My colleague Flynt Leverett has just published a superb American Prospect article that I discuss below — but its sensibleness compels me to start with concerns about the President’s key advisor on the Middle East, Elliott Abrams.
Few would question that Elliott Abrams is a brilliant guy. In many ways, he’s a much more sophisticated version of the bombastic John Bolton, who has been quite successful in a pugnacious way at promulgating Jesse Helms’ vision of American foreign policy — as disagreeable and alarming as most find that to be.
But Abrams is a great strategist. Many like him, but he is a shape-shifter when it comes to figuring out who he ultimately works for and collaborates with. Sometimes his boss is Stephen Hadley. Sometimes it is Cheney himself or Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington. Other times, Abrams works hard to convince Condi’s people that he is on their side — though they know not to trust him. George Bush is so unclear about the direction he wants to go that in times when Abrams needs ambiguity, Bush is saluted as his task-master.
Abrams is Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy (with a special focus on Middle East Affairs), and he is one of Israel’s protectors, defenders, and key stewards in the White House. Frankly, there are many defenders of Israeli security in the White House — and I would be one as well, but not exclusively at the cost of long-term stability in the Middle East that secures ‘both’ Israeli and Arab interests.
If he was also concerned about America’s state of relations over the long term with the Arab Middle East in addition to Israel’s security, Abrams’ hyper-closeness to Israel would not be a problem. But Abrams has done much to inculcate many in the White House that helping Israel ultimately means not yielding credible progress on an Israel-Palestine deal or not progressing on deal-making with other Arab neighbors.
Abrams has helpd turn the Middle East into a zero sum game between the US and Israel on one side and Arab states on the other. As Senator Chuck Hagel stated in a powerful speech at Brookings recently, juxtaposing Israel security against our interests in the Middle East is a dangerous “false choice” that must be avoided.
Elliott Abrams is pushing that so-called “false choice” in his current job and is undermining Condi Rice’s efforts as well as long-term Israeli security. He is preempting moves that might lead ultimately to peace and stability in the Middle East, and in the end, he’s harming America’s foreign policy portfolio — damaged as that already is from running into a quagmire in Iraq.
Abrams should be suspended in his current position; recused because of his bias and blind-spots on Middle East policy and assigned a new task — like getting the federal budget balanced, or some other herculean effort that might satisfy Abrams’ pretensions without causing the nation much damage.
The person the President should consult with in his stead is Flynt Leverett, my new colleague at the New America Foundation (and I should hasten to add here that Flynt Leverett not only does not know I am preparing this post but will probably object).
Leverett’s brilliant expose, “Illusion and Reality: The Case for Negotiation,” which appears as the just released cover story of the American Prospect ought to be the National Security Council brief to the President on the direction this nation needs to go to correct the mess that only shows signs of worsening if current policies continue. Leverett’s article is written dispassionately and critiques the administration for its choices but also Democrats for their failures as well.
Read every word of this article — every word, and imagine you are President of the United States receiving a surprise briefing from Flynt Leverett instead of Elliott Abrams, who was up in the Senate talking to Pete Domenici about the budget instead of initiating a war against Syria. Let’s just imagine that Leverett refused to put his brief in one-page because the situation is so bad and insisted the President read three pages, with a short list of “what to do” items that could in fact be put on one page.
This document that the American Prospect has run reflects what most sensible Republican and Democratic strategists agree needs to be done in the Middle East. There is enormous (mostly unspoken) consensus between the sort of proposals Leverett is offering. It is important then to realize what damage someone like Abrams is doing by distancing the White House from such strategies. Cheney, Addington, Bolton, and others are complicit — but this time it’s really Abrams that is keeping the President isolated from a sensible policy path that would track somwhat close — by necessity — to what Flynt Leverett has written.
Let me just highlight some of the many points I found illuminating in this important piece. I’m just going to number some of them to help those who don’t have time to read the article get the gist of its brilliance:
1. Leverett opens by describing that he was one of a few who worked most of the night of September 11, 2001 to produce a “diplomatic strategy for assembling an international coalition” in response to the attacks that day. In other words, Powell and others knew that lining up nations on our side — diplomatically — was vital for success. In addition, Leverett helped co-author a “comprehensive diplomatic strategy” for supporting a so-called war on terrorism, and this plan included deal-making with states to end support for anti-Israel terrorism in return for “positive strategic relationships with Washington.” Developing a credible plan to lead Israel and Palestine towards a credible, two-state solution was also part of this package.
2. America was to use carrots, not just sticks in moving actors in the international system. By the time the administration had taken its unilateral turn, all that the administration pushed were sticks — no more carrots. “Traditional allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia” were implicitly threatened without much regard to our need for their stabilizing influence given other disruptions in the region we were planning to trigger.
