Interview: Defending Bush's Mideast 'freedom agenda'

In interview with 'The Jerusalem Post', former Bush adviser Elliott Abrams reveals details about US-led peace process in years after 9/11 attacks.

Elliott Abrams (photo credit: Courtesy: Council on Foreign Relations)
Elliott Abrams
(photo credit: Courtesy: Council on Foreign Relations)
In the midst of democratic revolutions in the Middle East, Elliott Abrams, a former adviser to president Bush on the Middle East and on “global democracy strategy,” has declared that Bush was right about the Arab world being ready for democracy. Despite the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Abrams remains faithful to the “freedom agenda.”
I spoke with Abrams about the freedom agenda and other administration policies, specifically toward Israel, and Iran’s nuclear program. Abrams also revealed information particularly relevant to readers of The Jerusalem Post, such as the fact that almost immediately after 9/11, the State Department sought to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in response to the attacks; that Ehud Olmert led the Bush administration to believe that a peace agreement with the Palestinians could be reached; and that the Annapolis Conference came at the expense of more democratic reforms in Egypt, which might have led to a stable transition to democracy.
Below is an edited transcript of the conversation. The write-up on our conversation, which has further information on Abrams’ role in the Bush and Reagan administrations, will be published in The Jerusalem Post Magazine. My own thoughts on the shortcomings of the freedom agenda and how it could be remedied can be found here.
Q: What were your beginnings in politics, and how did you go from being a Democrat to a Republican?
A: I had worked for Democratic senators Jackson and Moynihan and had strong views about foreign policy. It was simply impossible to support Carter for reelection in 1980 and easy for me to support Reagan. The Reagan campaign was happy to have democratic support and the Reagan administration was happy to have Democrats in it, they took the view that, after all, Reagan himself had been a Democrat, so it was not a strike against you. After the campaign, I sought admission at the State Department and got it.
Later on, in probably 1981, I was asked if I was willing to switch party and said absolutely. I had no problem making that decision.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Queens, in New York City, in a middle class Jewish family. My mother was a public school teacher, my father was a lawyer. They were Democrats, kind of middle-of-the-road democrats.
Q: So they were not those kind of Democrats who would say, ‘Someone in our family voted for Roosevelt’ or ‘we voted for Roosevelt ourselves, and therefore we will always vote Democratic’?
A: No. I mean for one thing there were Jewish Republicans that they had voted for like senator Javitz, the New York State attorney general Louis Lefkowitz. They were not “yellow dog” Democrats, I would say. Try translating that into Hebrew.
Q: You had mentioned Natan Sharansky’s book and I remember when it came out and I was reading it, that president Bush was reading it.
A: Yes.
Q: Did he finish it? I remember reading that he had read some of it but not necessarily all of it.
A: I would say first of all, Bush was a fantastically energetic reader. It’s only because the press is so biased to the Left that they assume that Republicans don’t read books.
Q: I do remember reading that he read a lot.
A: I remember several times he was reading a book on Air Force One and having him come by and asking “What did you think, here’s what I thought.”Sharansky’s book, do you remember the year it was published?
Q: 2004, I think.
A: Yeah, that’s my sense, that it was in the first term, too. I think that after 9/11 president Bush tried to make sense for himself in his own mind about what had happened and why it had happened, and it took a while, but you began to see him coming up with his own answer in 2002 when he, in June 2002, when he broke with Arafat... [In] his June 2002 speech he basically said that we would support a Palestinian state, but not one that was corrupt and not one that was supporting terrorism and Arafat had to go. And the state would have to be democratic.
He was beginning to come to the conclusion that the lack of an open society and the lack of democracy and the lack of freedom and respect for human rights in Arab societies was the contributing factor, the key factor, to the poison that produces terrorism and he was rejecting – already in 2002, just months after 9/11 – he was rejecting the explanation that was being offered by some people in the State Department: that “they hate us because we support Israel.”
