The Elliott Abrams Factor: Resident Skeptic on Middle East Progress


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Though it sometimes frustrates friends, one of my core beliefs is to engage those who disagree with my views — and also to give credit when and where credit is due.
When I saw that the right-anchored Jerusalem Post was running an interview of Elliott Abrams with Ruthie Blum Leibowitz, I expected the worst. Leibowitz is the daughter of Norman Podhoretz, essentially co-founder with Irving Kristol of the neoconservative movement, and is brother of John Podhoretz and sister of Elliott Abrams’ wife, Rachel Decter.
I think Leibowitz pulls no punches and asks all of the questions that a frustrated believer in a Greater Israel zero-sum strategy in the region would ask. And to be honest, she asks many of the questions I would have asked. Some of these were:

When Bush made that June 24 speech, Israelis cheered, because what it indicated was that he was putting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict into a wider context of a global war between Islamic terrorists and democracy. Has that American view of the world begun to revert to its previous, more narrow one, according to which the Palestinian issue is not only separate, but key to solving the region’s problems?
There is a point of contention in this country over the question of which was the chicken, so to speak, and which the egg, regarding the disengagement initiative. Some maintain that Bush, being the friendliest US president Israel ever had, would have gone along with anything Sharon deemed beneficial to Israel’s security. Others argue that it was precisely because of Sharon’s willingness to withdraw from territory that the administration in Washington was so supportive. Which is it?
At the time, it was said that Bush and Sharon had a special – albeit unlikely – rapport. And it is now being said by certain critics that Binyamin Netanyahu, if he indeed becomes prime minister, will not be able to have that with Obama. How much does chemistry between heads of state actually affect international relations?
Speaking of factors which determine policy, in his second term, Bush moved his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to the State Department. In her new capacity as secretary of state, her policies seemed to move to the left. Was this a function of her change of address? Why is there usually a difference between the way the White House and the State Department view the Middle East?
Did you believe that Bush was going to bomb Iran before the end of his presidency?
Do you agree with critics who say that Bush invaded the wrong country, and that he should have gone after Iran first?
There were two pardons Bush conspicuously did not make before leaving office, to the great disappointment of many people on both sides of the Atlantic – Scooter Libby [charged with having leaked classified information about former CIA agent Valerie Plame to New York Times reporter Judith Miller and then covering it up] and Jonathan Pollard. To what can either be attributed? Did Olmert’s government make any attempt at securing Pollard’s release?

All fascinating questions — and even more on Darfur and other matters in the entire interview. I would have asked them from perhaps a different perspective and starting point, but knowing Abrams’ views on these fronts helps us understand quite a bit about where he was in the policy process and how he viewed his allies and competitors in the White House.
Elliott Abrams is remarkably straightforward with his sister-in-law.
Three things in his responses stood out for me, although the entire narrative should be read to get an understanding of how Bush looked at the Middle East — and why he and Abrams, in my view, were wrong.
First of all, Abrams’ final comments on President Bush’s decision not to pardon Scooter Libby are important. Abrams says:

As for Scooter, I really don’t know. I think it was a serious mistake on the president’s part not to have pardoned him. As for Pollard: There are details of his case that have always made his release problematic, and that’s all I’m going to say about it. But I can assure you with absolute certainty that Olmert – like all of his predecessors – did attempt to secure his release.

Most of Washington thought that Scooter Libby was going to be pardoned. The political left had practically given up fighting it, all except those most loyal to Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame (which would include this writer) — expecting that there were few incentives for Bush not to pardon Libby.
The evening before the Inauguration, I got an alert on Michael Isikoff’s scoop that Bush was not going to pardon Libby while sitting in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre for the “Let Freedom Swing” concert featuring Wynton Marsalis and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor comparing America’s democratic institutions to jazz. During one of the breaks, I leaned back and shared the news with Bill Clinton’s former national security advisor Sandy Berger, who himself had some run-ins with investigators a while back, and both of us were really surprised by the news.
First, this shows that Bush was not a pawn of neoconservative interests — and as I have argued many times over the last several years, that has probably been rarely true. But this would have been an easy gift from Bush to the neocon and Israel first-and-only-crowd.
Secondly, Elliott Abrams intimates knowledge about the Jonathan Pollard case in the comment above that is also very important. He says that “there are details of his case that have always made his release problematic.” Those details — probably highly classified — are what keep Israeli prime ministers and American presidents from coming to a point of agreement on Pollard’s future.
Abrams does not give Pollard the support in this statement that he gave in blanket terms to Scooter Libby. Thus, even a leading neoconservative like Elliott Abrams, in this case, showed a loyalty to American national security interests that trumps his support of Israel’s national interests.
I realize that this is a nuance — and many of Abrams’ critics would disagree — but the difference in the way Abrams spoke about Pollard and Libby is quite positive in my book.
This was the second item in the Abrams interview that is so important to understand as it conveys Sharon’s attitude towards diplomatic engagement with Palestine:

