A source of frustration in the Middle East: Anthony DiMaggio
An in-depth interview with Anthony DiMaggio on Middle East, Iran, Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Egyptian Revolution
Interview by Kourosh Ziabari
Anthony DiMaggio is a university professor, writer, political commentator and media expert. He is the author of numerous books, including Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008), When Media Goes to War (2010), and Crashing the Tea Party (2011). He has taught U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University, and published articles and commentaries in a number of publications, including Z Magazine, Counterpunch, Truthout, Common Dreams, Alternet, Monthly Review, and Black Agenda Report.
Together with Paul Street, he co-edits the “Media-ocracy”, an online journal which describes itself as “committed to combating the entrenched media system.” Media-ocracy “caters to progressive intellectuals and activists, and is devoted to the study of mass media, public opinion, and social discourse.”
Anthony DiMaggio has taken part in an elaborate, in-depth interview with me to discuss the recent developments in the Middle East, the popular uprising of the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and the impacts of these developments on the political future of the United States and Israel. We have also discussed the U.S. foreign policy with regards to the Middle East and the double standards of the Western superpowers on human rights, democracy and freedom.
What follows is the complete text of my in-depth interview with Anthony DiMaggio, university professor and political analyst.
Kourosh Ziabari: as you may admit, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 began and progressed quite unexpectedly and unpredictably. After decades of U.S.-backed dictatorship under Hosni Mubarak, the people of Egypt took to the streets of Cairo and Alexandria all of a sudden and called for the dismissal of the dictator and the installation of a democratically-elected president. They successfully overthrew the tyrannical government of Mubarak and his allies in less than 20 days. What were the motives behind this revolution? What have been the motivations that laid the groundwork for the victory of Egyptian nation’s revolution?
Anthony DiMaggio: I think it’s fair to say that the Egyptian revolution took most people in the U.S., including myself, by surprise. In hindsight, it’s not entirely clear why this should have been the case, considering the multitude of factors that came together to establish a critical mass against the status quo. I can’t speak authoritatively about the specific motivations of those who planned the Egyptian revolt since I haven’t had contact with them, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s not difficult to find the major reasons after a bit of critical investigation.
Any discussion of the rebellion in Egypt should concede that many forces came together at the same time to create the conditions needed for the successful overthrow of Mubarak. One important factor was the onset of the global economic crisis, which greatly contributed to growing poverty and desperation in Egypt and throughout the rest of the world. Other factors include the revolution in Tunisia. Reports on the ground in Egypt clearly showed that protestors were drawing inspiration from Tunisians’ success in overthrowing Ben Ali’s repressive government; a success that was readily broadcast through the immensely popular Arab news outlet Al Jazeera. Clearly, the success there has helped initiate a sort of contagion effect, as demands for democratization against U.S. and Western sponsored dictators have taken hold throughout much of the Arab-Muslim world. Furthermore, the technological revolution via developments such as the growth of Al Jazeera and growing public access to satellite communications, in addition to increased access to online networking groups like Facebook and Twitter have also played a key role in Egypt’s success and in challenging traditional communication systems dominated by repressive, centralized governments. Reliance on these networks greatly aided organizing efforts, and culminated in protests of the Egyptian regime that garnered more than one million people in the streets of Cairo in early 2011. These social networks clearly allowed activists to more easily coordinate demonstrations against the Mubarak regime.
Far more important in terms of long term grievances and causes of the rebellion, however, is the growing poverty and declining standard of living in Egypt, largely as a result of economic liberalization and government corruption, cronyism. Egypt is in a dire state with regard to unemployment. Dealing with a massive “youth bulge,” the country is unable to provide enough jobs for the young (60 percent of the population is under 25). Even the well educated are not immune, as the unemployment rate is ten times higher for college graduates as compared to those with an elementary school education. Each year in Egypt, 700,000 new college graduates seek employment in a country in which just 200,000 jobs are available.
Egypt’s revolt is not new; it has been ongoing for many years. The country experienced more than 3,000 labor protests from 2004 through the end of the decade, as a social movement emerged that was dedicated to challenging growing unemployment and poor working conditions, benefits that coincided with the rise of the privatization and neoliberalization of Egypt’s economy over the last twenty years.
Neoliberalism has had disastrous consequences for the masses. Mandated by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and embraced by Mubarak, neoliberalization included the mass privatization of formerly public assets and services, in addition to mass layoffs in an effort to increase profitability in newly privatized companies, strong wage controls which amounted to pay cuts for workers in light of inflation, and a wholesale assault on basic food subsidies, cash transfers, and other government subsidies that were once the norm prior to the onset of “structural adjustment” (a.k.a. “free marketization”) under the IMF and World Bank in 1991.
