As Israel and Lebanon spiral into ever-bloodier war, all eyes are on Tel Aviv, Washington, Tehran, and Damascus. But as crucial as those capitals are to the rapidly evolving politics of the region, it would do Americans well to widen their view. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan -- what Matthew Yglesias dubbed the "axis of pro-American dictators" -- have been executing one of the more stunning gambits in recent Middle Eastern history: publicly aligning themselves against Hezbollah and Iran (and implicitly with Israel and the United States), even in the face of clear public opposition.
Is this good news for Americans long desperate for Arab states to show their hands and support American goals? Not necessarily.
The surprise is not so much in the positions of these states as in the public way in which they are expressing them. In the week of bloody Israeli military actions following Hezbollah's brazen attack on an Israeli convoy and abduction of two soldiers, these states loudly denounced not Israel but Hezbollah and Iran. Saudi officials attacked Hezbollah's "adventurism," alleging Iranian involvement and assigned Hezbollah responsibility for the suffering of Lebanese civilians. The Saudi media, including al-Arabiya TV, slanted its coverage against Hezbollah, and the influential daily newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat filled its op-ed pages with angry denunciations of Hezbollah and the Iranians. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak mused in a widely publicized interview that the "resistance" of Hamas and Hezbollah had brought few benefits to the Palestinian and Lebanese people, and much suffering. The statement of the Arab Foreign Ministers meeting in Cairo earlier this week could have been written in Washington.
While some commentators took this as a split in Arab public opinion, or a collapse of support for Hezbollah, this largely missed the point. The anti-Hezbollah attitudes described above were largely confined to the Saudi media, or to pundits associated with the governments involved, and there is little evidence that there are many Arab takers for their pitch. The more independent coverage by Al-Jazeera -- replete with graphic visuals of Lebanese dead and wounded -- demonstrated intense solidarity with the Lebanese and Palestinian peoples, support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and above all angry condemnations of the official Arab order's silence. According to the station, its audience has gone through the roof during the crisis, with its Web site reportedly receiving six million hits in a single day this week. Similar attitudes can be found in the other two major pan-Arab daily newspapers (al-Hayat and al-Quds al-Arabi), on Arab blogs (in both English and Arabic), and in many of the more independent newspapers.
Why are the Saudis, Egyptians, and Jordanians so aggressively condemning Hezbollah in defiance of their own publics? First, the fear of Iran among Gulf officials is real. Saudi and other Gulf officials have watched with alarm as Iran has extended its influence into Iraq and has appeared to be moving toward a nuclear weapons program. Last year, Jordan's King Abdullah famously warned of a "Shia Crescent" threatening the (Sunni) Arab world, while Hosni Mubarak recently made waves by describing Iraq's Shia as more loyal to Iran than to their country. They don't want war, since they would be the first to suffer, but they would prefer to see Iranian influence checked.
The much-hyped communal dimension (Sunni-Shia) is probably a red herring, though. Arab arguments about Lebanon today fall along regime-popular conflicts rather than Sunni-Shia. Despite the sharp Sunni-Shia clashes in Iraq, and the anti-Iranian rhetoric coming out of Arab capitals, the appeal to the wider Arab public of the Shia Hezbollah movement seems to have only increased. Egypt's very Sunni Muslim Brotherhood has strongly backed Hezbollah, while al-Jazeera (often described by disaffected Iraqi Shia as a Sunni network) has given largely sympathetic coverage.
Second, the last few years have witnessed dramatic changes in the role of public opinion and the mass media in the Middle East. In the past, Arab leaders would have comfortably ignored public opinion -- or even whipped it up into an anti-Israeli frenzy to divert attention from local problems. Now things are different. Since the rise of al-Jazeera in the late 1990s, Arab regimes have lost their ability to monopolize information or opinion in their countries. On al-Jazeera's talk shows, these regimes find themselves subjected to withering criticism and contemptuous dismissal, which they have learned to ignore at their own risk. Perhaps they felt that they could no longer get away with the old game of saying one thing in private and another in public. Or perhaps they feel that their own popular satellite television station, al-Arabiya, could offer some protection from al-Jazeera's anger, or at least a chance to disseminate their views more widely.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, these three regimes evidently see this crisis as an opportunity to demonstrate their value to the United States and conclusively put an end to American calls for democratization. The domestic power of Islamists has long been the trump card of these regimes, which have used the prospects of their electoral victory to frighten off American democracy enthusiasts. This gambit gained extra currency in Washington after the strong showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's Parliamentary elections and the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections. In this context, protests in support of Hezbollah probably serve the interests of the pro-American despots right now. The last week will put the final nails in the coffin of democracy promotion, if these regimes have their way: Why would America push for democracy when these regimes are so publicly helpful, and the publics likely to win elections so hostile?
The effort seems to be working. Egypt is trumpeting a new "American-Egyptian Strategic Dialogue," with pro-government pundits celebrating an end to several years' tensions over democratization. Jordan is about to hold joint military exercises with the United States. And the Saudis seem to have completed their post-9-11 rehabilitation with the Bush administration. For those of us -- including not only the Bush administration but a great number of liberal foreign policy analysts -- who believe that promoting democracy in the Arab world should be a key element of American grand strategy, the quiet death of democracy promotion could be a tremendous hidden cost of the current crisis. Americans don't want to look back on the Lebanon crisis and bemoan the fact that amidst the bloodshed and fear, we didn't spot the setup.