So, when Sharon came to visit Bush’s ranch in Crawford, the president asked him about it. Now, obviously, what politicians and statesmen tell each other is not necessarily exactly what they think. But Sharon’s answer, as I recall, was that, after the defeat of the intifada, a vacuum was left in the Israeli-Palestinian front. And it was being filled with many, very energetic diplomatic proposals – mostly emanating from Europe – that were all damaging to Israel, all saying that now was the time for final-status negotiations.
“Let’s have a conference,” they were saying. “Let’s reconvene Madrid.”
And some Israelis and Palestinians came up with the Geneva Initiative, which Sharon hated. According to Sharon, these bad ideas were growing in importance, and he needed something to fill the vacuum that would be good, rather than bad, for Israel. Disengagement was it.

I met with Sharon spokesman Ra’anan “Dani” Gissin as well as several other key advisers to and stakeholders in the Sharon political machine literally days after Sharon’s stroke — and they conveyed to my group that while Sharon did “hate” Geneva, as Abrams states, Sharon recognized that Geneva and the terms of a two-state deal that the parties involved negotiated were going to be close to what any American-European brokered deal would look like.
Sharon struck back at the most likely terms of a new deal that would establish a new Israel-Palestine equilibrium with a “unilateral” withdrawal from Gaza that solved none of the on-the-ground issues that moderate Palestinian negotiators had been struggling to achieve with Israel. Thus, Sharon gave Hamas an edge — making it appear in the minds of many Palestinians that violence and rockets produced dramatic moves from Israel, not negotiations.
The honesty and bluntness of Elliott Abram’s commentary is important here — as well as the acknowledgment that the Bush team was fully supportive of Ariel Sharon’s flipping of the finger to Palestinian moderates.
And third, I found the following bit on Bush’s White House decision making process important. It’s a long clip, but important to read in full:

Now, this all changed when Condi – Bush’s closest adviser – became secretary of state. The role of the State Department then became much more important, though it depended on the issue. For example, when it came to Iraq, the State Department was far less important, because Iraq policy was really being made by the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense and the joint chiefs. But there were other areas of policy in which the State Department was very directly and deeply involved. Palestinian-Israeli affairs was one of them. The other was North Korea. In both cases, policy was essentially made in the State Department.
In this area, you have a kind of organizational problem. You want the president – any president – to get a variety of opinions and to make choices based on them. And when the secretary of state is by far his closest foreign policy adviser, you sometimes don’t get the full panoply of advice. In the Reagan and Bush administrations, there was the view – it will be interesting to see whether it will be so in the Obama administration, as well – that policy disputes should be ironed out at the level of cabinet principals: the national security adviser, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the chairman of the joint chiefs, the head of the CIA, etc. The idea was that you don’t go to the president with these fights; you go to the president with a solution, with a policy proposal that reflects a consensus.
This has always seemed to me to be a gigantic mistake. When people of that rank and office have policy disagreements, the president should hear them, and be allowed to choose among the options that are being debated. He should not be presented with a homogenized, consensus, compromised position. There’s an old story told about the way the State Department works: There are always three options, one of which is so weak, another of which is so over-the-top strong, that it’s obvious the middle one is the one you’re going to choose. And it’s true! Well, it’s a mistake, and presidents should not permit that kind of thing. And I think that in the case of Middle East policy, it happened all too often.
So I was the resident skeptic. We were hearing, both from secretary Rice and from prime minister Olmert that there was a very good chance of concluding a final-status agreement. I never believed this, neither before Annapolis nor after. So I was always like a little black cloud in all these meetings, saying, “I don’t think this is going to happen.”

All bias aside, I find it fascinating that Elliott Abrams was as put off by the decision-making structure in the White House as Brent Scowcroft was.
My impression had always been that from 9/11/2001 forward until just before Bush’s second term, the neoconservatives had dominated the decision-making architecture and were not allowing alternative views in to the stove-piped process of weaving intelligence and objectives into self-damaging national foreign policy moves.
I had previously written about some on Dick Cheney’s national security team being frustrated in Bush’s second term that they “were losing the policy deliberation process in the White House.” The New York Times later outed this individual as David Wurmser, whose views coincide I think with much of what Elliott Abrams shared in this interesting interview. For those interested, the last chapter of Barton Gellman’s book, The Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, deals with this frustration that the Cheney team is being cut out, excluded, and not “read in” to various Bush national security decisions.
Abrams, I think, was never fully cut out — but many of his ideological fellow-travelers in the White House seem to have been.
Elliott Abrams will soon be on staff at the Council on Foreign Relations, and we’ll have time and opportunity to further discuss his views on America’s national security portfolio and why the Bush White House failed to leave that portfolio in better condition than it inherited.
Fascinating interview — and important on many levels. Kudos to the Jerusalem Post.
— Steve Clemons
Editor’s Note: Thanks to “Joe M” for bringing this interview to my attention.


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