By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Published: December 4, 2010
O.K. I admit it. I enjoy reading other people’s mail as much as the next guy, so going through the WikiLeaks cables has made for some fascinating reading. What’s between the lines in those cables, though, is another matter. It is a rather sobering message. America is leaking power.
Let’s start, though, with what’s in the cables. I think I’ve figured it out: Saudi Arabia and its Arab neighbors want the U.S. to decapitate the Iranian regime and destroy its nuclear facilities so they can celebrate in private this triumph over the hated Persians, while publicly joining with their people in the streets in burning Uncle Sam in effigy, after we carry out such an attack on Iran — which will make the Arab people furious at us. The reason the Arab people will be furious at us, even though many of them don’t like the Persians either, is because they dislike their own unelected leaders even more and protesting against the Americans, who help to keep their leaders in power, is a way of sticking it to both of us.
Are you with me?
While the Saudis are urging us to take out Iran’s nuclear capability, we learn from the cables that private Saudi donors today still constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide — not to mention the fundamentalist mosques, charities and schools that spawn the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So basically our oil payments are cycled through Saudi Arabia and end up funding the very militants whom our soldiers are fighting. But don’t think we don’t have allies. … The cables tell us about Ahmed Zia Massoud, an Afghan vice president from 2004 to 2009, who now owns a palatial home in Dubai, where, according to one cable, he was caught by customs officials carrying $52 million in unexplained cash. It seems from these cables that the U.S. often has to pay leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan to be two-faced — otherwise they would just be one-faced and against the U.S. in both public and private.
Are you still with me?
Yes, these are our allies — people whose values we do not and never will share. “O.K.,” our Saudi, Gulf, Afghan and Pakistani allies tell us, “we may not be perfect, but the guys who would replace us would be much worse. The Taliban and Al Qaeda are one-faced. They say what they mean in public and private: They hate America.”
That’s true, but if we are stuck supporting bad regimes because only worse would follow, why can’t we do anything to make them reform? That brings us to the sobering message in so many of these cables: America lacks leverage. America lacks leverage in the Middle East because we are addicted to oil. We are the addicts and they are the pushers, and addicts never tell the truth to their pushers.
When we import $28 billion a month in oil, we can’t say to the Saudis: “We know the guys who would come after you would be much worse, but why do we have to choose between your misrule and corruption and their brutality and intolerance?” We’re just stuck supporting a regime that, sure, fights Al Qaeda at home, but uses our money to fund a religious ideology, schools, mosques and books that ensure that Al Qaeda will always have a rich pool of recruits in Saudi Arabia and abroad. We also lack leverage with the Chinese on North Korea, or with regard to the value of China’s currency, because we’re addicted to their credit.
Geopolitics is all about leverage. We cannot make ourselves safer abroad unless we change our behavior at home. But our politics never connects the two.
Think how different our conversations with Saudi Arabia would be if we were in the process of converting to electric cars powered by nuclear, wind, domestic natural gas and solar power? We could tell them that if we detect one more dollar of Saudi money going to the Taliban then they can protect themselves from Iran.
Think how different our conversations with China would be if we had had a different savings rate the past 30 years and China was not holding $900 billion in U.S. Treasury securities — but was still dependent on the U.S. economy and technology. We would not be begging them to revalue their currency, and maybe our request that China prevent North Korea from shipping ballistic missile parts to Iran via Beijing airport (also in the cables) wouldn’t be rebuffed so brusquely.
And think how much more leverage our sanctions would have on Iran if oil were $20 a barrel and not $80 — and Iran’s mullah-dictators were bankrupt?
Fifty years ago, the world was shaped in a certain way, to promote certain values, because America had the leverage to shape it that way. We have been steadily losing that leverage because of our twin addictions to Middle East oil and Chinese credit — and the WikiLeaks show just what crow we have to eat because of that. I know, some problems — like how we deal with a failing state like Pakistan that also has nukes — are innately hard, and ending our oil and credit addictions alone will not solve them. But it sure would give us more leverage to do so — and more insulation from the sheer madness of the Middle East if we can’t.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on December 5, 2010, on page WK8 of the New York edition.