This privatization is widely associated with the emergence of a small, super-wealthy group of political elites tied to the former Mubarak regime. Mubarak and his sons alone were said to be worth between $15 to 30 billion, with the vast majority of that wealth thought to be tied to the corrupt siphoning off of public funds in relation to privatization schemes in recent decades. Egypt’s masses continued to suffer as Mubarak and his cronies got rich, with the poor unable to pay even for food in light of the 17 percent increase in food prices from 2010 to 2011 alone. Average incomes declined for years, while Mubarak implemented deep cuts in the social welfare safety valve.
Basic food and fertilizer subsidies, cash transfers, and other government aid to the poor fell dramatically in the last two decades in Egypt. Available World Bank data verified this trend, with subsidies as a percent of GDP falling by 11 percent from 1982 to 1995. By 1995, food subsidies specifically had declined to one-third of the level allocated during the 1980s. As a percent of total government spending, food subsidies fell from 19.5 percent in the early 1980s to less than seven percent by 1997. The effects of these cuts were not hard to foresee, considering that Egypt also burst into riots in the late 1970s following major cuts to bread subsidies for the masses. Such riots are common throughout the third world, where the poor rely on these subsidies to survive.
Supporters of “free markets” have made much of Egypt’s seven percent annual economic growth. What they consistently ignore is that the masses have not shared in the material benefits of this growth under neoliberalization. The minimum wage has been frozen at four pounds since the early 2000s. By the end of 2010, more than 40 percent of Egyptians, 80 million people, were living in poverty, on less than $2 a day (compared to twenty percent who earned as much in 1991). At the same time, the wealthy have seen their incomes increase dramatically. In 2004, Mubarak instituted a new tax cut that dropped the top tax rate from 42 to 20 percent of personal income essentially instituting a flat tax in which the country’s poorest paid the same proportion of their incomes as that paid by millionaires. In short, “free market” reforms in Egypt have produced fabulous wealth for the opulent few, at the direct expense of the masses.
Much of the anger at Mubarak was also understandably based on his government’s suppression of anyone who tried to do anything about these developments. Attacks on labor were routine. The Egyptian government closed the offices of numerous trade union services dedicated to advising workers over their rights to organize and protest in support of increased wages and benefits. Protests were regularly met by government violence. Such attacks against labor have been labeled “a serious blow to Egyptian civil society and workers’ rights” by human rights advocates.
Of course, the violation of human rights hardly stops with labor. Mubarak’s repression included many other infringements on basic civil and human rights. The country has suffered under a martial law “state of emergency” for decades, with the government free to make arbitrary arrests and hold citizens without charge. An estimated 10,000 people, as of the late 2000s, remained in prolonged detention without charge. Police regularly relied on false confessions, gained through torture against suspected “enemies” of the state. Egypt itself served as one of a number of sites for secret torture interrogations of U.S. and allied detainees in the “War on Terror.” National press have been censored by a government law that allowed for the detainment of any reporters who criticized Mubarak or friendly foreign leaders, while the government had essentially declared war on the homeless and street children.
These children have typically committed no crimes, yet they are regularly and arbitrarily detained under the charge of “being vulnerable to delinquency,” and faced, according to human rights reporting, “beatings, sexual abuse, and extortion by police and adult suspects, and police [who] at times deny them access to food, bedding, and medical care.” Torture had been growing worse in recent years.As Gasser Abdel Razek of Human Rights Watch explained about the country’s problem with police-sponsored torture: “fifteen years ago, we used to say that this or that police station is bad, or if that you were an Islamist and you got picked up after a bombing, you could count on being tortured. Today, I can’t name a single police station that’s good. And the victims are middle-class, they’re educated, they’re homeless. It doesn’t make any difference.”
KZ: after Tunisia and Egypt, in which the revolutionary forces and people on the ground succeeded in ousting the U.S.-backed puppets, several other Arab nations joined them and staged massive street demonstrations to call for civil liberties, improved living conditions, freedom and democratic governments. Now the whole Arab world is in a state of turmoil and unrest and the U.S.-backed dictators are facing the bitter reality that their autocracies are about to fail and collapse. What factors led to the extension of anti-government protests to the whole Arab world? Can we interpret this collective uprising a result of the explosion of strong pan-Arabist sentiments?
AD: I think it’d be naïve to deny the role of pan-Arabist sentiment in fueling rebellions throughout the Middle East at a time when Egyptians’ solidarity extends as far as Madison, Wisconsin. I was proud to have participated in those protests, which were directed at a similar, although relatively less extreme, type of repression of labor as led by the Republican Party and business interests in the U.S. and aided greatly by Democrats.
In the case of Egypt, there is of course the now famous statement of Kamal Abbas, general coordinator for Egypt’s Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services, in which he indicated about Wisconsin’s protests: “We want you to know that we stand on your side. Stand firm and don’t waiver. Don’t’ give up on your rights. Victory always belongs to the people who stand firm and demand their rights.”
