One on One: 'I was the resident skeptic'

Elliott Abrams provides view of US administration considered the friendliest Israel has ever had.

By RUTHIE BLUM LEIBOWITZ
February 12, 2009 21:20
One on One: 'I was the resident skeptic'

Elliot Abrams 248 88 aj. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

 
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The one thing Elliott Abrams and I do not discuss during our hour-long interview in Jerusalem this week is his imminent career move. More specifically, how someone who has spent the better part of the last three decades vilified by those who consider "neoconservatism" a four-letter word will fare as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a key part of the liberal establishment. Not that it isn't an interesting question, mind you. Especially not in his particular case. For, whatever else characterizes Abrams and his amazingly illustrious CV, "fig leaf" simply doesn't figure. And I ought to know. Abrams is married to my sister, Rachel. I have thus had many occasions over the decades to witness, firsthand, my brother-in-law's cheerful confidence in his convictions - convictions that sometimes clash with my own. Contrary to popular belief, my family, all of whose members are so-called neocons, is just as capable of raising the roof over politics at the dinner table as the next guy's. The devil, after all, is in the details. But so is what makes the man. Having devoted much of his adult life to one political pursuit or another, the 60-year-old lawyer by profession (who was born and raised in New York, and educated at Harvard and the London School of Economics), Abrams has served two Republican administrations so far - those of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. On Capitol Hill, he served as assistant counsel to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, special counsel to senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson and then chief of staff to senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan; in the Reagan State Department, he served as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, then for human rights and humanitarian affairs and finally for inter-American affairs. It was the last job on this list that catapulted him into the notoriety that his gleeful opponents in the Democratic Party cherished, cultivated and have held over his head, as though wielding a deadly weapon. Indeed, Abrams was among those prosecuted in the Iran-Contra affair, though he was never actually indicted. Instead, he entered into a plea bargain, according to which he was convicted of withholding information from Congress, placed on probation for two years (though the judge later shortened that period) and fined $50. In 1992, he was given a presidential pardon by the first president Bush. His 1993 book, Undue Process: How Political Differences Are Turned into Crimes, tells this story in all its shocking lack of glory. In the years that followed, before joining Bush the son's administration, Abrams was a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and later served as president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. It was then that he published Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America. But for Abrams, returning as a fish to water was just a matter of time - and of the Republicans retaking the White House. Which they did in January 2001. Abrams was offered a job just there a couple of months later. During the first term of the "Dubya" presidency, Abrams, was special assistant to the president and senior director of the National Security Council for democracy, human rights and international organizations, then senior director of the NSC for Near East and North African affairs. In the second term, he was appointed deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy, in which capacity he supervised both human rights efforts and US policy in the Middle East. This was as significant to me personally as it was to the region, since it brought Abrams here on a regular basis. Due to the rules of the NSC, however, he was not at liberty to talk to the press, other than when officially giving background briefings. Now that he's liberated from the constraints of officialdom and embarking on a new chapter, he is willing and able to speak his mind. Well, up to a point, that is. "I signed a secrecy agreement that binds for life," he warns. "And I don't gossip." Three weeks into the new US administration, can you say anything about President Barack Obama's appointments - particularly those relating to the Middle East, including your own replacement? It's a bit too soon to form an opinion. For instance, in the State Department, nobody has been named as assistant secretary for Near East affairs. From the moment that person is named, and through the process of confirmation, chances are that there won't actually be somebody in that position until April. In any case, it looks as though this administration is not going to replicate the NSC structure we had, where there was a director for Israeli-Palestinian affairs, a senior director for the Middle East and above them, me, as the deputy national security adviser. Structures come and go. I can't really tell yet how they're going to arrange this. They, for example, are doing something we did not do, which was to appoint a special envoy to the Middle East - George Mitchell. Why wasn't there a Middle East envoy under the Bush administration? When we came in, in 2001, the intifada was going on. It seemed to us pretty clear - and we were right - that there could be no negotiations in the middle of a giant, ongoing terrorist attack. Then came 9/11. And we really did not come back to the question of how to move forward on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict until the spring of 2002. Then, on June 24 of that year, the president gave a remarkable speech in which he