The Elliott Abrams Factor: Resident Skeptic on Middle East Progress


abrams in the middle.jpg
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.


20 comments on “The Elliott Abrams Factor: Resident Skeptic on Middle East Progress

  1. Jobs In Pakistan says:

    Nice and informative articles,I like these.


  2. Kathleen G says:

    How in the hell does Elliot Abrams keep slipping back into administration after administration? Elliot will say what ever it takes to stay in play
    U.S. Vs Elliot Abrams


  3. Mr.Murder says:

    Bush was friendly to Israel like a cop giving car keys back to a drunk on rush hour at a school crosswalk is friendly.
    Crazy friendly.


  4. ... says:

    kotzabasis, the leadership in israel has become increasingly fanatical working hard to portray hamas as terrorists they can’t talk with… i think that is a lot of bullshit myself and is more a reflection on them, then on hamas… both sides are radicalized.. to claim otherwise is something i fail to see…


  5. kotzabasis says:

    One would be blind not to see that there are aplenty religious fanatics in Israel. But what you miss out is that, to put it enigmatically, it’s a question of who is doing the TALKING not who is doing the SHOUTING. Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli fanatic because of his RAISON.


  6. ... says:

    wigwag – thanks for making some of the comments in your 7:50pm post, specifically the ones where you point out to the religious fanaticism coming out of israel as being equivalent to what islam has to offer…. i remember pointing this out just yesterday on the jim lobe thread, but appreciate your agreement here…
    here are my words from yesterday..
    “”israel has become radicalized to the extent that one can’t tell who is who when reading kotzabasis’s comment of a “fanatic religiously motivated leadership and a rational secular leadership” “”
    eliot abrams is a first class slime ball and not to be trusted on anything he says…he has no integrity whatsoever and is like asking a renowned liar what his thoughts are on something.. you are taking your chances!


  7. serge says:

    With all respect to Mr Clemons, whom I greatly admire, I wouldn’t trust anything that Elliott Abrams says, period.


  8. DonS says:

    Superficially deconstructing this extensive interview, it is incredible to me that the interviewee, Mr. Abrams, is in fact and American, and indeed a former high level government official.
    Example: Abrams states “but it does seem to me that if everybody knows what the options are, and the most Israel can offer is less than the least the Palestinians can accept, the solution is not close at hand.
    This is the rhetoric of an individual who is hand in glove with the Israelis and feels confident in reporting what the Israelis will or will not offer, even though he cagily phrases it in a way to make it seem as if the Palestinians are the party not “accepting”. A more even handed individual would find the relative juxtaposition interchangeable. But not Abrams. He knows the Israelis bottom line, and apparently adopts it.
    Another example: “Did Bush and Rice make a real distinction between Fatah and Hamas?” . . . “Yes. Theirs was the American view . . .”? And from what view is Mr. Abrams looking?
    Abrams barely disguises his mental process, that seems so Israeli centric and patent.


  9. JohnH says:

    While I agree with most of what Wigwag says, I have a hard time plotting Israeli extremism on a scale other than a logarithmic one. I guess we are supposed to believe that the moderate days were those of Haganah, Irgun, Begin and the ethnic cleansing of coastal Palestine (1940s). These were followed by Sharon, the ‘Bulldozer’ of Gaza (1970), the Butcher of Beirut, whose earlier exploits included the massacres of Qibya, Bureij and Khan Yunis. More recently we have Sharon’s Kadima presiding over the massive destruction in Jenin, Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2009).
    Apart from the brief Oslo interlude, it’s hard to put Israeli extremism on a scale other than, well, extreme. Given the events of the last sixty years, it’s pretty hard to distinguish the extreme strain from really extreme one from the totally extreme one.
    In any event, those three strains are alive and well in the three strains of Likud (Kadima, Likud and Yisrael Beitna), which are virtually indistinguishable from the “moderation” of Barak’s Labor Party.


  10. arthurdecco says:

    You’ve typed some whoppers over the years, Mr. Clemons, (as we all have), but you claiming that Elliot Abrams “showed a loyalty to American national security interests that trumps his support of Israel’s national interests” by not jumping on the guilty-as-hell Pollard’s bandwagon reaches heights of absurdity I didn’t think a person of your obvious intelligence could attain.
    Elliot Abrams has demonstrated time and time again where his loyalties actually lie, and it isn’t with the United States of America. For you to think we could be convinced of his “loyalty” by you pointing out his unspoken acknowledgment of the fact that he could do nothing for Pollard without damaging his own reputation, and so therefore he would stay mum on the subject, is preposterous. To someone not breathing the rarefied air of Washington, it’s more an indication how much of a calculating coward he is, not an indicator of his imagined “loyalty”.
    In my opinion, Elliot Abrams has done more than enough to damage the interests of the United States in his career as a back-room “fixer” to warrant being charged with treason right along side creeps like Pollard. There just hasn’t been the political will to arrest him for his latest round of crimes is all. And in that he’s certainly not alone, is he?
    Wasn’t it the war criminal and common crook Sharon who claimed Israel controlled the US during a loud disagreement with Peres during a cabinet meeting? Too bad he didn’t name names when he was belligerently boasting of this fact to his fellow cabinet members because I’m sure Elliot Abrams would have been prominently placed near the top of his list of co-conspirators had he recited it.