He began to develop this view, you see it in his 2003 speech to the National Endowment of Democracy on the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the NED, and you see [it] of course in his second inaugural in 2005. In the middle of this comes Sharansky’s book making an argument about the importance of democracy, of freedom, and the universal applicability of it to of course the Soviet Union, but [also to] every society, including Arab societies. So the timing was perfect in a way... it came at a time when the president was reasoning his own way through this and it had an impact.
Q: Did you give him the book?
A: No. It may be that Sharansky gave him the book.
Q: From what you’re describing it kind of seems that he was already coming to the conclusion and he picked up the book and it reaffirmed it in his own mind.
A: It reaffirmed it. It gave more of a systemization to it. I mean, he had already done the 2003 NED speech but this was also quite controversial, with a lot of people saying “this is nuts,” “this is ridiculous,” “this is ideological,” and then here was Sharansky saying “this works, in fact this is much more pragmatic than the policies that say let’s ignore that stuff on behalf of stability.”
Q: But does it necessarily apply to the Arab world as it stands today? Seemingly based on the democracy approach president Bush called for, the elections in Gaza, and I also remember that during the recent Egyptian revolution Sharansky came out and said now’s the time to “put our trust in freedom.” But it seems on both those counts, the democracy approach... and I am not saying in the long term it could never work, but what about in the short term?
A: I’m sure president Bush doesn’t agree with that, but let me not answer for him. I don’t agree with that. First, they just had elections in, of all places, Libya, and it was widely thought that given the immense amount of violence in Libya it would be years and years before you could have any kind of election. Well, they had a free election and observers said it was a good election and what happened? A secularist wins, not the Brotherhood or other Islamists.
In the case of the Palestinian elections, after Arafat’s death there was a presidential election in 2005 which went pretty well. There were several candidates, [Mahmoud] Abbas won about 60 percent of the vote. And in 2006 there were parliamentary elections which 44%-41% of the popular vote Hamas won, and they won for a variety of reasons, one of which certainly was people were fed up with Fatah corruption. I think they are still fed up with Fatah corruption. Now they are also fed up, most polls indicate, with Hamas and I think one of the reasons Hamas doesn’t want to hold elections in Gaza is that they wouldn’t win.
So I think part of the issue here is over time; I would argue the Islamists are going to do badly and this has happened in some Islamic countries in Asia. And they are going to do badly because they don’t have any answers. Islam is not the answer. It doesn’t provide a growing economy and practical education for your children, and it doesn’t provide a free society and progress for the country and people are going to find that out. The Islamists do not have the answers.
In the year and a half, roughly, since Mubarak fell, the Egyptian population has grown by a million and a half. How are you going to feed those people? How are you going to educate those people, those kids, those babies? How are you going to provide jobs for their parents? I don’t think the Brotherhood has an answer to that. I think there is reason to hope that in a second election, a third election, they will lose.
Now of course, there has to be a second and third election. And the problem in the Palestinian context is that, partly, that there hasn’t been. I may be off in the numbers, but I believe President Abbas is in the seventh year of his five-year term. So of course democracy cannot solve the problem if there is no follow-up election.
The Palestinian case is unique because they don’t have a country. In a case like Egypt, I’m not sure the Brotherhood is going to be able to put off elections and crush the democracy there on the grounds that they think they may lose, because after all, they don’t control the army or the police. In fact we’re seeing this [this] very week in Sinai. The Brotherhood blames the Mossad for the terrorist attack, but the army blames the terrorists and then goes out and attacks them. So it’s a different situation.
Q: I want to talk a little bit about working in the Bush administration... starting with 9/11. Do you remember where you were? What policies were you working on? How did things start to change when people realized what had happened?
A: Well, I was working at the National Security Council on 9/11 [at the White House] and in fact as I went from my office – we had a staff meeting every day with Condi [Condoleezza] Rice, who was the national security adviser – and as I was... about to leave the office suite to go over to the situation room, of my deputies pointed to the TV (we always had the TV on). He pointed at the TV and said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.My immediate thought was, a plane had once crashed into the Empire State building, you know, the pilot must be a fool or something. During the staff meeting, Condi was called away – because the second plane had hit. Getting back to the office, I looked at the TV and saw a second plane had hit and it was obvious this was a terrorist attack. And we were then evacuated from the White House grounds.