declared Yasser Arafat a terrorist and completely broke with him. The essence of that speech was that though the president was in favor of a two-state solution, the borders of the Palestinian state didn't matter nearly as much as the character of the state within those borders - and that there had to be new Palestinian leadership. Once such a statement is made, if there had been a special envoy, what would he be doing? So it was really only when Arafat died that an argument could have been made that it was time to appoint a special envoy. But we took the view that negotiations had to take place between Israelis and Palestinians - that the American role should not be to invent solutions, or to pressure Israel or the Palestinians into a particular compromise, but rather that we should all get behind an Israeli-Palestinian effort. And at that point, there was an Israeli-Palestinian effort. First, there was Ariel Sharon's disengagement from Gaza. Then, once Sharon became incapacitated and Ehud Olmert took his place, there was a prime minister who was trying to negotiate with the Palestinians. So, again, what need could there possibly be for an American envoy? What would he do - encourage the Israelis to do something that their prime minister was himself so anxious to do? 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? It's too soon to say about Obama, but your characterization of what Bush did is accurate. After 9/11, we did see Palestinian terrorism in the context of all terrorism. And I think that one of the reasons Sharon was able to defeat the intifada was the very strong support that he had from president Bush when he took measures like building the fence, on the one hand, and carrying out targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders - such as [Abdel Aziz] Rantisi and [Sheikh Ahmed] Yassin - on the other. Now, there were many people in Washington who wanted the US to say that such assassinations were somehow illicit. But, the fact that we were engaging in similar activity ourselves strengthened the argument that it was not something we should criticize. 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? Disengagement was not an American initiative. The US did not say to the Israeli government: "You need to get out of Gaza." Discussions of this sort had been going on for years, not only during Bush's tenure, but also during the Clinton administration. For example, there was a question of whether Israel would go back to the September 28, 2000 lines in the West Bank, and whether the Palestinian security forces could cope with terrorism there if Israel withdrew. The answer from the IDF was no. The Israelis told us that it would be very dangerous, both physically - in the sense that more terrorism might ensue - and politically, because if the risk were taken and a significant act of terrorism did ensue, it would blow up any negotiations that were then taking place. The same question was asked about whether there could be some kind of withdrawal from Gaza. The Israeli government said no - such a withdrawal would be bargained for at some point in the future. Then came disengagement. Sharon's decision to pull out of Gaza, therefore, was not a surprise to us in the sense that doing so was something that had been talked about for years. But the timing certainly was a surprise. 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've heard different theories from others, of course, such as that disengagement was purely a security decision. That is, it was crazy to put so many IDF resources into protecting such a small number of Israelis, especially when there were so many other things - including the West Bank and the Syrian border - to worry about. I've also heard the "poison pill" theory, according to which Sharon did not believe that, given this opportunity to rule Gaza, the Palestinians would prove to be able to have a democracy that would show all Israelis that if Israel then pulled out of the West Bank, they'd be getting a peaceful, friendly, democratic neighbor. This theory goes that Sharon thought the Palestinians would blow it, and that this was a way of showing the world that a two-state solution had to be delayed until such time as the Palestinians could govern themselves properly. If that was his theory, it seems to have worked. What about the theory that disengagement was Sharon's "keep-out-of-jail" ticket via media support? From the point of view of the US government, all these speculations were largely irrelevant, once he made the decision to do it, and we fully supported that decision. 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? Well, it matters, but its importance can be exaggerated. One example is Bush and [Russian president Vladimir] Putin. Bush went out of his way to have a good relationship with Putin, and it had no positive effect. To be sure, it makes it a lot easier when people at the top have a good relationship. But it doesn't really affect policy, which is determined on the basis of national interest. We're talking about democracies, for the most part - not Russia, but others - which have processes involving different branches of government or parliaments, as well as a whole slew of career diplomats and so on. So, it's never simply a one-on-one relationship. Where the relationship does matter is in how work gets done. It makes it very hard if the people at the top mistrust each other. In the case of Sharon and Olmert, president Bush trusted and had a very good relationship with both. That made it possible to conduct diplomacy not only through the State Department and your Foreign Ministry, but also to do it directly - leader-to-leader, or between senior staff just under the leaders in the Prime Minister's Office and the White House. I was on the phone with [former ambassador to the US] Danny Ayalon and [current Ambassador] Sallai Meridor two, three, sometimes five or six times a day. As for Netanyahu and Obama, I think they'll get along just fine on a personal level, if Bibi indeed becomes prime minister. Both are smooth, both charmers. As for the rest of it, well, that will depend on Obama's appointments, on Bibi's coalition and on many external factors that could come along and shape the way policy is determined in both countries - such as a repeat of 9/11, for example. 