The Cables' Credibility Question

Some time between Saturday evening and Monday morning, it suddenly became important to U.S. hawks that we take seriously what Arab leaders have been saying about instability in the Middle East.

I refer, of course, to the comments from Arab leaders, released as part of the WikiLeaks cable dump, urging the United States to more aggressively curb Iranian power and influence in the region.

Unsurprisingly, these cables have bolstered neoconservative calls for a U.S. military strike on Iran. Leaving aside the irony that neoconservatives are citing as justification for another war the concerns of the same Arab authoritarians they wanted overthrown in 2003, it's quite interesting to note when and on what subjects Arab leaders are to be believed.

For years, we've been told by conservative Middle East "experts" that, despite public pleading, Arab leaders were really not concerned about the destabilizing effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Hudson Institute's Lee Smith exemplified this thinking when he wrote recently that taking Arabs seriously on the Israeli-Palestinian issue "would ignore the fact that interested parties do not always disclose the entire truth of their situation, especially when they have a stake in doing otherwise." (Will similar skepticism be applied to Arab leaders' comments on Iran? What a silly question.)

It's worth noting that the cables do, in fact, establish that Arab leaders continue to be highly concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Cables from meetings with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia all urge the U.S. to move the peace process forward in order to douse this source of resentment and extremism.

Notwithstanding hawks' predictable attempts to selectively interpret the cables as an argument for a return to a neoconservative approach to the region, the leaked cables offer an opportunity to assess Middle East security in the wake of the neoconservative-inspired Bush Doctrine.

The conclusions? Nothing good.

Developed in the frantic and fear-ridden months immediately after the September 11 attacks, the Bush Doctrine was a hazily defined hodgepodge of militarist interventionism cum revolutionary democratic messianism. Driven by a near religious belief in the unilateral use of American military power, it asserted the necessity of "preventive" war -- that the United States had the right to attack any country or organization judged to be a threat, regardless of whether the U.S. had been attacked first. The doctrine was later amended to include support for democratic "regime change," with supporters hinting none too subtly that regimes around the Middle East could be next. As calculated in a report I co-authored for the Center for American Progress in May, the financial, strategic, and human costs of this doctrine have proved enormous.

The cables reveal the aforementioned high concern among Arab leaders about many of those costs, key among them Iran's rising influence, which increased significantly between 2003 and 2008 -- a direct result of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In a March 2009 meeting with U.S. counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, an ailing Saudi King Abdullah echoed the widely shared Middle Eastern view that "the U.S. invasion handed Iraq to Iran on a silver platter." Abdullah also dismissed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as "an Iranian agent."

Other cables note the extensive Iranian infiltration of the Iraqi bureaucracy and security services. A December 2009 cable from Iraq reports that Iran has established economic and political influence in Iraq that dwarfs its military activities, also noting an Iraqi statement that "the Iranian government's (IRIG) goal is to keep the U.S. bogged down in Iraq in order to discourage U.S. military reprisals against the IRIG for its nuclear program." Iranian and American hawks would both seem to have an interest in keeping U.S. troops in harm's way, though to precisely opposite ends.

The cables also reveal details of the ongoing U.S. intervention in Yemen, with the Obama administration fostering yet another overly securitized relationship in the region. A January 2010 cable reports Yemeni President Abdullah Saleh telling then-CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus he will continue to conceal the extent of U.S. involvement: "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours." As I wrote at the Prospect back in June 2009, the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda -- now believed to represent one of the most serious threats to the U.S. -- has been a major beneficiary of the Iraq War. Iran is also believed to be offering support to Yemen's Shia Houthi rebels.

Iran's aggressive attempts to establish influence in the region certainly predate the Bush administration's Middle East policies, but there is no question that those efforts were both encouraged and facilitated by post-9/11 U.S. interventionism. As Iran scholar Said Amir Arjomand wrote in his recent study of post-Khomeini Iran, not only did George W. Bush's "axis of evil" rhetoric provide an enormous domestic political boost to Iran's hard-liners, but from the invasion, they "drew the only conclusion that was rational: The United States invaded Iraq because it knew that Saddam Hussein did not have any weapons of mass destruction and therefore seemed an easy target. For its own preservation, Iran had to have the nuclear bomb."

As the cables demonstrate, Arab leaders fear that an Iran equipped with a nuclear deterrent would behave far more aggressively, and, as usual, they would like the U.S. to handle this problem for them. Also, as usual, they're apparently willing to do relatively little to help the U.S. help them.

While it's obviously important to take seriously the concerns of our Middle East allies and partners, U.S. officials, analysts, and military leaders have repeatedly made clear that a strike on Iran would be, at best, a short-term solution. It would make an Iranian nuclear weapon more, not less, likely, while carrying a host of other highly negative consequences for U.S. goals and interests. That is, of course, the key question with which U.S. foreign policy should be concerned.

Notably, King Abdullah also told Brennan that he had "one request": It was "critically important to restore America's credibility" in the Middle East. Given that this comment came in March 2009, two months into Obama's presidency, when, one might ask, was this credibility lost?

Taken in full, the cables reveal that U.S. policy continues to grapple with the consequences of a poorly conceived doctrine of unilateralist militarism, characterized by a massively destructive and expensive military intervention in the Middle East. It's fantasy to imagine that we can solve these problems with yet another war.