What WikiLeaks revealed about the empire

December 7, 2010

The WikiLeaks documents provide a more detailed picture of the inner workings of U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, writes Deepa Kumar.

THE CORPORATE media are reliable and consistent. They consistently focus on the sensational, and they reliably take the position of the U.S. government. So it should come as no surprise that the recent release of U.S. diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks is being covered with much sound and fury, signifying little on many issues.

On the sensational and gossip mongering front we have Muammar al-Gaddafi's Ukrainian nurse, Angela Merkel's "manly" leadership skills, Vladimir Putin's cozy relationship with Silvio Berlusconi, sex crimes charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange etc.

On the mundane lapdog front, we have repeated stories touting the administration's line about "national security" and the rationale for why the cables had to be kept hidden from public view, U.S. efforts to bring legal charges against WikiLeaks, questions of whether Hillary Clinton should resign, the Internet and its regulation, etc.

Sorely lacking in all the attention given to the WikiLeaks cables is an analysis of the functioning of empire. While the cables may not reveal anything radically new, particularly to an astute left-liberal audience, it does offer a concrete snapshot of the workings of U.S. policy. And if nothing else, it provides proof positive that governments lie. The U.S. lies to its people, and its allies lie to theirs.

Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa with the head of U.S. Naval Central Command Patrick Walsh
Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa with the head of U.S. Naval Central Command Patrick Walsh

For instance, the U.S. has been at war with the people of Yemen for the last year, sporadically dropping bombs anywhere it likes. An Amnesty International investigation found that an air strike in December 2009 killed dozens of local residents, leading Amnesty to state that "those responsible for unlawful killings must be brought to justice."

But the U.S. will definitely not be brought to justice. And certainly not with loyal allies like Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who are more than willing to lie. In a conversation with Gen. David Petraeus, Saleh, who was trying to save face domestically over the U.S. air strikes, said: "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours." Petraeus, in exchange, guaranteed that U.S. foreign aid to Yemen would more than double in 2010.

This is diplomacy, U.S.-style. When Italian mobsters engage in such activity, it is considered illegal, yet empires have an uncanny way of getting around such irksome impediments like international law and human rights.

THEN THERE are the cables on Iran, which show that not only is Iran in the crosshairs of the U.S. and Israel, but the U.S.'s Arab allies in the region appear to be falling over themselves to assist the U.S. in thwarting Iran's nuclear ambitions. Here you get to see how the Mafia Don relates to subordinates.

These subordinates--that is, U.S. allies in the Middle East--though referred to routinely by the corporate media as "moderates," are far from moderate in any real sense of the term. For instance, the Gulf states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and, most importantly, Saudi Arabia), which have the majority of the oil in the region, are monarchies headed by leaders who are corrupt and unaccountable to their people. Yet the US prefers to ally with such "moderate" (read: pro-US) governments, rather than Iran, which at least holds elections, albeit of a limited kind.

It should come as no surprise that these Gulf autocrats, as well as the U.S.'s allies in other Arab nations such as Egypt and Jordan, would assist the U.S. in advancing its imperial ambitions in the Middle East. In so doing, they are simply advancing their own interests.

Yet the cables reveal a level of animosity towards Iran that is quite remarkable especially since the comments made behind closed doors by several Arab allies stand in stark contrast to public statements made for domestic and regional consumption. In a similar Orwellian move, Israel, which is routinely attacked (verbally of course) by these same leaders, is a behind-the-scenes ally, the cables reveal. Black is white, night is day.

For instance, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the United Arab Emirates urged U.S. Gen. John Abizaid to take action against Iran "this year or next." According to another cable, bin Zayed, echoing Israeli language, stated that Iran should be not be appeased since "Ahmadinejad is Hitler."

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, another close U.S. ally, is quoted in one cable as calling "forcefully for taking action to terminate [Iran's] nuclear program, by whatever means necessary." Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, the naval command responsible for the Persian Gulf.

Other cables show that Qatar is willing to let the U.S. use an airbase in that country to bomb Iran. This would not be the first time the U.S. has used this particular airbase--it previously mounted air attacks from here on Iraq. Qatar is willing to foot the lion's share of the bill to maintain this airbase for U.S. war games in the region.

Saudi Arabia's King Abudullah, one cable shows, made repeated entreaties to the U.S. to attack Iran and "cut off the head of the snake." Saudi Arabia, at the bidding of the U.S., also met with Chinese representatives to seek their consent for U.S.-sponsored sanctions on Iran, and it agreed to supply China with oil as a way to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil. Saudi Arabia was then permitted to buy $60 billion in military hardware, following faithfully the script of a seven-decade-old relationship between the two countries based on "oil for security."

Egypt's Hosni Mubarak's statements drip with contempt for Iran. One memo states that Mubarak, in a meeting with Sen. John Kerry, exclaimed that the Iranians "are big, fat liars and justify their lies because they believe it is for a higher purpose."

He went on to add, however, that no Arab state could publicly assist the U.S. in a military attack on Iran. He stated that Iran's backing of terrorism is "well-known, but I cannot say it publicly. It would create a dangerous situation." Yet in private, Egypt has recruited Iraqi and Syrian agents to counter Iranian intelligence operations.

All this reads like a bad soap opera, with feuding families pretending to make nice while plotting all along to stab each other in the back. And at the head of this murky cesspool of deception is none other than the U.S. grande dame.

BUT NATIONS aren't families, and so what explains the aforementioned Arab nations' hostility towards Iran?

If one is seeking an explanation of the conflict between Iran and the U.S.'s Arab allies, one is unlikely to find it the corporate media. Rather than reveal the historical economic and political interests that bring the U.S., Israel, and various Arab states together, the media fall back on age-old clichés.

