Born in 1945 in Philadelphia PA, Dr. Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester PA. His academic work is focused on the history of American foreign relations with the Middle East. He also teaches courses in the history of science and modern European intellectual history.
At Georgetown University he studied modern European intellectual history under the Palestinian ex-patriot Professor Hisham Sharabi. Sharabi and Davidson subsequently became close friends and one can date his interest in Palestinian, as well as Jewish and Zionist, issues from this time.
Dr. Davidson writes regularly on the Middle East affairs, Israeli-Palestinian conflict and U.S. foreign policy. He has written several books of which America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood, published by the University Press of Florida, is a prominent example.
Dr. Davidson joined me in an exclusive interview to discuss the latest developments in the Middle East, the collective uprising of the Arab world, Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions of 2011, the humanitarian crisis in Libya, the prospect of anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia and the fate of the Israeli regime in the wake of growing international isolation.
What follows is the complete text of my interview with Dr. Lawrence Davidson.
Kourosh Ziabari: Everything started when a simple, unostentatious street vendor committed an act of self-immolation before a municipal office in the suburbs of Tunis in protest to the humiliation and persecution which was inflicted on him. How did this apparently trivial incident lead to the unprecedented wave of protests which encompassed the whole Arab world in a matter of days? Do you consider the suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi the cause of this turmoil or did the Arab world revolutions have their roots in other factors which we might be unaware of?
Lawrence Davidson: The conditions which made the uprisings in the Middle East possible have been with us for a very long time. Economic deprivation, repression and corruption were constants throughout the reigns of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. They also exist in Yemen. Different variations on these themes can be found in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and many other countries of the region as well. So revolt was, and is, always a possibility. The much harder question to answer is, why now? For instance, why did the steps taken by Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia act as a successful trigger?
We know that the default position of most people living under repressive regimes is fear and passivity. At some point an exceptional occurrence (it can be negative or positive) will bring a small and brave element of the population into the streets. If they are not suppressed quickly by the regime, their actions might encourage others to join them and then you have a snowballing effect. At that point the regime either negotiates or brings in the tanks. Negotiating often risks the complete unraveling of an authoritarian regime. That is why you most often get the tanks.
In the case of Tunisia, the military seems to have backed off shooting its own people. In Egypt I think the Obama administration played a role by telling the Egyptian military that they were not to use American weapons to shoot Egyptian protesters. That seemed to have had a real impact. Washington ought to tell the Israelis the same thing.
KZ: It’s undeniable that the United States and its European allies are dithering over how to deal with Libya’s dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, refusing to take a practical, decisive step to tackle the deplorable situation in the war-hit country. It’s estimated that the Libyan butcher has so called massacred more than 6,500 people and the UN, UNSC, the US and its allies haven’t made any decision to stop him. What’s the reason behind the West’s indecisiveness over the situation in Libya?
LD: Well, it would appear that the Western powers have overcome their indecisiveness as far as Libya is concerned. I wrote a recent blog piece which points out that the American rationale for this intervention, the protection of civilians, is just sheer hypocrisy. It is simply impossible to believe that Washington has any real concern for civilians in Libya given the U.S. history of slaughter of civilians in Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan, as well as its protection of Israel as that country ethnically cleanses Palestine. No, the issue of civilians is just an excuse for the Americans.
The U.S. government, after some hesitancy over the Islamic makeup of a number of Libya’s rebelling elements, has decided to go for regime change in that country. The on-going civil war is a good opportunity for Washington to do this. Most of the NATO allies were quickly brought into agreement and the Gulf oil sheiks, who never liked Gadhafi, soon joined the chorus. The next step was a bit more difficult. Intervening in someone else’s civil war is easy for Washington. The Americans do this all the time, particularly in South America. However, it is the sort of thing that does undermine the principle of national sovereignty, and countries such as China and Russia have always been very wary of creating precedents along this line. That is why I was surprised when these countries abstained in the Security Council vote on Libya rather than casting a veto. One wonders what they got in return from Washington.
The passage of the Security Council resolution means that Muammar Gadhafi is probably finished. Whatever one might think of his regime, I do not believe that it is going to be easy to put Libya back together again once you have helped take the country apart. But then, maybe the Western powers don’t care if this basically tribal society falls apart. A dismembered Libya is an inherently weaker Libya. All they care about is that the oil keeps flowing.
KZ: What’s your estimation of the military presence of Saudi Arabia and UAE in Bahrain? It seems that the United States has showed the green light to Saudi Arabia and UAE to invade Bahrain and suppress the anti-government protestors. What are the impacts of this invasion on the Persian Gulf security and the implications thereof for the regional countries?