  11. WigWag says:

    This is one of the most interesting posts I’ve ever read at the Washington Note (which is saying something, because most of them are good).
    The interview was surprisingly interesting as were Steve’s comments.
    Ruthie Blum Leibowitz: “Why were you skeptical?”
    Abrams: “Because others said that the solution here, the eventual deal, was pretty well understood on both sides – that there weren’t a million possibilities for where the border between Israel and the Palestinian state would be. The same with regard to Jerusalem. Therefore, they said, it won’t take all that much negotiating to get there. That was the conventional wisdom. But it seemed to me that the opposite view was right: that if everybody knows what a deal has to look like, and year after year and decade after decade, it is not possible to reach it, isn’t it obvious that it’s because neither side wants that deal? Now, the reasons for not wanting it can vary, and they can also change over time, but it does seem to me that if everybody knows what the options are, and the most Israel can offer is less than the least the Palestinians can accept, the solution is not close at hand.”
    WigWag: Precisely.
    Ruthie Blum Leibowitz: “You refer to the rise of “extremism” without mentioning Islam. Is this not a religious conflict?”
    Abrams: “You now have a battle within that world between the forces of extremism and terrorism on the one hand, and more moderate forces on the other. Those moderate forces do exist in the Arab world; they certainly exist beyond it, in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.”
    WigWag: The Arab and Muslim world is not the only place where militancy or religious extremism is to be found. In Israel, Avigdor Lieberman is a militant (though not a religious one) and his party just won the third largest number of seats in the election. Many, perhaps most, of the settlers are religious extremists who are absolutely convinced that the deity supports their continued presence on the West Bank. Jerusalem itself is filled with ultra orthodox extremists. Anyone who has been to Jerusalem knows that many of the ultra orthodox who live there are almost as hostile to secular Israelis as they are to Palestinians.
    In fact if Israel has a problem with demography; the problem is not with superior Palestinian fecundity; it’s with the superior fecundity of ultra religious versus secular Jews. The fertility rate of the ultra orthodox is virtually identical to that of Palestinians. While there is certainly no guarantee that children of ultra-orthodox parents will adopt their parent’s views when they reach the age of majority, it’s not a bad bet that most will.
    If this trend continues Israel will, over time, be made up of an increasing percentage of more religious and more politically conservative Jews. This is the demographic trend that American friends of Israel need to worry about, not the largely irrelevant birth rate of the Palestinians.
    The point is that it is unfair to mention the rise of Islamic militancy without also mentioning the rise of militancy and religious zealotry on the part of Israelis.
    And while Abrams may not have noticed it, the rise of religious militancy and conservatism is a world wide phenomenon. It apples not only to Muslims and Jews; it also applies to Christian Protestants (e.g. the rise of the Christian right in the U.S. and conservative Anglicans in Africa and Asia) and to Roman Catholics (the Vatican has taken a sharp turn to the right both politically and in terms of dogma). It also applies to Hindus (the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party is a good example).
    Secularism and enlightenment values are in danger all over the world; not only from Hamas and the Israeli settlers.
    What better proof of this is there than the fact that the Anglican Church is experiencing schism because most African and many American Anglicans can’t bear to be in communion with a church that allows Gene Robinson to be a bishop?


  12. Joe M. says:

    the quote that you sited: “the fact is that Israelis simply can not accept Palestinian sovereignty, and any effort at allowing it will just fail.” was my quote. the other part was Abrams. When he says that Israel can not accept the minimum demands of the palestinians, I think he is making a much more grand statement than would believed by the people in the “peace process industry.” In that respect, I agree with you totally.