For instance, in an otherwise useful front-page article in the New York Times on Arab and Israeli leaders' responses to a nuclear Iran, the authors go on to explain the roots of the conflict between the Arab world and Iran as follows:

To some extent, this Arab obsession with Iran was rooted in the uneasy sectarian division of the Muslim world, between the Shiites who rule Iran, and the Sunnis who dominate most of the region.

Even the British Guardian newspaper, which has done a better job than the Times of analyzing the WikiLeaks cables and making them available in an easy-to-search format, states:

Arab-Persian enmity, with a strong undercurrent of rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims, dates back centuries, but increased markedly after the overthrow of the Shah and the Islamic revolution in 1979, and is now viewed as a struggle for hegemony in the region.

In short, according to these papers, the U.S.'s main interest in the Middle East for over seven decades--oil (particularly control over oil production and distribution)--has little relevance to this conflict. And the struggle for hegemony in the region has little to do with geopolitical interests--rather, it is rooted in religious and ethnic divisions.

In place of concrete analysis, we get an Islamophobic cliché based on the assumption that the roots of all (or most) actions by Arab states lie in Islam. If this reductionism is applied to Arab nations, it is also applied to Iran.

What such explanations obscure is the real historical and political relationship between the U.S., Israel and its various Arab allies. While the U.S.'s allies might mouth pro-Iranian and anti-Israeli slogans, such commentary is limited to the sphere of rhetoric. In real terms, it is the political and economic interests that drive their actions.

In the case of the Gulf monarchies, which have long allied themselves closely with imperial nations (first Britain and then the U.S.), control over oil resources trumps all other concerns.

For instance, the so-called "special relationship" between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is based on oil for security: the U.S. needs to control oil in the region in order to be a global hegemon, and Saudi Arabia needs the U.S. to shore up its defense capabilities in order to put down both external and internal threats to the rule of the Al Saud family.

Iran, since the fall of the U.S.-backed Shah in 1979, has been seen as an external threat. Saudi Arabia therefore buys billions of dollars worth of military equipment from the U.S., and has been an important customer of the U.S. defense industry.

Internal threats are struggles that have the potential to disrupt the "special relationship" by threatening the control of the Al Saud family. Thus, movements for workers' rights, women's rights and democratic reform have been squashed by the ruling family, with the approval and help of the U.S.

When workers went on strike in the oil regions in the 1940s and 50s, the Al Saud family, with the assistance of the U.S. oil company ARAMCO, ruthlessly suppressed the strikers and jailed, deported or assassinated its leadership. When women staged a "drive-in" in the early 1990s to seek greater rights for women, they were stripped of their passports and fired from their jobs.

These actions were not driven by "Islam." Rather, both the U.S. and the Al Saud family (as well as the ruling families in other Gulf states) have little tolerance for democratic movements, fearing rightly that such actions will result in elevating the will of the people over theirs, which could upset the oil-for-security status quo.

And indeed, the will of the people does stand in opposition to these leaders on the question of Iran.

In contrast to the hostility expressed by the leadership, a recent poll carried out by the Brookings Institution finds that regular people in several Arab nations don't see Iran as a major threat. Instead, 88 percent identified Israel as the biggest threat, followed closely by the U.S. (at 77 percent). A whopping 10 percent identified Iran as a threat to their interests. So much for the historic Sunni-Shia enmity and Arab-Persian rivalry!

Additionally, in contrast again to the views held by the leadership, 75 percent of ordinary people were opposed to international efforts to pressure Iran to curtail its nuclear program, stating that they believed Iran had a right to its nuclear program. Some 57 percent even think that it would be a positive development for the region if Iran acquired nuclear weapons.

It is therefore not surprising that the U.S.'s Arab allies are not willing to publicly criticize Iran or offer open support for U.S. efforts to "cut off the head of the snake." What this poll reveals is not only the contrasting views held by the Arab public and Arab leaders, but also that the majority of Arabs don't see the world through the U.S.-Israeli prism that is taken for granted by the corporate media.

AS I have argued elsewhere, the dominant media framing of the Iran-nukes discussion is one which draws from an Orientalist/Islamophobic logic that states that "insane" and "irrational" Muslim Iran cannot be trusted to have nuclear weapons. This logic further takes for granted the proposition that the U.S. has a legitimate right to police and adjudicate on questions of nuclear capabilities.

To the extent that there is any debate in the corporate media, it is about whether the US should use diplomatic or military means to quell Iran's nuclear ambitions. Little time is devoted to shedding light on why Iran, as a rational political actor, might want to acquire nuclear weapons. After all, Iran is surrounded by states that possess nukes, such as India, Pakistan, China, Russia and Israel, not to mention by U.S. bases in Qatar, Iraq, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, which might have nuclear weapons.

What's also left out of the discussion is not only that Iran obtained its nuclear technology from the U.S., but that Iran's nuclear technology is under the full oversight of the international community, since Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Yet Israel, which has not has not signed on to the NPT and which is known to be sitting on a stockpile of nukes, is given a pass.

Perhaps more importantly, we aren't asked to question why the U.S., which possesses the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world--and is the only country to have ever used such weapons--has a legitimate right to police other nations.

At the end of the day, the WikiLeaks cables reveal a lot about the mechanics of imperialism. They not only provide concrete proof of the levels of duplicity and the self-serving logic that drives political actors on the international stage, but they can also, if placed in proper historical context, shed light on the day-to-day functioning of empire. But don't expect to find such analyses in the corporate media.

A previous version of this article was published at EmpireBytes.

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