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? There is almost always a difference where Israeli-Palestinian issues are concerned. There isn't much new to say on this topic, about which at least 50 books have been written, going back to the 1940s and the foundation of the State of Israel. It is partly because the State Department is less concerned with domestic politics than the White House is, and partly because the cadre of officials who handle Middle East affairs in the State Department are people who are mostly trained in Arabic - and who spend the bulk of their careers in Arab countries - rather than having a knowledge of Hebrew and being posted in Israel. This is not to say that they are anti-Semitic or hostile to Israel, as some people suggest. I think that is actually false. It does mean, however, that they lack an understanding of Israel. In Bush's first term, the White House's relationship with the State Department changed after 9/11. During the election campaign of 2000, it was generally thought that then-governor Bush didn't know much about foreign policy or national security affairs, and that Colin Powell would lead on that front, while the president's main concern would be domestic. Whether that was true or not - or whether it would have been true under normal circumstances - is irrelevant, because 9/11 happened. And he became a wartime president. But I don't think secretary Powell made that shift in his own mind. In any event, the president took over. He then moved all the really important national-security decision-making to the White House. Take Powell's trips to the Middle East and Israel. The view of the press people accompanying him, and of some State Department officials, was that each trip was less significant than the previous one, and that the State Department was becoming visibly less significant in making policy. 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." Why were you skeptical? 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. Furthermore, no agreement would be implemented immediately. It would be a so-called shelf agreement. This was obvious in the road map, which was a step-by-step plan. From the Israeli point of view, this seemed to me to be problematic, because once a deal were to be signed, there would be a lot of international pressure to implement it, even if the Palestinians weren't really ready - even if, for example, they had not defeated terrorism, as the road map requires, and dismantled all terrorist organizations. From the Palestinian point of view, it was also problematic. They would need to make a number of compromises. They would not be getting what the Arab plan calls for, which is a return to the pre-June 1967 situation. And what would they get in exchange? Not a Palestinian state. Only an Israeli promise that some years down the road, when they have fulfilled all the conditions of the road map, would they get a state. Well, what Palestinian leader is going to be able to make all those compromises up front, in exchange for an Israeli promise? It did not seem to me then - and it does not seem to me now - that we're on the verge of a final-status agreement. Did Bush and Rice make a real distinction between Fatah and Hamas? Was their only question about PA President Mahmoud Abbas whether he was strong enough or supported enough internally to do what it takes to implement the road map? Yes. Theirs was the American view that, after the death of Arafat, the Palestinian leadership no longer viewed terrorism as either legitimate or sensible, and that they now genuinely wanted a peace agreement. One difficulty was that while the Palestinian leadership was finally becoming more sensible, extremism and terrorism were on the rise in the Arab world as a whole. So they were now doing this against a background that was even less propitious for moderation than it would have been 20 years earlier. You refer to the rise of "extremism" without mentioning Islam. Is this not a religious conflict? It's partly a religious conflict, but it's not clear to what extent. Take the Hamas election victory. The American line was it was a rejection of Fatah corruption. And certainly it was, in part, that. But how much of it was a rejection of Fatah secularism by a Palestinian people who are more Islamist? Anyone who has been coming to this region for decades - particularly to places like Ramallah and Cairo - will regale you with stories about how much more secular these places were a generation ago. Cairo's a good example. If you think of the Egyptian movies of 20, 30, 40 years ago, they were all trying to ape Europe. That's not true any more. And the number of women who cover themselves in the Arab world and in the West Bank is far higher than it was five, 10, 15 years ago. Theoretically, there is no reason that a Palestinian state cannot be democratic, peaceful and also Islamist. But practically speaking, this is very unlikely, given all the trends in the Muslim world. In the near future, it is likely that you're going to see a more, rather than less, Islamist Palestinian people. This brings us back to the context in which the Israeli-Palestinian dispute - which has always been tied to what is going on in the Arab world as a whole - is being fought. 