LD: When one compares American policy in Libya with the policy in Bahrain it becomes pretty clear that neither the protection of civilians, nor the cause of democracy and freedom espoused by the protesters, is a motivator of U.S. policy. In Libya the issue is oil and getting rid of a leader who is obviously beyond Western control. In Bahrain the issue is, as it was in Egypt, finding a way to bring about a modicum of reform that maintains stability. Washington has a major naval base in Bahrain as well as oil interests. Optimally, Obama would have liked to see the ruling Sunni elements in that country come to some compromise with the majority Shiite citizenry. The Obama administration sees (with more clarity than most U.S. administrations) that outright suppression of the Bahraini Shiites only postpones the day of reckoning. And so they have counseled both the Bahrainis and the Saudis to move in the direction of compromise reforms. After all, the next time you get protests in Bahrain, and there will be a next time, things might be much more violent and you run the risk of getting a pro Iranian takeover in that country.
Unfortunately, neither the Bahraini government nor the Saudis feel confident enough to compromise with their Shiite populations. So they decided to settle the matter through repression. The distractions provided by the Libyan situation provided the moment to do so and the Americans made the decision to stand aside in these cases. Solving the problems that brought on protests in Bahrain, and also in the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, is therefore postponed to an unspecified later time.
KZ: It’s been a longstanding American tradition to help foster, back and encourage dictators and dismantle them consequently. We know of Saddam Hussein’s fate who was unconditionally backed and supported by the United States during the 8-year war with Iran. 20 years later, the same United States captures and kills Saddam Hussein. The same goes about Osama Bin Laden, whom we know was promoted by the United States. Ben Ali and Mubarak are also the same. At first, President Obama urged them to remain in power and implement the changes which the angry people demanded, but when he saw that the implementation of changes without a regime change would be impossible, he softened his tone and called on them to step down. You may remember that the same happened with the Shah of Iran. What’s your opinion about this?
LD: When it comes to American foreign policy you have the war hawks such as the neo-conservatives, and then you have the more flexible and diplomatic elements like Jimmy Carter and now Barak Obama. The two groups have the same ends, the maintenance of U.S. domination and the satisfying of various powerful domestic interest groups, but their tactics can be quite different. From the point of view of the latter group, the Shah of Iran self-destructed. In other words, he brought himself down by not knowing how and when to adjust to changing conditions. Thus, when Mubarak got into trouble he was told by Washington to adjust to the new conditions and meet the protesters half way. If it had been George W. Bush in office, he might have gotten quite different advice.
The willingness of Washington to support an ally and then abandon him is an indicator that (outside of traditional alliances like that with Great Britain) individual loyalty has nothing to do with anything. The Saudi royal house may have been shocked and unsettled when Washington let Mubarak go, but what is really surprising is that they had not yet learned that international relations as played by the Western powers is not at all about personal relationships and loyalties. It’s about the satisfaction of special interests embedded in the domestic politics of the Western nations. If Mubarak, Saddam Hussein, Osma bin Laden, or anyone else behaves in ways deemed really incompatible with those interests they will be pushed aside or worse.
KZ: What’s your prediction for the outcome of anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia and Yemen which have not borne fruits so far? It seems quite unlikely that Saudi Arabia, which enjoys the all-out backing of the United States, will bow down to the demands of its people regarding the expansion of social and political freedoms. The sames goes with Yemen where the uncompromising Ali Abdullah Saleh has shown no signal of willingness to reconcile with the revolutionaries. What do you think about this?
LD: The answer to this question has been given, pretty definitively, by events in Bahrain over the last couple of days. The Obama administration, though they would like to see reform, have acquiesced in the suppression tactics of the Bahrainis and Saudis. Such tactics are not deemed long term solutions, but they do maintain stability for the immediate future. Yemen is not a very strategic place for Washington. And so the Americans will go along with whoever comes out on top as long as that party keeps Al Qaida out and does not interfere in Saudi Arabia.
KZ: Some thinkers believe that the recent developments in the Middle East will jeopardize the interests of Israel on one hand and empower the Islamic Republic of Iran on the other hand. They believe that a democratic government in Egypt which is led by a moderate Islamist such as Mohamed ElBradei will be quite intolerable and bitter for Israel while being good news to the Iranians. The same would be applicable to the other U.S.-backed tyrannical regimes of the region such as Bahrain, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan. What’s you viewpoint in this regard?