Q: How did things begin to change?
A: Policy wise. Well, you know, they didn’t change overnight, certainly not in regards to the Middle East. There was a quick reaction from the State Department bureaucracy that this kind of thing happens because we are hated in the Muslim world and in the Arab world in particular, because of our support for Israel.
This has been a State Department line for decades. Indeed, it was the State Department line in 1948. It was a line the president rejected.
None of this happened over night, but by the time of the 2002 speech he had been presented with this view by State and it had been rejected. So Middle East policy... policy doesn’t change over night, but I would say that it changed over the succeeding months for the Bush administration.
Q: So, if Bush rejected this Israel-Arab conflict approach, why did Bush push for the Annapolis Conference and publicly say we can have peace within a year?
A: I wouldn’t say that Bush pushed for it as much as I would say Secretary Rice pushed for it. It was her project and the president certainly went along with it, but all of the energy was hers for Annapolis. She designed it. She was the person who said ‘we need to do this now’ and organized it, and through the State Department invited a large number of countries to attend it. I would say it was certainly her project more. He [Bush] certainly supported it, but it wasn’t a White House project.
Q: Why did even Rice think that this could be accomplished at that point in time? Especially when Hamas had won the elections – I believe they had already taken over Gaza – it seemed that peace could have been as far away as it ever would be.
A: The initial thinking, I would say, starts after the Lebanon war – we’re talking about the summer of 2006. ...The Hamas takeover of Gaza was June, 2007, so the initial thinking about comes before then. I think her view then was ‘things are stuck in the region, things are going poorly in Iraq, things went poorly during the Lebanon war, and things went poorly in the Palestinian legislative election, and we need to shake things up and move things forward.’She thought a large international conference to launch negotiations was the way to do it. I didn’t agree with that view, but that was her view. Why did she think it would be possible to get an agreement in a year? She was hearing it from some people including the prime minister of Israel [Ehud Olmert].
Q: Did Rice’s move to the State Department have something to do with her switch, her pivot toward the peace process?
A: Yes, I’m sure it did, in the sense that when you work in the White House you’re surrounded by first of all the president, but also the president’s team. When you work at the State Department you’re surrounded by career diplomats, mostly career foreign service officers. You’re also surrounded in a sense by other foreign ministers. Those are the people you’re talking to all day.
When you work in the White House you talk to the White House staff all day, so you’re talking to the guy who handles the congressional liaison and the guy who’s handling domestic politics and the guy who’s handling the American economy and so forth. In the State Department, you’re talking to the Egyptian foreign minister and the Saudi foreign minister and the French foreign minister and the British foreign minister. It’s a very different world and I’m sure that had an influence.
Q: I remember that Abbas, when he left Annapolis, he had said, at least in some Palestinian media sources, that his victory at Annapolis was that he didn’t use the term “two states for two peoples.” Did the fact that at the time he didn’t say that – does that mean anything? Does anybody think that this is a problem? That even Abbas, who is supposedly the non-Arafat, the new moderate leader, won’t even make that concession?
A: I don’t know that, I can’t remember, frankly, if we thought if it was a great difficulty at the time. We were saying it, which we thought was more important; that the president of the United States was saying Israel is a Jewish state and that there would now be a Palestinian state.
And you also had another problem here... that in dealing with both Israelis and Palestinians, was this: theoretically they were launching negotiations right after Annapolis, and they were now going to negotiate, and in fact they didn’t negotiate for a year.
One of the problems at Annapolis, of course, and soon thereafter, was that both sides said ‘I don’t want to give away any freebies. I want to hold some cards. If we’re actually going to negotiate and maybe get someplace, then I need cards in the negotiation, why should I give them away at Annapolis?’
Q: And therefore Abbas may have held that card close to his chest?
A: Yeah, he may have. I think the other problem with President Abbas was that he was very, very careful about when he would take an unpopular position in what seemed to be Palestinian public opinion, particularly because he had Hamas out there and it was obvious that Hamas might call any concession he might make treason. So that obviously – at least for me it seemed obvious – had a large impact on him.
