab leaders in the Gulf and elsewhere have had many opportunities in the past half century to forge mutually beneficial working relations with Iran, to remove the few political obstacles that stood in the way of healthy mutual ties, and to develop interlocking security, trade and infrastructural relations that would have done for the Gulf and wider Middle East region what the European Community and Union have done in unifying and strengthening a prosperous Europe.
Why Arab leaders who had the legitimacy, the means, the motive and the opportunity to do this did not do so in recent decades may some day be explained by historians.
For the moment, we have contemporary events and the revelations of these leaks to remind us what happens when total political, economic and military power in the hands of small numbers of men (no women here) is shielded from any sort of routine accountability by the nationals and citizens of these same countries.
The reason that democracy is a desired and effective governance system is that national policies tend to broadly mirror public sentiment, which gives the national leaders credibility when they speak and negotiate with, or occasionally even threaten, other leaders.
As these leaks indicate, Arab leaders mostly seem to lack that sort of credibility, which sometimes causes them to say one thing in public and something else in private when speaking to foreign powers.
Public opinion in the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan and other Arab countries is varied, not monolithic. Many Arabs support Tehran’s policies, and many others oppose them. Some Arabs covet American support, others distrust it. Some Arabs want to make peace with Israel, others want to fight it.
This variety, however, is totally detached from the policies and the public or private statements of Arab leaders — which weakens the leaders, keeps Arab countries vulnerable, and leads to the sort of sad, shocking and even pitiful examples of behavior we now read about.
Wasted billions, perpetual vulnerability, chronic non-credibility, duplicitous policy pronouncements, and, in the end, no success to show for all these, adds one more serious and priceless, if intangible, casualty to the list: national dignity.