3. Leverett’s unsentimental prognosis now reads:
Three and a half years after the invasion of Iraq and five years after 9-11, the outbreak of armed conflict between Israel and radical groups in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon has revealed how badly the president’s chosen Middle East strategy has damaged the interests of the Unite States and its allies in the region. . .It is far from clear that the administration, or sadly, opposition Democrats will learn the right lessons from this episode. If they do not, the United States will likely suffer further damage to its position in the Middle East, with dangerous implications for America’s ability to protect its interests and ensure the long-term security of Israel.
4. Leverett profiles the consequences of abandoning the “realist legacy” in the White House foreign policy decision making process and argues that in consequence, “over the last five years, U.S. policy in the Middle East has emboldened radicals and weakened moderates.”
I would personally add to this that our policy has united America’s enemies and divided our friends, further undermining America’s ability to achieve its global objectives.
5. Leverett suggests that the administration’s democratization agenda — pursued on the cheap — has been utterly disastrous. He writes “the administration’s three examples of US-engineered democratic empowerment in the region — Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon — are all basket cases.”
6. One of the most interesting sections of this fascinating piece was Leverett’s confirmation that there is a dramatic fault line between Ismail Haniya and those in government from Hamas in Palestine and Khalid Meshal in Damascus who is in control of Hamas’ “external branch.” The closer Haniya came to securing de facto recognition of Israel and working out a compromise on such with Mahmoud Abbas, the harder Meshal worked to “re-radicalize the Arab-Israeli arena” and undermine the authority and legitimacy of Haniya. What is incredible is that America let Meshal get away with this — and accidentally or perhaps intentionally — the US helped undermine the best chance Israel and Abbas and we had to pacify Hamas and break from it its militant wing, which then might have been isolated and perhaps even crushed by recognized legitimate authority holding power in the Palestinian government.
7. Leverett suggests that the administration’s direction, at this point, is tough to alter. He writes: “Although Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her team seem sporadically motivated to try to take policy in a more realist direction, their impact remains limited to tactical matters.” In other words, Leverett is arguing that Rice — even if she had the right instincts — does not know how or is unwilling to play a winning hand against Cheney and Co.
8. Leverett just doesn’t suggest that American strategy is completely moribund and counter-productive in the Middle East. He offers a way out, in five parts:
a. The United States needs to widen its approach to defusing the current crisis to include direct engagement with both Syria and Iran;
b. The United States should convey its interest in a broader strategic dialogue with the al-Assad regime in Damascus, with the aim of re-establishing US-Syrian cooperation on important regional issues and with the promise of significant strategic benefits for Syria clearly on the table;
c. Washington should indicate its willingness to pursue a “grand bargain” with Iran, in which the Islamic republic would accept restraints on its nuclear activities and abandon its support for the terrorist activities of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah in return for US commitments not to use force to change Iran’s borders or form of government, to lift unilateral sanctions, and to normalize bilateral relations;
d. The United States and key partners should articulate a more substantive vision for a two-state solution to the Palestinian question, including paramaters for resolving key final-status issues that would meet the minimum requirements of both sides. This vision should incorporate the Saudi-initiated Arab League peace plan;
e. While the Unites States should engage moderate Arab partners more systematically on economic reform and human rights, Washington should drop its insistence on early resort t open electoral processes as a litmus test for “democratization.”
Concurring with Leverett, this is what Richard Haass, currently President of the Council on Foreign Relations, has termed “ballotocracy.”
9. Leverett also reminds readers that Kissinger was only partial parent to the kind of realism applied to American foreign policy. He writes:
. . .it was the 20th century’s greatest Democratic secretary of state, Dean Acheson, who defined a fundamentally realist paradigm for U.S. foreign policy in Europe during the Truman administration that laid the foundations for eventual peaceful victory in the Cold War.
One of the depressing factors about modern geo-strategic realities is that while Leverett and many others think that the time we are in in the Middle East is actually ripe for “grand bargain” strategic solutions that achieve fascinating and important new opportunities and equilibriums — there are no Kissingers, Achesons, Brzezinskis, or Scowcrofts in sight to move us there.
Much like Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation once told to me, Leverett concludes his piece with “realism has become the truly progressive position on foreign policy.”
I hope that some smart policy entrepreneur figures out a way to steal Flynt Leverett’s core logic of this piece — and his systematic treatment of costs and opportunities associated with various policy choices facing America in the Middle East — and pastes them together for a presidential briefing memo.
While I am lucky to be working with Leverett at the New America Foundation on a wide array of subjects, it became clear to me after reading this article that this piece really should have been written for the President of the United States.
— Steve Clemons
Update: Flynt Leverett will be speaking at the New America Foundation about this article on September 5. Email me if you would like an invitation. Michael Tomasky, Editor of The American Prospect and I will both be offering some extra commentary as well.
Also, if you would like to download a pdf version of this article, do so by clicking here.