With regard to the issue of a regional Arab-Muslim rebellion, the cause appears to be driven by the obvious culprit: U.S. supported repression on the part of regional dictatorships. Public animosity against these governments has been in the making for decades. Much of my work in the area of U.S. foreign policy has been dedicated to elaborating upon the long-standing grievances of those living in the Middle East, expressed against the United States and its preferred dictators. A number of recent and important books have also explored this point in detail, including James Zogby’s Arab Voices, Juan Cole’s Engaging the Muslim World, and Steven Kull’s Feeling Betrayed. As should now be apparent to all, the primary anger throughout the Arab-Muslim world is with the U.S. and its client dictators’ complete contempt for democracy.
Support for renewed democratization appears in surveys done across the region. A 2010 poll by the Global Pew Research Center found that majorities throughout every Muslim country surveyed with the exception of Pakistan find democracy to be preferable to competing types of government. Of course most throughout the region think that a primary hindrance to freedom is the United States. A 2007 poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes found that 79 percent of those in Muslim countries surveyed felt that “the U.S. goal is to divide and weaken the Muslim world.” The most common reasons given by survey respondents were: the positioning of U.S. bases in holy lands such as Saudi Arabia, support for Israeli Zionism, which excludes Palestinian Israelis from full citizenship rights, and consistent U.S. and allied attacks on Muslim majority countries/nations such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Palestine. Polling from the Gallup organization has similarly found that most surveyed throughout the Arab-Muslim world “simply don’t think that the U.S. and the nations of the West have respect for Arabs or for Islamic culture of religion. The people of these Islamic cultures say that the West pays little attention to their situation, does not attempt to help these countries, and makes few attempts to communicate or to create cross-cultural bridges.” U.S. support for brutal dictators is also a common source of frustration, as found in a 2004 Pentagon Defense Science Board study of Arab-Muslim opinion concluded that “Muslims do not ‘hate our freedom,’ but rather they hate our policies…when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy” in light of the U.S. record of blocking democracy in the region.
KZ: many Iranians believe that the uprisings of Tunisia and Egypt have been inspired by Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979. They compare the overthrowing of U.S.-backed Mubarak and Ben Ali to the dissolution of Mohammad Reza Shah’s government which was unconditionally supported by the United States and its European allies. Do you find such a relationship between these revolutions which took place during an interval of 32 years?
AD: As someone who is not an expert on Iran and recent developments there, including the 2009 uprising and mass protests against the government of Khamenei, I can’t do much but speculate on this question. My initial thoughts were that the uprisings in Iran in 2009 and this year can be viewed very much as fitting comfortably within the other protests throughout the Arab-Muslim world, in terms of resisting repressive governments seen as widely unresponsive to the public. Iran’s government retains a detestable human rights record, as documented in great detail by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Recent developments in Iran have seen a resurgence of demonstrations against the government, with thousands taking to the streets this year in protest of President Ahmadinejad and the established order. Reports of police brutality as directed against the protestors in the form of beatings, use of tear gas, and other attacks have no doubt increased public animosity, although I can’t speak with any authority about the extent to which this year’s protests are supported by the larger Iranian public.
I think there is room to argue that there is a role for the Iranian 1979 revolution with regard to the recent uprising in the broader context of U.S. responsibility. The Shah of Iran and his repressive secret service (SAVAK) were widely detested by the Iranian people, considering the role both played in the torture and murder of thousands. U.S. installation of, and longstanding support for this dictator contributed greatly to Arab and Muslim ill-will against the United States. That ill-will is now being manifested again in the uprisings across the region, which is intimately driven by a distrust of the U.S. and its favored dictators. In this sense, then, I think you can definitely make a connection between the events of 1979 and current protests.
KZ: Prof. Rashid Khalidi believes that the recent uprisings in the Arab countries have transformed and changed the mainstream media’s portrayal of the Muslim world. The people that were once introduced as fanatic terrorists and extremists are now being called freemen who sacrifice their lives for the sake of achieving freedom and liberty. Do agree with this viewpoint? Has the communal uprising of the Arab world changed the public’s viewpoint regarding the Arabs and Muslims?
AD: There is a long-known axiom in the study of U.S. media that goes as such: the spectrum of views observed in the mass media is directly dependent upon the spectrum of views expressed in Washington. I’ve documented this connection for years, highlighting the many ways in which critical points of view are only embraced in the mass media after they are first accepted by elites holding political and economic power.