LD: Washington had much more leverage in Egypt than in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. The U.S. supplies Egypt’s weapons, spare parts, and practically pays the salaries of the officer corp. It sends tons of free surplus wheat to Egypt to help moderate food prices. The Obama administration made a strategic decision that having Egyptians, protesting for democratic reform, shot down with American weapons would be disastrous and so it decided that Mubarak would compromise or he would be pushed out.
The Obama administration relationship with Israel is barely cordial. While Obama will retreat before Zionist pressure, particularly as exercised through Congress, he seems to have drawn the line when it came to Egypt and Mubarak. His arguments must have won the day with the Congress because the Zionist lobbies went largely mute on this issue even as the Israeli government was screaming and throwing temper tantrums. If nothing else, all this goes to prove that the Zionists in the U.S. are not invincible.
This being said, the Israeli influence in the U.S. is still very great and, as we have seen with the recent U.S. veto of a Security Council resolution on illegal West Bank settlements, Obama will still play along with the Zionists on most issues. However, the Israelis will just have to learn to live with the new Egypt. They will have no choice as long as Obama is president. After that, who knows? The amount of influence Iran will have in the new Egypt will almost certainly be very small. After all, the U.S. still has its leverage.
KZ: It’s widely believed that the Israeli lobby controls the majority of mainstream media in the United States and Europe and hence impedes the publication of any report, commentary, feature story, article or news in which Tel Aviv is criticized or its illegal, unjustifiable policies and actions are exposed. How has the Israeli lobby acquired such an immense power and how does it control the mass media in the United States? What is the source of Israeli lobby’s influence and power?
LD: The answer to this question has to do with the nature of American domestic politics, which is driven by special interests and lobbies. Here is how it works in terms of Israel. The Zionist lobby is one of the best organized and funded special interests in the country. It is allied to the Christian fundamentalist lobby which represents one of the country’s largest voting constituencies. The two allies go to each of the American Senators and Congressmen and offer them support. The support comes in the form of mobilizing Jewish and Christian fundamentalists voters in their areas to vote for them, and also in terms of financial contributions to their campaigns. What they want in return is a consistent pro-Israel voting record which, of course, includes voting for generous foreign aid to Israel.
Since the vast majority of Senators and Congressmen come from areas where their general constituency is either indifferent or favorable to Israel, it is easy to see how they would go along with the Zionist and Christian fundamentalist lobbies. On those rare occasions when an American legislator refuses to play along, the Zionists financially back his or her opponent both in the primaries and the general election. Eventually they are able to help defeat him. The opponent whom they backed is now beholden to the Zionists who helped get him elected. It is a rather simple strategy.
In addition both political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, receive money from the Zionist lobby and so both parties try to keep the Zionists happy. Thus, for all intents and purposes, the American Congress, both House and Senate, have become agents of a foreign power when it comes to the question of Israel/Palestine.
When it comes to the media it has to be kept in mind that these are mostly for profit companies. They are not in business to supply the “truth” or even accurate reporting. They are in business to sell newspaper and television advertising. That is where they make their money. Under the circumstances, the Zionists, or “the Jews,” do not have to own or control these businesses, and in most cases they do not. All they have do is be able to organize subscription and advertising boycotts, and this they can do. So most media outlets are simply going to stay away from any sort of consistent reporting that will result in loss of revenue.
KZ: Many political academicians have openly suggested that the life of Israel is approaching an end and it will have the destiny of the former Soviet Union. A report which is attributed to the CIA says that Israel will decline in 20 years. What’s your prediction for the future of Israel? Do you cast the same doubts regarding the survival of Israel? Is it capable of standing on its own feet should the United States lift its support for Tel Aviv?
LD: I think it is premature to start predicting the demise of Zionist Israel. What we have here is a fully industrialized, high technology economy that is now fairly well integrated into equivalent high tech and military production in the United States and Europe. In other words, to a certain extent these economies are now tied together. Therefore, Western support for Israel is not going to evaporate by magic in the foreseeable future. In Israel we also have a population that is fully indoctrinated into a racist ideology. They already feel abandoned by most of the world and so most Israelis (who do not simply pick up and leave the country) are fanatically holding on to their Zionist ideology and state.
My feeling is that the only thing that can eventually erode this Israeli fanaticism is a worldwide campaign of boycott, sanctions and divestment similar to the one that finally brought down the regime in South Africa. And, of course, that campaign is underway and growing steadily. Still, in will be a long struggle, perhaps another fifty to seventy five years. It is a shame, but I will probably not live to see it.