Adrian Hamilton: The same blind alley, the same old consequences

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So American diplomats and security officials, according to the latest leaked documents, are desperately anxious that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal might find its way into the hands of terrorists. What is new in that, you may well ask? Well, only that apparently another leaked document contains the view of a US official that Saudi Arabia remains a major source of funds and arms for jihadists round the world, despite all the promises by the Riyadh government that it was cracking down on such support.

Nothing new in that either, you might say. Most experts would agree on Saudi Arabia's continuing role in supporting Muslim fundamentalism – as well, of course, as being one of the chief objects of hatred and demonisation by al-Qa'ida, whose members contain so many radicals from the Gulf kingdom.

What is the difference then between Pakistan – now declared with Iran as the source of most trouble by Washington, and, one must add, by London, Paris, Berlin and most European capitals – and the world's biggest oil-exporting nation?

Well, besides the fact that Pakistan is a struggling (and failing) democracy and Saudi Arabia a kingdom, and that the Saudis are rich beyond the dreams of Croesus while Pakistan remains one of the world's poorest countries, there is the difference in how the US sees them as so-called allies.

The Saudis, recipients of tens of billions of arms' worth of support from the West, is regarded as Washington's main instrument of policy in the Gulf. You can read it in detail among the Wikileaks documents. When the US State Department wants support of its policy of squeezing and threatening Tehran into submission on its nuclear programme, it goes to Riyadh where the King fervently agrees, declaring Iran is a "snake whose head needs to be cut off".

Washington needs to make sanctions on Iran really "painful", as the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, puts it, and what does it do? Why, it goes to the Chinese and tells them, join in the squeeze and Saudi Arabia will provide you with any oil that Iran can and more. That such a stance is humiliating for the Arabs goes without saying. With all this weaponry, the Saudis – and the rulers of Egypt, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi on these accounts – still believe it is up to the West to act on their behalf, while they publicly argue against any such action and would certainly disown the results should it come to war. As P J O'Rourke wrote of the Saudis in the first Gulf War, their adopted national anthem is now "Onward Christian Soldiers".

The only embarrassment from the Wikileaks is that what is known to every Arab in the street is now there in black and white along with the extent to which their rulers are prepared to say "yes" to Washington. But against those that would dismiss the leaks as mere gossip and off-the-cuff remarks, they do, like the succession of inquiries into the conduct of the Iraq War, build up a detailed picture of how diplomacy, so long shrouded in secrecy, is conducted.

Of course only a small portion of the material has been released so far, and one has to be careful of raw material processed through others. Already the New York Times has been caught out hyping up a story accusing the North Koreans of supplying missiles to Iran which could reach most of Europe.

The paper declined to publish the full report of the discussions between US and Russian officials in which the allegation is made, after being asked to censor it by the US administration on grounds of security. In fact, Wikileaks has released the full text and it shows the Russians deeply doubtful of any truth to the story, if not totally disbelieving.

But enough has now been published to see the thrust of current, as well as past, US policy towards Korea, Iran and Pakistan. And deeply depressing it is. The documents show that, despite all President Obama's protestations of a new, more internationally emollient approach to foreign policy, and particularly the issue of nuclear proliferation, Washington has basically just continued the approach of Obama's predecessors.

Meeting top officials from Europe before launching his "unclench the fist" plea to Iran last year, the State Department made clear – as other documents do – that Washington had little belief that a change in policy would work and consequently little real determination to make it succeed.

Instead of the carrot, it was still intent on giving more weight to the stick. Whilst preparing an Iranian New Year speech, Obama's officials were touring the Gulf ramping up support among their clients in Cairo, Amman, Riyadh and Bahrain for action against Iran.

It's the same with Pakistan. In principle, the US wants democracy; in practice it is desperately trying to shore up and fatten the military for its own security purposes. Bring back Musharraf, all is forgiven, seems to be the message of the cables coming back from the US embassy in Islamabad.

In other words, Obama is still going down the same old cul-de-sac with the same old consequences. You can blame it on Hillary Clinton and the continuing control of the Bill Clinton-era officials; you can point to the resurgence of the Republicans and distrust of old enemies, China, Russia as much as Iran; and you can see the domestic difficulties Obama has in selling a policy of engagement which was never going to bring quick results. But the end result is the same – the remorseless pursuit of discredited approaches.

There is an alternative, which is to introduce a real policy towards nuclear proliferation that accepts the shifts in the balance of power going on, that tries to draw the various parties into regional security agreements and that shifts US policy from its dire dependence on authoritarian regimes.

On the evidence of these documents, it isn't happening, nor is it likely to.