Just a week after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria assured a top State Department official that his government was not sending sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah, the Obama administration lodged a confidential protest accusing Syria of doing precisely what it had denied doing.This episode points to what is good about the State Department - and what is bad about it.
“In our meetings last week it was stated that Syria is not transferring any ‘new’ missiles to Lebanese Hizballah,” noted a cable sent by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in February, using an alternative spelling for the militant group. “We are aware, however, of current Syrian efforts to supply Hizballah with ballistic missiles. I must stress that this activity is of deep concern to my government, and we strongly caution you against such a serious escalation.”
A senior Syrian Foreign Ministry official, a cable from the American Embassy in Damascus reported, flatly denied the allegation. But nine months later, administration officials assert, the flow of arms had continued to Hezbollah. According to a Pentagon official, Hezbollah’s arsenal now includes up to 50,000 rockets and missiles, including some 40 to 50 Fateh-110 missiles capable of reaching Tel Aviv and most of Israel, and 10 Scud-D missiles. The newly fortified Hezbollah has raised fears that any future conflict with Israel could erupt into a full-scale regional war.
A major worry was that Syria or Iran had provided Hezbollah with Fateh-110 missiles, with the range to strike Tel Aviv. (A United States government official said last week that the 40 to 50 missiles were viewed as especially threatening because they are highly accurate.) Israeli officials told American officials in November 2009 that if war broke out, they assumed that Hezbollah would try to launch 400 to 600 rockets at day and sustain the attacks for at least two months, the cables note.
In February, the White House announced that a new American ambassador would be sent to Syria after a five-year hiatus. The next day, William J. Burns, a State Department under secretary, met with the Syrian leader.
During the session, Mr. Burns repeated American concerns about weapons smuggling to Hezbollah, one dispatch noted. Mr. Assad replied that while he could not be Israel’s policeman, no “new” weapons were being sent to Hezbollah.
Soon after the meeting, though, a cable noted that the Americans received intelligence reports that the Syrians were about to provide Hezbollah with Scud-D missiles, which are based on North Korean technology. (Some recent intelligence reports conclude that the group has about 10 such missiles stored in a Syrian warehouse that Hezbollah uses, according to American officials. The Defense Intelligence Agency believes that two have probably been moved to Lebanon, according to the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity.) The United States officials also worried about Hezbollah’s vow to avenge the death of Imad Mughniyah, a senior fighter killed in a 2008 car bombing the militant group said was the work of the Israelis.
In a classified cable in February, Mrs. Clinton directed the embassy to deliver a warning to Faisal al-Miqdad, the deputy foreign minister. “I know you are a strategic thinker, which is why I want to underscore for you that, from our perspective, your operational support for Hizballah is a strategic miscalculation that is damaging your long-term national interests.”
The Syrian official’s response was dismissive, according to an American cable. He denied that any weapons had been sent, argued that Hezbollah would not take military action if not provoked and expressed surprise at the stern American protest. The complaint, he said, “shows the U.S. has not come to a mature position (that would enable it) to differentiate between its own interests and Israel’s.”
It is nice to see that the State Department is not quite as clueless as its public statements and actions seem to indicate. They know when Arabs leaders are lying; they know that Israel is not the major obstacle to peace; they know that Iran strikes more fear into Arab leaders' hearts than anything that the Jewish state could possibly do.
What is unclear from the Wikileaks so far is how that recognition of how Arab leaders think translates into concrete action. The State Department does not seem to understand the honor/shame dynamic at play in Arab culture, and especially how that culture can work to the West's advantage.
In the honor/shame culture of the Arab world, when someone does something wrong it is not a source of shame until it becomes public. And that shame is to be avoided at all costs.
The world of diplomacy, on the other hand, is dedicated to keeping the unsavory facts out of public view, with the aim of eventually being able to convince the other party to cooperate due to mutual interests, or in some cases a sort of quid pro quo.
This secret diplomatic world of only privately expressing outrage plays into the Arab honor/shame dynamic perfectly. Arab leaders have no fear that their duplicity will be exposed by Western diplomats and they have no incentive to modify their actions. If it remains hidden from view, it is not a source of embarrassment. On the contrary, misleading the other party is a proud tradition - the Arab side speaks the language of the souk where both sides are expected to lie in order to strike a deal, and the honor goes to the one who most skillfully manipulates the other using a combination of lies and false compliments.
From that perspective, Arabs have a big diplomatic advantage.
The Western diplomatic fear that relations would be damaged by publicizing Arab misdeeds is overriding the huge potential benefits of threatening to expose those very misdeeds - to publicly shame the Arab leadership. In this way the Arabs can be forced to play the diplomatic game on a level playing field, not one where they can lie with impunity without any public consequence.
After all, even as this Syrian intrigue was happening, the US was preparing to return an ambassador to Syria - showing a public diplomacy completely at odds with what was really happening. Any way you slice it, this was a huge diplomatic victory for Syria and proof that its policy of lying to the US has no real consequences outside of hidden diplomatic outrage, which is meaningless to those within the shame culture.
Diplomats have a huge weapon in their hands - the truth - and they need to start using that weapon a lot more than they do today.