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. What about Turkey, then? Purportedly a shining example of a moderate, democratic, Islamic state, it appears to be shifting - as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent statements might indicate. There's no question that American relations with Turkey were easier in previous decades, when Turkey was more secular. And the turning point in terms of trouble came when Turkey said no to the US on allowing an invasion of Iraq from the north. There's a question I would pose here. We had this vision of a secular Turkey - protected in the constitution by the military - but was that the real Turkey? In other words: Has Turkey changed enormously under the influence of trends in the Islamic world, or has the real Turkey emerged? I would ask the same question about India, where the religion is Hinduism, not Islam. We had this vision of Gandhi and Nehru and then Mrs. Gandhi - and it was not of Hindu nationalism. When you look at Indian politics in the last, say, 10 years, you have to ask whether India has changed, or whether we simply had a view of it as a much more Westernized country than it actually was. Does that mean that you are rethinking - or that even Bush began to rethink - his doctrine, according to which all countries are heading toward some form of Western democracy? Well, the president never said "Western" democracy. He was very careful about that. He would often tell the story about how he was quite friendly with [former] Japanese prime minister [Junichiro] Koizumi, and it was remarkable, because his own father and Koizumi's had fought against each other in World War II, and here their sons were allies. But the president would always make a point to say, "We are democracies, but very different democracies." I mean, Japan has an emperor, after all. And Bush would use that as a basis for saying that Arab democracy doesn't necessarily have to look like European or North Atlantic democracy. But I do not think he ever did or will change his view of the possibility of democratization, because it is based on his view of the individual. In other words, it is not fundamentally a political judgment; it is fundamentally a religious one: that is that individual rights are God-given, and that no state has the right to take them away. Therefore, individual rights have to be protected in every system. The only way to do that is through democratization, and ultimately all cultures will move toward that. As Bush used to put it: "You don't need to impose democracy; you need to impose dictatorship." What he meant was that human rights are the natural desire. He has often been misunderstood to have said that this all has to take place within the next five years. In fact, he always said this is the work of generations. One question is whether it's the work of two generations or 10. Another is what do you do about the human rights abuses going on now - and what do you do about the people in those countries who are fighting for democracy now? It cannot possibly be the position of the US to say, "Well, they're a bit too ambitious, this is premature; to hell with them; they may just have to spend their lives in jail." That is why I think we have an obligation to keep calling for their liberation, and for the expansion of human and political rights in those countries. While on that subject, the Washington-based Reform Party of Syria has said repeatedly that it would be terrible for the US and/or Israel to make a deal with President Bashar Assad, claiming that this would serve to jeopardize even further the condition of moderate Syrians. Doesn't this put democracies in a bind? Unable to make peace with the those elements within totalitarian societies who would welcome it, we are left to engage in deals with dictators. Isn't this a way of weakening any chance for peace or democracy? Israel is in a very different situation from that of the US. Your margin of security is smaller. And you don't live between Canada and Mexico and two big oceans. So, while we can sort of experiment with Syria - and if we get it wrong, so we get it wrong - you, obviously, can't afford to get it wrong with a place like Syria. It's really hard to envision a government worse than Assad's, for Israel or for the people of Syria. Indeed, if it had played any worse a role than it did with respect to Iraq, the US would have attacked it, I suppose. There is no reason in the world to think that the people of Syria wish to be governed by this tiny - and, in the eyes of many of them, no doubt - heretical minority, which is covered in blood, including Syrian blood. Egypt is a more difficult example, because it does have what, in international-political terms, is considered a moderate government that is working with the US, with the Europeans and with Israel against the worst forces in the region, such as Hamas. And it isn't clear what will follow that government. I took the view that if you believed that a Muslim Brotherhood takeover would be extremely dangerous, then you would have to wonder what alternative will be presented at the end of the Mubarak era. The situation now is such that the government in Egypt has repressed every alternative to the Mubarak regime other than the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, it has actually strengthened that possibility, since what Egypt essentially has, oddly enough, is a two-party system, consisting of the ruling party and the Muslim Brotherhood. Whenever someone has come forward with more moderate or liberal alternatives, he's been jailed. There is state repression of free elections, so that new parties cannot be formed, cannot campaign and cannot receive votes. That is my criticism of the Mubarak regime. For the last 20 years, when it might have been possible to build moderate alternatives, it crushed them. Why, if the regime is threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood, has Mubarak been cooperating with it and Hamas on the Gaza border, by enabling smuggling of arms through the tunnels? That's a good question, because it is not in the interest of the Egyptian regime that the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza or in Egypt be