My impression of coverage of the Egyptian uprising is that the U.S. media has generally framed the people as rising up against a corrupt dictator. In this sense, I would agree with Khalidi that there has been a change in coverage. In the past, this type of reporting and framing of Egyptian politics would not have been embraced in the U.S. media. But it’s important to consider the reason for why this message has been sustained today. The repression and corruption emanating from Mubarak’s regime had become so extreme that it could no longer be denied in light of the massive protests throughout Egypt. Recognizing this basic fact, American officials realized their support for this butcher was no longer sustainable or logical. At the point in which the regime’s downfall appeared imminent, Obama and company then switched from their long-standing policy of supporting this dictator to calling for major reforms and for his ouster. The mass media has simply responded to this change in the official line by echoing the switch-over in official policy.
Notice there hasn’t been any corresponding transformation in U.S. reporting on rebellions in other friendly states which haven’t reached the critical mass and success of Egypt yet, as seen in examples such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain but not in an “enemy” state like Syria, in which critical coverage of government repression is to be expected, and in fact, is commonplace in reporting. U.S. reporters have remained largely silent on the dramatic disparity between U.S. “support for democracy” in Egypt and active U.S. military and logistical support for repression against democratic change in other corrupt oil monarchies in the Middle East. I don’t hear any reporters or pundits calling for a change in policy in terms of opposing or replacing these regimes. Scarcely anything critical has been said about the Obama administration’s cynical new policy of “regime alteration,” rather than regime change, as intended to apply to favored U.S. dictators who remain in firm power. Of course, the “alteration” has proven to be little more than cosmetic, as the U.S. continues to rhetorically call for greater moderation of human rights violations as practiced by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, while concurrently supporting that repression behind the scenes. As one administration official describes Obama’s “new” “regime alteration” policy, the U.S. will continue on a path “toward emphasizing stability [a euphemism for support for corrupt dictators] over majority rule.”
With regard to the American public, I don’t know that public opinion about the uprisings changed opinion dramatically, although more people certainly seem to be paying attention today. Most Americans appeared to genuinely hope that something like democracy would eventually emerge in the case of Iraq during the time when the U.S. was escalating its occupation, although when surveyed they also explained that they felt that “democracy promotion” in and of itself was an insufficient justification for going to war. More recently, the Program on International Policy Attitudes found in their 2011 survey that 65 percent of Americans feel it would be “mostly positive” for the U.S. “if the countries of the Middle East become more democratic.”
Importantly, 57 percent felt that they “would want to see a country [in the region] become more democratic even if this resulted in the country being more likely to oppose U.S. policies,” which (at least theoretically) bodes well for the idea of regional independence from the U.S.
KZ: We already know that the authoritarian regimes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya are among the major human rights violators in the world; however, the United States and its European cronies who frequently boast of their concerns about the preservation of human rights and freedom have been long indifferent to the persecution of political activists, incarceration of journalists and bloggers and other abuses of human rights in these countries. On the other hand, the superpowers have always employed the excuse of human rights for pressuring the independent and non-aligned nations such as Iran. What do you think about this dualistic approach?
AD: The dualistic approach is a reflection of the conflict between U.S. rhetoric and reality. As with all political leaders, their promises typically contradict their observed behavior. The U.S. has one standard when it comes to human rights: it prefers countries that suppress their populations in the name of providing the U.S. with cheap access to raw materials and resources and a favorable investment climate for American businesses. U.S. leaders will never openly admit this, but on some level – whether it’s conscious or subconscious is irrelevant – they understand that the U.S. cannot succeed in controlling global resources without supporting some very unsavory characters, or by engaging in atrocities themselves. The Iraq war was a classic example of such brutality, with the U.S. openly engaging in collective punishment in the name of “pacifying” communities such as Fallujah and Ramadi, so as to actively turn them against the insurgency. The notorious “Salvador Option,” in which the U.S. trained Iraqi death squads to target suspected sympathizers with the insurgency and engage in torture and murder of these individuals, was a powerful example of active U.S. contempt for basic human rights. Predictably, the implications of these actions for human rights in Iraq were consistently ignored by U.S. intellectuals, journalists, and political/business elites.
One can’t maintain an empire without engaging in some very unpleasant and nasty actions against the world’s poor and downtrodden. This was openly conceded by Bush near the end of his administration and as he celebrated the “surge” of U.S. troops and U.S. counter-insurgency violence and announced that a withdrawal from Iraq was unacceptable because of the U.S. interest in retaining unimpeded control over Iraq’s oil resources.
Of course, rationalizations of state violence are always a part of the equation. I have no doubt that Bush and other imperialists justified using violence to control Iraqi oil under the assumptions that privatization and “free markets” would inevitably create a rising tide that lifts all boats, and that the U.S. could be better trusted than the “terrorists” to control this vital resource. We’ve seen the poverty of these claims, in reality, in light of the widespread understanding of Iraqis (revealed continuously in polls) that they saw the U.S., rather than foreign Islamists or insurgency members, as the primary threat to Iraqi and regional peace. We’ve also seen such rationalizations thoroughly debunked in the case of Egypt, which has witnessed living standards for the masses rapidly deteriorate under a neoliberal regime. Regardless of the justification, the larger point is that you don’t become the most powerful military and economic force in the world without repressing local populations. Most people, after all, tend to opposed to occupations, violent domination, and neoliberal cronyism/extortion, as exercised by the U.S. and its preferred dictators. The only way to get them to go along is through violence and coercion.
