The recently-released batch of Wikileaks cables are in many ways an eye-opener. The 1.7 million documents, including the more than 200,000 records concerning former U.S. Secretary of State, Henry A. Kissinger, (known as “Kissinger Cables”), shed light on U.S.-Arab relations during a crucial period, that of the 1973 war, but also on the lingering legacies of more recent years. It would be foolhardy to try to interpret the cables of thirty years past in light of today’s political and diplomatic landscape. Still, the 1973-1976 cables can be a great help understanding the roots of current trends in Arab public opinion, including that of skepticism over U.S. Middle East policies.
Since the Arab Spring, opinion polls have shown that Arab public opinion is to varying degrees appreciative of America’s democratic values, popular culture and scientific progress. But attitudes towards U.S. Middle East policies have continued to earn “low favorability” ratings, even after the winds of regime-change during the Arab Spring have toppled many of Washington’s former allies.
The ‘battle for Arab opinion’
The new batch of cables shows very well that communication is a political by-product par excellence. Communicators have an uphill task when politicians do not leave them an even-playing field, or when decision-makers persist in policies that can only provoke the audiences they are supposedly trying to accommodate. In a November 2nd, 1973 cable, from Rabat, Ambassador Robert G. Neumann refers to America’s “battle for Arab opinion”. But the facts of that period show that nobody took that “battle” seriously. It simply was not a priority for anyone.
Contrary to the serious analysis of “the mood” in Israel or in Europe throughout the war period, US diplomatic correspondence rarely included a serious study of public opinion trends in the Arab World. The one possible exception was Lebanon, where the presence of leftist and pan-Arab formations could not be ignored. It is difficult to believe that Ambassador James E. Akins had on mind a serious interest in Saudi public opinion trends during the “Ramadan War”, when he wrote in October 17, 1973 that: “Saudis are famished by day, glutted by night, and hence even less disposed than they otherwise would be to overt political agitation.” Later during the same month, once Riyadh decided to cut oil supplies to the US, the Embassy’s cables were to take a less complacent tone. Without a minimum sense of respect or empathy for their “target-audiences”, diplomats cannot carry a credible message, even if they tried. With patently based notions, they cannot be the honest brokers they claim to be. On October 9th, 1973, deputy chief of mission in Jeddah, Hume A. Horan, would tell the State Department that the “Arabs are famously bad losers” and that the Israelis have an “understandable desire for revenge”.
The two generations of Wikileaks
The batch of Wikileaks cables, covering the period from the 1990’s till today, was less reverential to Arab rulers and brought into the open corruption scandals involving those in power. But U.S. diplomats of the last decade or so, have shown more cultural sensitivity and political even-handedness towards the Arab World than their predecessors.
The two generations of diplomats operated in quite different contexts. As part of the political and diplomatic mores of the 1970’s, diplomatic relations during the “Kissinger era” were based on a top-down concept of power in the Arab world. American diplomats counted on Arab rulers to influence, contain or stunt public opinion trends. Opposition politicians and civil society activists were not yet part of the game. Governments on both sides had a patronizing attitude towards Arab opinions, not recognizing the legitimacy of their views.
In Cairo, in Tunis, in Rabat, in Jeddah and elsewhere, US diplomats used to think that the best way to avoid anti-American reactions was to prevent the dissemination of critical or hostile messages. Diplomats, but also intelligence officers, were involved. An April 15, 1973 cable details how an American intelligence officer complained to an Egyptian senior diplomat that pro-Palestinian stories circulating in Egyptian media were “creating an unhelpful political atmosphere”. He went on to directly request “the help of the Egyptian government in controlling the dissemination of such inflammatory statements”. The Egyptian civil servant told his American interlocutors that Egyptian media did not reflect official views and they had “the right” to report international news as they saw fit.
Even U.S. diplomats knew that the American narrative was not popular and that trying to sell US policies cost Arab rulers a lot of political capital at home. On November 2nd, 1973, U.S. Ambassador in Morocco, Robert Neumann, admitted that King Hassan II could have gained considerable political credit had he criticized US support to Israel during the October war. “He was undoubtedly responsible for relative restraint of local media towards us. We believe he should get credit for his moderation and courage in this regard,” said Neumann of the King of Morocco.
In the same vein, demonstrations against U.S. policies in the Middle East were often perceived as a threat to American interests; and were therefore to be avoided at any cost. (For decades after that, Arab governments would not depart from an attitude of suspicion regarding street demonstrations ). Ambassador Talcott Williams Seelye, told the State Department, in an October 8, 1973 cable from Tunis, that he “applauded” President Bourguiba’s “unequivocal public statement the previous day prohibiting demonstrations in Tunisia in connection with Middle East hostilities”.
In an October 9, 1973 cable, Ambassador William R. Crawford was very laudatory of Yemeni officials who reassured him that the Sanaa government “intended to keep its fingers on pulse of popular sentiment”, and if “emotions seemed to be rising dangerously, the government would take the lead in suggesting a public rally--to be safely contained in the Sanaa football stadium”.
But there were exceptions to this approach. Some of the Arab officials tried to tell their American interlocutors, albeit “diplomatically”, that the problem was with the lack of credibility of the US government narrative. According to an October 16, 1973 cable, Tunisian Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Mahmoud Mestiri, told US ambassador to the UN Security Council, W. Tapley Bennett, that “he personally accepted US Government explanations regarding new arms shipments to Israel, but said that these "sophisticated explanations" were not likely to be accepted easily by people.”
A few U.S. Ambassadors tried to tell the State Department the problem was with American policies themselves (not just the narrative). Amongst them was Talcott W. Seelye, who in an October 11, 1973 cable from Tunis, told Washington: “I frankly am unable to understand why we have to move sixth fleet in current situation…. it is entirely possible that if we could just stay clear of conflict, we would come out of this war with our people and our interests in area unaffected -- and thus be in excellent position to renew our efforts with regard to a settlement.” Such positions earned Talcott W. Seelye the reputation of being a quintessential “Arabist” in the State Department. A reputation that did not seem to bother Talcott W. Seeleye.
The top-down approach in promoting the U.S. views and preventing the dissemination of dissonant perspectives could only backfire, as U.S. positions were increasingly identified with regimes suffering themselves from a huge credibility deficit. By trying heavy-handedly to dismiss views that were critical of the U.S. government, previous Arab regimes made such views even more popular among their populations.
Back to the future
A more serious problem with many of the pre-Arab Spring regimes in the region is that they continued to use the same old closed-door and double-talk approaches in dealing with the United States. While decision makers in Washington, especially after the September 2011 attacks, steered away from such approaches, their old allies had a hard time seeing the writing on the wall. With rising levels of education , increasing political awareness and the greater role played by cross-border mass communication, the younger Arab generations had acquired the means of making their own minds on domestic issues and on international policies, including U.S. positions on the Middle East.
Already during the October war, you could see the break in the wall, with the surge of public interest in radio stations broadcasts across Arab borders. According to an October 16, 1973 cable, Tunisian permanent representative to the United Nations, Mahmoud Mestiri told American interlocutors he was concerned over the “unsettled state of Tunisian opinion”. He went on to explain: “Tunisian press was "moderate", but many Tunisians were listening to radio reports from Cairo and other Arab capitals.” The nineties were to bring in even more powerful communications technologies, especially satellite television and the Internet, making it possible for young Arab audiences to definitely circumvent the rulers’ control.
But many of the Arab leaders in the Middle East and North Africa, especially those who were in power since the 70’s, were caught in a time warp from which they dared not escape. The mores of the “Kissinger cables” had run their course. Those who clang to them ended up swept away by revolution in 2011.
Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. He was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.