strengthened. It probably is due to some combination of incompetence and corruption on the part of the Egyptian security forces. You know, these are people whose pay is unbelievably low, and there's a lot of profit to be made in smuggling, not just arms, but drugs and cigarettes and other things. Also, there's a very delicate relationship between the government and the Beduin, who handle much of the smuggling. I think the government understood that if it really tried to crush the smuggling, it would have a big problem with the Beduin. Also, had the government cracked down, presumably there would have been more protests from the Muslim Brotherhood over "becoming Israel's police force." Then there's the government's fear of Hamas. If faced with, say, 50,000 Palestinians rushing into Egypt from Gaza, what would the government do? Would it actually shoot and kill them, and have that broadcast on Al Jazeera? What would that do to internal stability in Egypt? So, they took the position, de facto, that there would be very limited policing, and that whatever got through was Israel's problem. The question now is whether - given the war in Gaza that just ended - the Egyptians are going to take a different view. The current context is a bit different from what it was before the war, in the sense that the smuggling is now an internationally recognized issue. Even those in Europe who view Gaza as mainly a humanitarian problem realize it can't be solved unless the arms smuggling is stopped. In addition, there are new commitments from Egypt to crack down on it, and commitments from Europe and the US to do more about the earlier stage of the arms trail. In the course of the next several months, we will see whether there's any progress in actually diminishing arms supplies through those tunnels. Did you believe that Bush was going to bomb Iran before the end of his presidency? It's hard to remember what I believed about that in, say, at some date in 2002 or 2003. But I did not really believe it in the second term. There was one telltale sign: his decision not to bomb the air force in Sudan so that it could not be used to kill more people in Darfur. And it wouldn't have been that hard to do. But he decided against it, fearing that - after having attacked Afghanistan and Iraq - attacking yet another Arab country would have been very poorly received in the Arab world - and much of the rest of the world. But isn't there consensus about the genocide in Darfur? Yes. So, given the consensus about Darfur, and given the military ease with which an operation could be carried out against Sudan, if Bush didn't do it, that was certainly a hint that he wasn't going to turn around and feel it was fine to bomb Iran. In addition, in much of this period, Iraq was a war that everybody thought was lost. And the last thing the US military or the president wanted was increased Iranian activities in Iraq that would have harmed the US war effort there. But then the president did the surge - probably the finest hour of his presidency, after the reaction to 9/11. And it seems to have worked. The war in Iraq is being won, and we will be able to leave - though I would have us leave a lot more slowly than the new administration would. Still, the president very much wanted to hand over a stable situation in Iraq to his successor, so that his successor would not be tempted to cut and run - and attacking Iran, he thought, would destabilize Iraq. Do you agree with critics who say that Bush invaded the wrong country, and that he should have gone after Iran first? No. Every intelligence agency, including those in the US and Israel, agreed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. So, that was something that needed to be attended to. Doesn't Iran's nuclear program need attending to it, as well? Well, yeah, sure. Even if [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad - who himself is dangerous - is not reelected, the program will still be dangerous. But probably too little credit is given to the effort the US led to put financial pressure on Iran, which has very much hurt its economy. And the tragic question is: Where would we be if it weren't for $140 per barrel of oil? The answer lies in what rescued Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Putin in Russia and the Iranian ayatollahs - the massive inpouring of billions of dollars they could use to buy off their problems. When the Bazaaris complained that Western sanctions were killing them, the Iranian government was able to hand them money and buy them off. Because of all the money floating around, the sanctions did not have a sufficient impact. If oil had remained at $40 a barrel throughout the president's two terms, it's reasonable to believe that the kinds of deals that were being talked about - such as the Russian offer that uranium enrichment would be done in Russia - might actually have worked. Now, there is an opportunity for the new administration. In the last year of the Bush administration, the attitudes of [British Prime Minister Gordon] Brown, [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel and [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy were pretty tough on the issue of sanctions against Iran. And I think that the US - with all the goodwill President Obama has - could organize more effective sanctions. For this reason, I regret that Secretary Clinton isn't meeting with the British, German and French foreign ministers to discuss getting that done now. I also wish that, in addition to a Middle East envoy, there would be someone in charge of sanctions against Iran. There is still some possibility that if it is made painful enough for the Iranians, they might succumb to a deal that stops them short of building a nuclear weapon. 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? 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.

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