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The Shadow Viceroy

Elliott Abrams, who oversaw the Middle East for George Bush, says the recent Israel crisis reflects how the Obama team is doing business with the rest of the world

Lee Smith
March 24, 2010
Shimon Peres and Elliott Abrams meeting in Tel Aviv in 2004.(Tal Cohen/AFP/Getty Images)
Shimon Peres and Elliott Abrams meeting in Tel Aviv in 2004.(Tal Cohen/AFP/Getty Images)

If no one was sure what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was going to tell the 7,500 delegates who descended on Washington for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference early this week, everyone knew what Elliott Abrams was going to say. For more than a year, the former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush has been the most vocal critic of the Obama Administration’s handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship. With the recent Washington-Jerusalem confrontation over 1,600 apartment units still simmering, Abrams drew a standing-room-only crowd to his two AIPAC panels.

“If we distance ourselves from Israel,” Abrams told the audience, “the Jordanians, Egyptians and the rest of our allies in the Middle East will think, ‘if they can do it to the Israelis, why not us?’ ”

Abrams, while well under 6 feet tall, is a commanding physical presence, with broad shoulders and a prominent chin and nose, a profile worthy of a Roman coin. And like a provincial governor, he wielded power on behalf of a hegemon in a way that earned him more enemies at home than abroad. His rivals mock the policies he advocates, describe him as arrogant, and fear winding up on the wrong end of his sharp wit. While in the United States he is best known for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, in the Middle East, he is simply “Elliott”—the man tapped by Bush to administer the daily conduct of U.S. policy in large parts of the region, with particular attention to democracy promotion and the Bush Administration’s “Freedom Agenda” in Egypt and throughout North Africa, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and the Palestinian territories.

The point Abrams was making at the AIPAC conference was not intended as one of the several applause lines that would elicit loud and spontaneous approval from the crowd of Jewish-American political activists. It was a subtler, more nuanced critique, and one illustrating Abrams’s worldview. The former American viceroy for the Arabs and Israelis was drawing concentric circles—one around Israel, a larger one around the entire Middle East, and then another encompassing the whole world. Enveloping the peripheries, all of these rings emanate from the still, unmoving center, the crux where the world’s balance of power rests: Washington.

From Abrams’s perspective, the crisis in the U.S.-Israeli relationship is but one symptom of a larger failure in the conduct of American foreign policy. “The White House put distance between us and Israel,” Abrams told me in an interview. “But they’ve also done it with everyone else—like the U.K., Australia, India, and Japan, among others. This is a poor practice of diplomacy.” In effect, he charges, the Obama Administration has no one playing the role of Elliott Abrams—an unabashed advocate of the virtues of American power with the experience of two two-term administrations under his belt and four decades of contacts with the world’s governing elites.

“I don’t think it’s true that the administration came in only with a domestic focus,” says Abrams, in response to my suggestion that the Obama Administration has been preoccupied with the sizable domestic problems that it inherited from George Bush and has had little time for foreign policy. “This president had a coherent view of the world and America’s role, and the terrible things that according to him happened under Bush that he would change and correct. It is central to his presidency. We saw that in the Cairo speech.”

What Abrams finds most curious about Obama’s desire to atone for America’s past transgressions, especially those of his predecessor, is that it has done little to ingratiate the president with the international community. “He remains very popular overseas—with the people,” Abrams says. “But if you ask the governing elites in Australia, the U.K., France, Japan, and all of the Middle East leaders, his popularity has sunk. Allies are used to being treated like allies, and it is manifest he has no interest in them. They feel it, and this has affected elite opinion.”

A president who came to office on a surge of popular acclaim across the world cannot connect with his global peers, Abrams says. The reason Obama appears to be even less popular among foreign elites than George Bush, he explains, is the new president’s conviction that the United States has no special obligations or duties to its allies, Israeli or otherwise. “This is a radical departure,” Abrams says, “not just from George W. Bush, but also from the Clinton Administration.”

We’re sitting in a conference room at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations, where Abrams landed after his eight years on Bush’s National Security Council staff. Abrams’s comfortable setup here is a telling example of how the U.S. foreign-policy establishment works. The Bush Administration’s neoconservatives are painted by outside-the-Beltway types like Frank Rich, and by partisan bloggers, as a gang of delirious ideologues who tumbled out of the clouds when George Bush came to power and promptly disappeared from sight with the inauguration of Barack Obama. And yet while Abrams’s neoconservative credentials are hardly in doubt—he is married to Norman Podhoretz’s stepdaughter and served as chief of staff to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan—the Council does not admit madmen and mavericks. It is the home of Washington’s permanent foreign-policy establishment. Even out of office, Abrams spends the better part of his day on the phone with foreign officials—Europeans, Asians, and Palestinians, as well as Israelis—when he is not traveling abroad.

During Abrams’s eight years with the Bush Administration, I heard Arab officials, journalists, and activists across the region boast about their relationship with the point-man for U.S. Middle East policy. Who had met with him most recently? What did he say in private? What did his public statements mean for their cause? Arab esteem for a Bush appointee may come as a surprise to many Americans, especially those whose opinion of Abrams is colored by his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, when he entered a plea agreement on two misdemeanor counts of misleading Congress. (He was pardoned by George H.W. Bush in 1992.) But it was Abrams who introduced one of the Reagan’s Administration’s most effective tools.

