Wikileak cables from the "Egoistic Psyche" of Persia to the "Arab Street"

OK. It’s time for another modest addition to the fun new academic game of “making sense of Cablegate,” Wikileaks’ release of the first set of thousands of leaked US foreign service documents.

But before I get to my point, a few clear disclaimers.

First, I agree largely with my UMass colleague, Charli Carpenter, that the foreign policy details to date are nothing shocking.

Second, so far at least, I’m not convinced that the documents inspire the sort of outrage about US government duplicity that Wikileaks suggests we should feel. Perhaps because I have lots of well-meaning, thoughtful friends in the US foreign service or at the State Department, I tend to see these documents as diverse, often entailing good focused analysis, or, at least,  faithful reproduction of what leaders say to each other behind (somewhat) closed doors.  In fact, until Wikileaks releases everything it has, and unless we can compare it somehow to all the stuff that is not being released,  it’s hard to make any sweeping generalizations about what all of this means.

So,  accepting the relatively unsurprising  nature of the revelations about US foreign policy substance and the difficulty of making broad claims, I looked at cables from US outposts in the Gulf just to see what style and rhetoric of analysis are on display.

And I did find something disturbing.  In August 1979, as the Iranian Revolution was consolidating and the emerging government was stirring up popular antipathy to the US, a secret cable made broad stereotypes about the egoistic psyche of Persians, and their unreliability in negotiations.  Almost exactly thirty years later, another partly-secret analysis of Iran underscored the decline in popularity on “the Arab street” of Iranian President Ahmadinejad after the 2009 election cycle.

Now I don’t want to pick too much on either cable. Lord knows the 1979 one is an easy target and will receive lots of comment. And the 2009 cable quotes a variety of specific Arab media sources that suggest its author seeks local evidence which is clearly unlike anything that can back up the broad racial stereotypes of the earlier memo.

Yet I wish my point could be, “look how much US diplomatic analysis has advanced in its reliance on good research and detail in 30 years!” Instead, looking at the two documents in tandem has me frustrated by how easy it is, even for knowledgeable analysts, to fall into the pattern of broad generalizations about large groups of people in a variety of places in a way that seems dismissive.  If contemporary Arabs seem of one basic mindset that is subject to manipulation, as the 2009 cable suggests,  this is less real than a construct propagated by some of the more repressive regimes in the region, as a way of delegitimating internal and external pressure for widened citizen representation. Most of us who study actual Arab politics know the “Arab street” to be a misleading image with something of a whiff of the cultural condescension towards non-Israeli Middle Easterners that is more evidently stinky in the 1979 memo.

So why do even good, regionally-grounded, knowledgeable foreign service analysts still indulge in terms that carry a trace odor of broad-based stereotyping? These two leaked (reeked?) cables read in tandem and my general experience suggest three possible answers:

(1) It’s easier to report conclusions about simple mass attitudes than more subtle distinctions, something we know to be even more sadly true in much broader American political discourse these days.

(2) It can be hard for US diplomats to escape their high-profile, somewhat shielded, security-conscious lives to get a window on the diversity of perspectives in the countries in which they live.

(3) If the subject is something important in a country’s policy, where there are strong central opinions, such as the post-Shah Iranian government in the US, there are incentives to make large claims about problems with this foreign government. Both memo-writers, even though I trust they believe in their analysis, have some reason to amplify the likelihood of the unreliability or unpopularity of Tehran’s leadership.

I guess we’ll all have to stay tuned to “Cablegate” to see if generalizations like this make sense.  For the moment at least, I’m concerned about the ease these two cables suggests of drawing simplistic conclusions about Arab or Persian people as a whole. Yet I don’t myself think these cables should get us riled-up about US diplomacy generally. Indeed, I’m confident that most US foreign service officers at least know whether or not North Korea is an ally.

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