I don’t think the U.S. is “indifferent” to abuses in Saudi Arabia and other friendly states, but actively supportive of, and committed to those abuses. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it is granted carte blanche to engage in human rights violations and terrorism, so long as it continues to provide the U.S. with cheap oil. Its actions, as you correctly suggest, are repulsive. It’s been the consistent recipient of U.S. military, economic, and political aid despite its recent outlawing of protest, its violent attacks on peaceful protesters, and its longstanding attacks on human rights. Of course, U.S. leaders can plead ignorance to these transgressions, but such claims are complete absurdities. You can simply read in the Washington Post reports from on the ground in Saudi Arabia from those suffering under this medieval regime, in which Shi’ite protesters are subject to “increasing detentions, beatings, and surveillance” in the government’s war on dissent. Then of course there’s the long record of abuses chronicled by groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The Saudi dictatorship is notorious for its denigration of women, who are seen as third class citizens at best. Human Rights Watch reports that the government’s many practices include “arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, and [reliance on] the death penalty” for those who engage in theft, homosexuality, witchcraft, prostitution, and other criminal activities, real or imagined. Saudi police are known for breaking into individuals’ homes without a warrant in relation to charges as dubious as suspected alcohol possession and engaging in non-Muslim religious worship.
Then there’s U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s active suppression of Shi’ite majorities throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The Wikileaks revelations were extremely valuable among other findings in that they showed that U.S. diplomats were well aware of Saudi Arabia’s responsibility for bombing civilians in its counter-insurgency war in Yemen. The monarchy has also used violent intervention in Bahrain (not to mention on Saudi soil) in order to suppress Shi’ite revolts against repressive minority Sunni governments. As Wikileaks showed, U.S. diplomats largely dismissed Saudi responsibility for killing civilians in Yemen under the claim that the regime was allegedly doubling its efforts to minimize collateral damage. Such rationalizations are largely disingenuous in light of the United State’s own responsibility for the deaths of tens to hundreds of thousands in Iraq due to U.S. bombing and military operations in Iraq, all also pursued under the promise of minimizing “collateral damage”, and in light of Saudi Arabia’s escalation of human rights violations on its own soil. It’s been easy for the U.S. to ignore the unpleasantness of U.S. and allied policies. When confronted with the ugly consequences of their “bombing for democracy” campaign, George Bush’s response was simply to dismiss the figures suggesting U.S. responsibility in mass killing as irrelevant and unfounded, despite the fact that those who engaged in these studies used widely recognized statistical methods ranging from collecting news reports on the dead to engaging in cluster survey sampling, as is typically done when estimating wartime casualties. He could count on a compliant media to promptly drop the issue, considering the complete refusal of Democrats and fellow Republicans to explore the issue.
In the end, humanitarian rhetoric is, realistically speaking, a weapon to be wielded by the powerful against their enemies, rather than a serious concern in its own right. Media scholars like Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman have performed a vital service by documenting this trend – whereby humanitarian rhetoric is used by politicians and journalists to condemn American enemies who engage in human rights violations. Conversely, U.S. allies are consistently given a pass and embraced despite their many transgressions and regular terror. This politicization of human rights is at times manifested quite perversely, as seen when the Bush and Obama administrations’ loud public pronouncements of support for democracy and human rights, accompanied by their many efforts to court the Saudi king in public by holding hands, kissing, and bowing to him in a sign of mutual respect.
KZ: what will be the impacts of Arab world’s uprising on the power equations in the Middle East? Will the U.S., Israel and their European cronies suffer damages as a result of the Middle East revolutions? Who is the real winner of this power game?
AD: This is hard to predict, especially over the long term, without the benefit of a crystal ball. Scholars like Michael Klare predict that this new era of rebellion will represent the end of cheap oil, in light of the rising demands throughout the region for improved living standards, to be paid for through oil revenues. Of course, the end of cheap oil already appears to be over in the U.S., and this is largely due not to supply disruptions or to OPEC nations “stepping out of line” by demanding wild price increases, but due to domestic speculation on Wall Street, where investors have taken advantage of regional instability in the Middle East in order to gouge American consumers. Whether the rebellions throughout the Middle East will be successful will depend on how effective local dictators are in putting down these rebellions, how much these dictators concede to their increasing unruly subjects and on the duration and intensity of future protests. One thing, however, is certain. The U.S. is certainly not going to concede to demands for democratization without a bitter fight to the end. Any victories for democracy in the region will be long fought and the product of bottom-up pressures from the masses.