  13. JohnH says:

    Joe M–I’m confused–your post reads exactly as follows–
    “Abrams says:
    “‘Now, the reasons for not wanting it can vary, and they can also change over time, but it does seem to me that if everybody knows what the options are, and the most Israel can offer is less than the least the Palestinians can accept, the solution is not close at hand.'”
    So now you’re telling me that what “Abrams says” is not literally what he says, but how you parphrased what he says?
    In any case, if that is what Abrams meant, then it’s clear that the blamce can no longer be assigned equally between the Palestinian and Israeli side for the failure of the peace process. Turns out that this is just more Washington and Jerusalem BS, which Steve Clemons is happy to repeat.
    However, the Abrams statement reveals that it is Jerusalem that is stonewalling, something I’ve believed for decades. They simply refuse to offer the Palestinian side any degree of sovereignty over their own affairs. And for much of the past 60 years, they have refused to even talk to the Palestinian side, under the pretense that there are no Palestinians, or that there is no partner for peace, or that Palestinians are intransigeant.
    How can you accuse the Palestinian side of not negotiating in good faith, when it’s clear from the import of Abrams’ statement that it is the Israeli side that hasn’t ever bothered to even try?


  14. Joe M. says:

    Just to point out, I said that above, not Abrams. Watch the quotation marks. that was how i read his comment.
    Though, I agree with you that that is what he meant, just that you are reading it from my words, not his.


  15. JohnH says:

    Interesting that Abrams reveals the true Gordian Knot: “the fact is that Israelis simply can not accept Palestinian sovereignty, and any effort at allowing it will just fail.”
    For all the Israeli positioning as victims and as reasonable people, we see that they are neither victims nor reasonable–they are firmly entrenched in their adamant opposition to any legitmization of Palestinian aspirations, national or otherwise.
    Clemons and lots of others constantly lay the blame at both sides. But Abrams states unequivocally that it is one side–Israel–that is stonewalling the move to any final status.


  16. Zathras says:

    Lots to chew on here, so no time for a comprehesive reaction.
    I do wonder, in the context of Bart Gellman’s reporting, if Bush’s refusal to pardon Libby represented a kind of thumb to the eye on his part toward his Vice President. Bush, whatever else he is, is a politician; he has to blame someone for his political difficulties, and he’s not one to blame himself. Gellman made clear the extent of Cheney’s influence in the first term, and its decline in the second, and it’s never been any secret that the primary constituency for a Libby pardon was not “neoconservatives” as such but rather Cheney himself, whose aide Libby had been for so long. Not pardoning Libby didn’t help or hurt Bush very much otherwise, and it is only speculation to look on this decision as a way of expressing his displeasure with all the trouble he may feel his Vice President got him into. It is, however, speculation that appears to fit the known facts.


  17. Joe M. says:

    I also found this a very interesting interview. But for several subtlety different reasons that Clemons. One particularly interesting point comes right after the “skeptic” remark quoted. Abrams says:
    “Now, the reasons for not wanting it can vary, and they can also change over time, but it does seem to me that if everybody knows what the options are, and the most Israel can offer is less than the least the Palestinians can accept, the solution is not close at hand.”
    I think this is a pretty accurate assessment of the current consensus “two-state” solution. And is much of the reason that I disagree with Clemons when he argues that more western involvement will solve the conflict. the fact is that Israelis simply can not accept Palestinian sovereignty, and any effort at allowing it will just fail.
    the next extremely interesting thing Abrams said was:
    “But I don’t think secretary Powell made that shift in his own mind.”
    I just find it remarkable that these neocons continue to argue for a “new world” mentality after 9/11. and to such a degree that Powell is considered some type of fool in their view.


  18. rawdawgbuffalo says:

    between Biden and Tim Geithner, seems like Obama has built a administration of cards


  19. downtown says:

    “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.”
    Am I the only one who finds this statement a most depressing commentary on America’s insanity when dealing with this topic?


  20. DonS says:

    Abrams: “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.”
    Now you don’t think Abrams is trying to shade things in the manner of revisionism, and to make himself look prescient? Or to embelish a wise statesmen persona preparatory to being ensconsed at the Council on Foreign Relations? He’s not throwing anyone specifically under the bus here, just talking in nice generalities. And you know its pretty gratuitous to endorse an alternative process of encouraging hard questions to the presented President after years of getting it your way; and conveniently finding a “serious mistake” only when Abrams pet interest, Isr/Pal, may be the issue where he loses some edge. And of course Annapolis was a bust practically from the start, if not intentionally sabotaged, maybe even with Abrams assistance.
    The fact that Bush was willing to throw Libby under the bus does less to impress me that he was not totally under the neocons sway that to affirm that he is out for Bush first. Fact is, he allied himself with the necons on issue after issue that Cheney (and Abrams) teed up for him.
    On Pollard: Abrams acknowleges its “problematical”, but doesn’t say exactly where he comes down. To openly endorse Pollard’s release, when its all 20-20 hindsight at this point for years to come, would so identifiy Abrams as an Israel firster that his brand might be less markatable outside the Lobby.
    Thanks for the stimulating thoughts Steve.


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *