When Arab Politicians' Shouts and Whispers Contradict....
Rely on Public Statements, Not Seductive Murmurings says Daniel Pipes for the Middle East Forum Middle East Quarterly Winter 2023
In 1933, an exasperated British ambassador to Iraq dressed down the country's King Faisal.
"Was I to report to my government," he asked rhetorically,
“that Iraq's public men, men who had held the highest positions in the State, made speeches on solemn occasions in which they voiced opinions which they knew to be false and meaningless? Was I to say that the Iraqi Parliament was just a sham, a place where time and money was wasted by a handful of men, who, while masquerading as statesmen, neither meant what they said, nor said what they believed?”
In like spirit, a U.S. ambassador to Iraq in the 1950s wrote of Nuri al-Sa'id, who served as prime minister on fourteen occasions: "Nuri's public statements on Israel differed sharply from what he had to say in private. His public statements, like those of all Pan-Arab nationalists, were bitter and uncompromising. In private, he discussed Israel calmly, reasonably, and with moderation."
In 1993, regarding Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the author Kanan Makiya noted that "so many of the best minds and intellects of the Arab world went along with the Iraqi dictator's project during the Gulf crisis even though the very same people would not dream of living under his rule. In private they despise Saddam Hussein and everything he represents; in public they stand by him."
These examples concerning Iraq highlight a feature of Arab public life: politicians roar emotional messages in speeches to their masses and sotto voce speak in tactful off-the-record remarks to Western interlocutors.
That raises two questions: Should an outsider heed the shouts or the whispers? Which is the better guide to policy? (This differs from asking about true personal beliefs because how a politician acts matters more than how he thinks deep down.) A historical review finds the answer to be quite easy – and perhaps surprising.
Statements about Israel
Politicians shout fiery anti-Zionism in public and whisper more subdued messages in private
The Arab-Israeli conflict prompts the best-known inconsistencies between public and private utterances, with politicians shouting fiery anti-Zionism in public and whispering more subdued messages in private. Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's strongman from 1954 to 1970, exemplified this contrast.
Publicly, Nasser relentlessly forwarded an anti-Zionist agenda, making Israel the core issue of pan-Arab politics and riding his opposition to it to become the most powerful Arab leader of his era. But, according to Miles Copeland, a CIA operative who liaised with Nasser, he actually considered the Palestine issue "unimportant."
The same pattern applied to specific issues. Addressing the world, Nasser rejected the very existence of the Jewish state as well as any compromise with it, while in private he spoke to Western diplomats about a readiness to negotiate with Israel.
Publicly, he led the fight in the Arab League against a U.S. plan for a Jordan Valley Authority to allocate Jordan River waters; privately, he accepted this plan. After the 1967 war, he publicly rejected negotiations with Israel and insisted "That which was taken by force will be regained by force," even while secretly signaling the U.S. administration a willingness to sign a non-belligerency accord with Israel "with all its consequences."
The public statements in all these cases defined the actual policies. Nasser even tacitly admitted that shouts offer a more accurate guide than whispers, telling John F. Kennedy that "some Arab politicians were making harsh statements concerning Palestine publicly and then contacting the American government to alleviate their harshness by saying that their statements were meant for local Arab consumption."  That precisely described his own behavior.
Before looking at the psychology underlying this phenomenon, some exceptions need to be flagged.
First, when Arab politicians speak privately not to Westerners but to their own audiences, they tend to tell the truth. Three days after Nasser accepted U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 in 1967, with its provision of "a just and lasting peace in which every State in the area can live in security," he instructed the army brass not to "pay any attention to anything I may say in public about a peaceful solution." Likewise, Arafat publicly signed the 1993 Oslo Accords recognizing Israel but he expressed his real intentions in semi-private when he invited Muslims in a South African mosque "to come and to fight and to start the jihad to liberate Jerusalem," an indirect call to help end Israel's existence.
Second, what's said in Arabic counts more than in English. A study of Arafat's speeches in the two years after Oslo found that he held up "only an olive branch for the West and a Kalashnikov for his fellow Arabs," with the Kalashnikov the operational symbol.
Third, politicians do not always speak differently in public and private. Nasser on occasion privately told U.S. officials the same as he publicly told Egyptians, that the U.S. government "was trying to keep Egypt weak and that this resulted from Jewish influence" in the United States.
As for the cause of this shout-whisper discrepancy, Abdelraouf Al-Rawabdeh, prime minister of Jordan in 1999-2000, incisively explained it in a 2013 statement that bears full quotation:
The preacher speaking from the pulpit, the philosopher, the politician, the university professor, the school teacher – they are all attuned to the conscience of the nation, ... and they are true to what they believe in, but they are not responsible for its implementation.
A preacher steps up to the pulpit and declares: "We must confront America, the spearhead of heresy." Fine. What does he want us to do about it? He doesn't say. Along comes the politician, whose job it is to understand the local, regional, and international balance of power, and he talks only about what he can accomplish.
Once, when I was running for office, someone tried to give me a hard time. He approached me and asked: "What do you think about America?" I asked him: "Are you asking me as a politician or as a candidate?"
He said he was asking me as a candidate, so I said: "America is an enemy state, which provides weapons to Israel, kills our Palestinian people, controls our Arab countries, expropriates our oil, and destroys our economy." So he was pleased, but then he said: "And as a politician?" I said: "America is our friend. It stands by us and provides us with aid."
He said: "Don't you see that as a moral contradiction?" "No," I said. "I say that America is an enemy in order to appease you, and I say it is a friend in order to get you food. You tell me which you prefer." [laughs]
Politicians lie in both public and private but the former predict actions better than the latter.
Rawabdeh's candor concisely accounts for the contrast between political campaign and diplomatic necessity, with the former shaping policy and the latter diverting attention from it. In other words, politicians lie in both public and private, so neither provides an infallible guide, but the former predict actions better than the latter. Privileged information tends to mislead and whispers tend to distract.
What advice proceeds from this overview? To understand policy, rely on public statements, not hushed murmurings. To understand Middle Eastern politics, better to read newspapers and press releases or listen to radio and television than read confidential diplomatic cables or talk privately to politicians. Rhetoric, not what goes quietly from mouth to ear, is operational. What the masses hear matters. They learn policies, while high-ranking Westerners encounter seduction.
This rule of thumb, incidentally, explains why distant observers sometimes see what on-the-spot diplomats and journalists miss.
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Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is president of the Middle East Forum. ©2023. All rights reserved.