I think that it’s true that the U.S. and Israel will ultimately end up being the biggest losers in light of the uprisings. I used to speak regularly with a Palestinian friend about the deplorable state of the Middle East in the wake of the disaster known as the Iraq war. Regional tensions had become so inflamed in light of the Bush administration’s blatant contempt for popular will throughout the region, seen in the pursuit of a war of aggression, defended by bogus claims regarding Iraqi WMD, as witnessed in the coercion directed against Iran, seen in Bush’s belligerent rhetoric and saber rattling, and as observed in U.S. ongoing contempt for the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” which has angered Arab-Muslim masses for decades. In my discussions with my Palestinian friend, it was pretty much conceded that the region was a power-keg waiting to explode. We predicted at the time (from 2006 to 2008) that the explosion would follow what at the time seemed like an imminent U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran. Instead, the explosion has been far more encouraging, as seen in the mass uprisings. What seems clear is that the governments of the region can no longer afford to ignore their people in preference of siding with U.S. business, political, and military interests. This development was seen most dramatically in Iraq, where the government responded to growing public anger against the U.S. by demanding a Status of Forces Agreement (in 2008) forcing an unwilling Bush into a firm withdrawal date by the end of 2011. Growing rebellion was also evident in the Iraqi government’s refusal to auction off Iraqi oil fields to the lowest bidder, as was the U.S. plan all along under the Bush administration. These failures were hugely embarrassing to the Bush administration and its unilateral imperial approach to dealing with the Middle East. They represent hope for a renewed democratization throughout the region, putting the peoples’ demands ahead of those of U.S. investors and military planners.
KZ: let’s talk a little about the recent developments concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was on the news that Fatah and Hamas signed an agreement to form a national unity government. How much does this conciliatory gesture jeopardize the interests of Israel? Does this unity between two fractions which have been long at odds threaten the security and existence of Israel?
AD: I think the unity government poses a very real threat to Israeli and American interests in that it will make Israel’s dominance of the Occupied Territories more difficult. The divide-and-conquer strategy pursued by the U.S. and Israeli officials, in which they long encouraged and provided arms and funding for Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah to declare war on Hamas and engage in a Palestinian civil war, appears to be backfiring. However, the Hamas-Fatah agreement also provides new opportunities for the U.S. and Israel to continue the colonization of the West Bank, as both powers will begin to fall back on a familiar refrain that Hamas represents a “national security” and “terrorist” “threat” to Israel’s survival. The U.S. National Security Council, for example, immediately responded to the Hamas-Fatah deal by declaring that Hamas “is a terrorist organization which targets civilians,” and that “to play a constructive role in achieving peace, any Palestinian government must renounce violence, abide by past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.”
The U.S.-Israeli attacks on the agreement will no doubt be defended by citing the fact that Hamas’ charter and its officials have called for the destruction of Israel, and considering Hamas officials’ ambiguity with regard to recognizing the Israeli state. Of course, Washington’s preferred depiction of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is complicated by the fact that the current “threat” to Israel from the Palestinian people is non-existent. There hasn’t been a single Palestinian suicide bombing undertaken against Israelis in the last three years, to put the “threat” into better perspective.
The extraordinary safety within Israel has been quietly acknowledged by U.S. officials. As Wikileaks recently revealed, just one year after the last Palestinian suicide bombing in 2008, U.S. diplomats were already concluding that “Israelis are enjoying the best security situation since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, the result of Israeli intelligence successes in destroying the suicide bombing network in the West Bank as well as good security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority’s security forces.” In short, even U.S. leaders now admit that the entire “Israel is under assault” paradigm is unsustainable.
Hamas officials have at times suggested or implied that they are willing to recognize Israel within the 1967 Israeli-Palestinian borders, and in fact have already recognized Israel despite Israeli officials’ own contempt for these borders. Of course, Hamas has also continued to reiterate its resistance to an Israeli state, as expressed in the recent comments made by the group’s leader Khaled Mashaal as he arrived in Cairo to sign a Fatah-Hamas unity agreement. Probably the best interpretation of these seemingly conflicting developments is to recognize that Hamas has indicated a potential willingness to recognize Israel (or at least promote long-term peace), contingent upon Israeli recognition of a Palestinian state. Whether Hamas is serious with regards to such an agreement is not known for sure since Israel has worked at every turn over the last forty years to ensure that an independent Palestinian state will never emerge. Furthermore, Israel and the U.S. have refused to take Hamas up on its 10-year peace offer (tied to the establishment of a Palestinian state). This refusal ensures that peace will be impossible short of the systematic annihilation of Hamas. Ironically, U.S. politicians and pundits refused to criticize Israel for demanding the complete destruction of Hamas, while Hamas has consistently been derided by these same people for “obstructing peace,” despite its repeated peace offerings.
