Conservatives are crowing about the WikiLeaks revelations about the Middle East, and that’s strange. It’s strange, first of all, because most conservatives wish WikiLeaks didn’t exist and Julian Assange was sharing a cell with Jose Padilla. It’s strange, second of all, because when it comes to Iran, the WikiLeaks documents make the Obama administration look pretty good. If you believe the cables, Team Obama’s charm offensive has been surprisingly successful in convincing the Russians to ratchet up pressure on Tehran (which is why it is so incandescently stupid for Iran hawks like Jon Kyl and Mitt Romney to enrage the Russian government by scuttling the START treaty). But it’s strange, most of all, because I could have sworn that conservatives wanted to democratize the Middle East.
The thing that hawks love most about the WikiLeaks documents is that they quote various Arab potentates lusting for war with Tehran. “Most of the Arab world,” declared Peter Wehner last week in Commentary, “has confirmed what neo-conservatives have said about Iran.” Added Lee Smith in Tablet, “While the Israelis are deeply concerned about Iran's march toward a nuclear program, it is in fact the Arabs who are begging the United States to ‘take out’ Iranian installations through military force.” I’d love to know how Wehner and Smith define “the Arabs” and “Arab world.” What the documents actually reveal is that many Arab leaders are worried about Iran’s influence, and some, especially in the Gulf, privately support military action. But the opinions of those leaders reveal less than nothing about the views of “the Arabs” and the “Arab world.” When the University of Maryland and Zogby International polled people in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates this summer, they found that 77 percent believed that “Iran has the right to its nuclear program” and 57 percent believed Iranian nukes will have a “positive” impact on the Middle East (compared with only 21 percent who thought the impact will be negative). When asked to name the two countries they feel most threatened by, 88 percent of Arabs said Israel, 77 percent said the United States and a whopping ten percent said Iran.
This massive disconnect between the views of Arab governments and the views of Arab people is nothing new. What is new is the right’s perspective on it. A few years back, when Wehner worked in the Bush White House, the Arab world’s democratic deficit was a conservative obsession, and one of the justifications for the Iraq war. (As it was for liberal hawks like me). Now, when a few Arab tyrants endorse war with Iran—in flagrant defiance of their people’s will—Wehner declares that they speak for “most of the Arab world.”
The reason, I suspect, is that it is becoming harder and harder to claim, as Bush did in his second inaugural address, that “America’s vital interests”—at least as defined by conservatives—and America’s “deepest beliefs”—democracy—“are now one.” Much of the foreign policy right believes it is in America’s interest to attack Iran in hopes of delaying its nuclear program. But the people of the Arab world vehemently disagree. And so, if Iranian democracy activists are to be believed, do the people of Iran. That means, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently noted, that a military strike will likely entrench Iranian tyranny. Too bad, say the former democracy-crusaders of the American right.
The same goes for Palestine. During the Arafat era, George W. Bush regularly declared that Palestinian democracy was the only path to peace with Israel. Then, in 2006, at the Bush administration’s insistence, Israel permitted the freest Palestinian election ever—and Hamas won. The Bushies responded by pushing Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan to launch a coup against the elected Hamas government in Gaza. When that failed, they coaxed Mahmoud Abbas into declaring a state of emergency in the West Bank, which—with U.S. blessing—has blossomed into a frankly authoritarian regime. Conservatives don’t talk much about Palestinian democracy anymore.
The vast majority of people in the Middle East loathe our military presence in the region. The more devoted to those policies conservatives are, the more at odds with Middle Eastern democracy they’ll be.
They don’t say much about Turkish democracy either. The reason is that as Turkey has democratized, and power has shifted from the military to elected civilians, Ankara has increasingly refused to play along with America’s pressure on Iran or Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. In fact, for all their crowing about the fact that various Gulf princes want war with Iran, American conservatives seem not to have noticed that the most democratic Muslim countries in the region—Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon—want the softest line on Tehran.
The bald reality is this: The vast majority of people in the Middle East loathe our military presence in the region and our largely uncritical support for Israel. The more devoted to those policies conservatives are, the more at odds with Middle Eastern democracy they’ll be. Julian Assange can’t do anything about it.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.