“Elliott mainstreamed the concern for human rights in the U.S. government,” says a former State Department colleague who worked with Abrams in the Reagan and Bush administrations. “He made human rights a respectable thing for Republicans; before that it was always a liberal thing.” Abrams’s position on human rights earned him the scorn of leftists, who denounced him as a hypocrite for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal, and earned him some powerful opponents in GOP circles, like Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Jesse Helms, who at first didn’t see the point of pressuring allies like the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet the same way we pressured opponents like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. “Elliott said, ‘If we’re going to win in Latin America, we have to be credible and hold allies to the same standards as we hold others,’ ” says Abrams’s former colleague at State. “He had allies in this, like Secretary of State George Shultz and President Reagan. But the fact is that Elliott has had a huge effect on the thinking of subsequent generations.”

Abrams notes that some of those most disappointed with American global leadership are dissidents in places like Egypt and Iran. The Obama White House, says Abrams, “has no measurable interest in human rights.” To speak out against human rights abuses requires you to believe that the United States has a special place in the world.

“For Elliott, American democracy makes the United States an exceptional power, imbued with a unique moral authority,” says Michael Doran, senior director for the Middle East under Abrams on the NSC staff. “When the United States engages warmly with a foreign regime, it confers moral legitimacy, which is an asset that American strategists should use consciously and with great care.”

The Administration’s efforts to reach out to adversaries like Iran and Syria without exacting anything in return while shaming allies like Israel shows little understanding of how human rights can be used as an instrument of American statecraft. No one knows what Obama’s strategy is, says Abrams. “We’re all speculating—the Arabs, the Israelis, the Europeans.” The White House, he says, has fallen prey to a “shocking misreading of world politics, and especially of the Arab world.”

The Obama Administration, says Abrams, appears to believe that “advantages will accrue to us by putting distance between us and Israel. But look at the Bush Administration—not only was it extremely pro-Israel, but we actually invaded an Arab country. And still we had extremely close relations with the Arabs.” From his experience, Abrams says, what Arab governments want is a strong and reliable American ally. “They want to know, is this president tough enough to take on Iran? If answer is no, they’ll be very unhappy.”

Even while Abrams sees Obama’s strained relationship with the Netanyahu government as a reflection of the Administration’s larger misconceptions, he is greatly concerned with how the White House regards Israel. If, as Vice President Joe Biden suggested, construction in East Jerusalem and lack of progress on the peace process endangers American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and U.S. citizens at home, then concessions will come of out of Israel’s account.

“If you believe that the relationship with Israel is a burden and a liability and we have to diminish the cost, then you may believe stopping 1,600 housing units can relieve some of the problem,” Abrams says. “But, by the same logic, maybe if we divide Jerusalem that would make the terrorists feel even better, so is the answer to force Israel back to the 1967 borders? But there’s no limit to this argument; nothing can satisfy grievance except the elimination of Israel. Why do it in steps? Why not eliminate all the problem at once?”

Abrams says he knew there were problems a year ago when the Administration insisted that the Netanyahu government agree to a total construction freeze. “This was a demand anyone with a decent knowledge of Israeli politics knew was not possible,” he says. “Every administration makes mistakes, but with them it’s a failure to learn from mistakes after 15 months and they are making the same mistake again. There’s no learning curve.”

Of course, there are experienced diplomats throughout the Administration—men like Richard Holbrooke and like Dennis Ross, who served as Middle East czar for George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton and was moved over to the White House from the State Department several months ago. There is George Mitchell, the president’s special envoy in charge of the upcoming proximity talks, who, while not one of Abrams’s favorites, helped negotiate the peace in Ireland and who tried to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians at the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Yet for all of his fondness for czars and envoys, Obama appears not to see the world outside of America’s borders as a series of places run by local and regional elites. Rather, ruling elites are the source of our problems—and he is most comfortable speaking over their heads to a global public that really does seem to like him.

In Obama’s view, Abrams suggests, there are no concentric circles of American power radiating throughout the world. There are no pieces to move around on the chessboard, because the metaphor of international relations as a great game played by members of a global gentlemen’s club is inherently elitist. There is no balance of power, as Obama argued in his U.N. speech, no rivalries among nations and no alliances either, only an indiscriminate mass of peoples who can be moved by rhetoric and managed by the president’s political advisers. The fact is that the Administration’s foreign policy is made after the image of a man who doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, or the exceptionalism of any other nation: All the world is his stage, and the people of the world are his audience. The global elites, our allies, hear Obama’s suggestion that they are no different than anyone else, even our adversaries—and they don’t like it.

Abrams is an agent of a less charismatic and more old-fashioned style of American leadership, in which interests are balanced and the world is made whole not by a single transformative leader or by the will of the globalized masses but by daily contacts between high-ranking policy professionals who give each other a regular heads-up about what might be coming down the pike. The true complaint of Israeli officials in the wake of the Ramat Shlomo blow-up is the same as the complaint of British, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian officials and other foreigners who have been angered and baffled by the conduct of U.S. foreign policy since Barack Obama took office: They have no idea whom to call. The fact that our allies are flying blind means that they can no longer rely on us.

The Arabs and Israelis, Abrams says, are not alone in “wanting to know if the U.S. will maintain its position and hold on to our dominance.” If not, the world will make its own arrangements, without consulting our elites and at the expense of our interests.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.