I’ve written at length in the past on Israel’s complete contempt for a Palestinian state, as seen in its stubborn refusal to dismantle the illegal colonies in the West Bank, its dismissal of negotiations on the right of return for Palestinian refugees, its opposition to negotiations on the sharing of Jerusalem as an international capital for both Israel and Palestine, its rejection of efforts to dismantle the Israel “security wall” which illegally annexes upwards of ten percent of the West Bank, its opposition to dismantling the roads and “security” checkpoints that connect the illegal colonies in the West Bank and which create a series of Bantustans that ensure the indefinite cantonization of Palestine, and finally Israel’s refusal to negotiate in favor of a Palestinian state that would exercise full control over its borders, airspace, land, and allow Palestine to maintain its own armed forces. Such features are basic prerequisites of any real state, and Israel’s refusal to agree to these terms is an indication of its contempt for Palestinian statehood.
There is no reason to think that long-standing Israeli contempt for a Palestinian state will change following the Hamas-Fatah agreement.
The major change is likely to be rhetorical, with Israeli and American leaders no longer even pretending to be interested in the peace process as based on a two-state solution. Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced after the agreement that “Hamas is a terrorist organization that fires rockets at Israeli towns,” suggesting that Israel will continue to use the Hamas “threat” in order to impede peace and prevent a renewed freeze on illegal colony construction in the West Bank. The Obama administration has refused (during official negotiations at least) to even follow through with the Bush administration’s rhetorical promises to recognize Israel and Palestine within their pre-1967 borders. This should leave little doubt about American and Israeli plans for the future.
Regardless of how the agreement plays out, Israeli-American rejectionism of a Palestinian state will continue unabated. The Bush administration gained infamy under the recently released “Palestine Papers” for its complete contempt for the right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel, with Condoleezza Rice suggesting that these refugees should be sent to South America instead. The papers also revealed Rice’s blatant contempt for dismantling illegal colonies in the West Bank. With regard to the West Bank colony of Ma’ale Adumim, Rice went on record warning a Palestinian peace negotiator that Palestinians “won’t have a state” unless there are willing to concede that no “Israeli leader is going to cede” that colony. Rejectionism was further reinforced by Israeli officials, such as former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who the Palestine Papers recorded as stating that “The Israel policy is to take more and more land day after day and that at the end of the day we’ll say that [a withdrawal of the colonies] is impossible, we already have the land and we cannot create the [Palestinian] state.”
KZ: you are well aware of the influence of Zionist lobby on the U.S. administration, congress and senate. All of the decisions which may to some extent contradict the interests of Israel will be stifled and no politician with an anti-Zionist mindset is allowed to come to power as a congressman, lawmaker or president. What is the source of this enormous power which the Zionist lobby possesses? How does Israel control and direct the long-term foreign policy of the United States?
AD: The Israel-Zionist lobby does exercise significant power in the U.S. in its attacks on the few political leaders and academics who dare to offer substantive criticisms of Israel or U.S. foreign policy toward Israel. I had the privilege of researching the origins of the American-Israeli relationship for a number of years when I was in graduate school, although I was explicitly advised against pursuing this research agenda any further (at least at the scholarly level) by sympathetic peers and mentors nonetheless. The concern was pragmatic, as they worried that I would be the subject of unfair and vicious attacks (a la Norman Finkelstein) if I decided to publish and speak publicly on this issue.
Having said this, I have continued to speak about the issue in progressive media, although I abandoned any possibility of trying to publish in professional academic settings on these issues. My findings were pretty illuminating with regard to the origins of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, if for no other reason than because they cast doubt on the long-held notion on the left that the U.S. government is the “occupied territory” of the Israel lobby.
To sum up those findings here: the source of Israel’s privileged position in receiving U.S. support and aid largely arises from its strategic value in pursuing U.S. material interests throughout the Middle East. In aiding the U.S. secure military control of the region and more importantly, control over the region’s oil, Israel has been awarded great latitude in its activities in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These lands traditionally have little strategic value for U.S. leaders, hence the Israel lobby’s impressive power in intimidating any potential critics with regard to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
None of the privilege enjoyed by Israel, however, can be divorced from its vital status as a U.S. proxy military force in the Middle East. The importance of Israel as a regional “cop on the beat” (the Nixon administration’s preferred term for describing Israel) has been reiterated regularly by U.S. presidents. Those interested in this policy record can look more closely at my historical review of U.S. presidential and national security policy planning documents, which go into more detail on the issue. (Anthony DiMaggio, “A Strategic Relationship: Obama and the Israel Lobby, Part II,” Z Magazine, 13 August 2009, http://www.zcommunications.org/a-strategic-relationship-by-anthony-dimaggio)
Other problems also remain with regard to the theory that the Israel lobby is all powerful in U.S. politics independent of its services to U.S. military interests in the Middle East. As I describe in great detail in my previous empirical research, there is no statistically significant correlation between campaign contributions from members of the Israel lobby and favorable voting toward Israel on issues arising in the U.S. Congress. Furthermore, contributions from the Israel lobby amount to a miniscule portion (.1 percent) of all contributions provided to members of Congress in the period I examined (post-2000). Even those officials most reliant on contributions from the Israel lobby receive a very small percentage of their contributions on average one to three percent from the group. Monetarily, then, the case for the Israel lobby’s power as based upon campaign contributions and lobbying is extremely weak.
On another level, my research found that there was no systematic relationship between Jewish population concentrations by state and favorable voting on pro-Israel legislation in Congress. In short, those states that have the largest size Jewish populations are no more likely to see their Senators or Representatives vote in favor of pro-Israel legislation when compared to states with smaller Jewish populations. This makes short work of the claim that constituency forces play a role in pressuring Congressmen/women to support Israel.
On the other hand, my historical analysis did find a strong, statistically significant relationship between Israeli aggression (against neighboring countries and people) and increases in U.S. foreign aid. Reinforcing the notion that the U.S.-Israeli relationship is strategic in origin, I found that the U.S.-Israeli relationship materialized largely during the Cold War, specifically during the late 1960s through the early 1970s. A close examination of these years finds that annual increases in aid to Israel immediately followed attacks made by Israel against surrounding Arab states deemed to be hostile to U.S. strategic interest. The five largest increases in U.S. aid from 1960 to 2008 measured in the percent increase in aid from one year to the next are described in more detail in my original study, but clearly indicate that the institutionalization of the U.S.-Israeli relationship was largely a function of Israel’s strategic-military value to the U.S. (Anthony DiMaggio, “Origins of Power: Obama and the Israel Lobby, Part I,” Z Magazine, 12 August 2009, http://www.zcommunications.org/origins-of-power-by-anthony-dimaggio)
KZ: The United States has long put a lethal pressure on Iran over what is claimed to be Tehran’s violation of human rights and its pursuance of a nuclear weapon. At the same time, the staunch allies of the United States in the Persian Gulf, namely Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, which have the blackest human rights records in the region, are massacring their own people and executing their opponents. Israel is also said to be the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. How is it possible to justify these double standards?
AD: I don’t think it is possible to justify this hypocrisy, as I argued above. U.S. leaders, however, will always find a way to rationalize their opposition to democracy and human rights. The only question remaining, in my mind, is whether Americans and those throughout the Middle East will continue to put up with U.S. propaganda, misinformation, and deceptions. Clearly, U.S. propaganda is rejected by the vast majority of those throughout the Middle East and has been for decades.
Such propaganda is increasingly questioned in the U.S. as well. The Iraq war was opposed by the majority of Americans as early as late 2004, due to public concerns over American lives lost, anxiety over the destructiveness of the counter-insurgency campaign, and due to the incredible costs of the war in light of a worsening economic crisis. The war in Afghanistan has also been incredibly unpopular, rejected by the majority of Americans for a number of years. By the time of the “humanitarian intervention” in Libya this year, Americans were preemptively expressing overwhelming skepticism of even a limited military campaign. A March 2011 poll from the Pew Research Center found that just 27 percent of Americans supported a U.S. intervention in Libya, compared to 63 percent who were opposed. Majority support was barely reached for sanctions (51 percent supported them), while minorities supported more intense interventions such as implementing a no-fly zone (supported by just 44 percent), sending arms to rebels (23 percent), bombing Libyan air defenses (16 percent) or sending troops (just 13 percent). As should be expected during the onset of war, support for Obama grew substantially once the U.S. actually started to engage in military operations against Qaddafi. Support, however, remains tepid at best. As of April 2011, just 39 percent of Americans supported Obama’s handling of the Libyan conflict. Fifty-six percent supported the implementation of the no-fly zone, which most seem to think is necessary as a means of preventing full blown humanitarian disaster. At the same time, however, just 18 percent support increasing U.S. military involvement in Libya by further escalating U.S. military activities.
Political scientists have long spoken of the “Vietnam Syndrome,” in which Americans are increasingly unwilling (post-Vietnam) to commit large numbers of troops to bloody and costly long term conflicts with uncertain outcomes. The recent growth in public suspicion of foreign wars represents a major progression in the intensity of the Vietnam Syndrome. If public opposition continues to grow as it has, it will be very difficult for the U.S. to escalate another military conflict anytime in the near future. I think this growth in skepticism is obvious on a very basic level. Most people I talk to are simply fed up with the endless “War on Terror.” They see that we have dramatic problems at home, and in light of the recent U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden, are ready to see the “War on Terror” come to a close.