Q: Mitt Romney, as part of his campaign, came to Israel and in his speech he mentioned that “it was great to be here in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel.” And just the week before, and there was another incident a few weeks before that, where reporters would ask either the White House spokesperson or the State Department spokesperson what the policy was on Jerusalem, and they kept saying “our position hasn’t changed.” And I remember that president Bush had promised during his campaign that he would move the embassy to Jerusalem. But then he didn’t. So my question is – what is it that’s so hard about recognizing Jerusalem as the capital or as being part of Israel, or even Western Jerusalem being part of Israel, or moving the embassy? Why is this so jarring? Why are people so unable to do it?
A: I think we have two separate issues here. The first is the refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It seems to me that it cannot be defended. The Palestinians don’t even claim all of Jerusalem. They only claim, at most, east Jerusalem. When American officials go to Jerusalem as Secretary Clinton just did, as Romney just did, and meet with the president in Beit Hanassi and go to the Prime Minister’s Office and go to the Knesset and so forth, it’s all in west Jerusalem. I don’t understand why it is impossible to say Jerusalem is obviously the capital of Israel, the exact municipal boundaries will be resolved later.
And indeed I know that many Israelis believe that the municipal boundaries should be changed, that for example Shuafat should not be part of Jerusalem, that it was a mistake to expand the boundaries quite that far. But it seems to me that it should be very easy to say of course Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. It’s absurd to claim otherwise, even if you think the Palestinians have some kind of claim to part of Jerusalem.
That’s issue one. Issue two is why not move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem right now. As you know, president after president, candidate after candidate promises to do that and then fails to do it because the time is not right, and the excuse that’s used time after time is, ‘well, you know, there are negotiations under way – we don’t want to seem to be prejudicing that negotiation.’
There is also a question about where would that embassy be. Suppose for example that you put it in west Jerusalem. Are you saying ‘of course it has to be in west Jerusalem, because the Palestinians have east Jerusalem, that’s their capital’? Are you actually prejudicing the Israeli position if you do that?
Of course, if you put it in east Jerusalem the Palestinians will say ‘wait a minute now, you’re taking a position and saying we have no claim to east Jerusalem,’ and you are once again taking a position on a final status issue, which is going to have to be negotiated.
So I think these two issues are different. The acceptance of the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is one thing, the decision to move the US embassy there now and where exactly to put it I think is a different question.
Q: If they put it in west Jerusalem, I don’t think Israelis would be upset in any way.
A: Well, I’m actually glad that this year Mitt Romney didn’t pledge to move it the day he is elected. Because we’ve heard that so many times from so many well meaning candidates that I think it is actually not worth saying. But obviously I would like to see the embassy moved.
Q: I assume when he said – when he was pressed about that by Wolf Blitzer – that he would move it ‘in consultation with’ the Israelis, I suppose that was his wiggle room on that.
A: I think he was trying not to get into that question prior to the election, and I think that’s probably a smart thing to do.
Q: Let me ask you about Iraq. Knowing what we know now; that there were no weapons of mass destruction or no weapons program, do you regret the decision?
A: No. I regret that the decision was put solely on the WMD basis because I think there were other ways to explain why we had to do what we did. The sanctions regime and the no-fly zone were deteriorating. It was not going to be possible to carry them on in perpetuity, and the human rights situation was atrocious. It was one of the worst regimes on the face of the earth. It was one of the most murderous regimes on the face of the earth. And I think one could have given a broader explanation rather than only the WMD.
Fouad Ajami wrote in The Wall Street Journal this week that you couldn’t have seen these changes in the whole Arab world if it hadn’t been for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. I also regret, obviously, that the post-overthrow period was as bloody and as terrible as it was.
Q: As in, it could have been done better by the US?
A: Yes. It seems to me that is probably right. I was not involved in that at the White House, we had a special team doing Iraq and Afghanistan. But things went so badly it seems to be hard to say that it couldn’t have been done better.
Q: You referenced the fact that there could have been other explanations that could have been given for the war in Iraq. Were there other strategic purposes, either at the time or in retrospect? Were there, now can we see that there were strategic achievements?
A: Yes. You can’t predict in 2003 what the world is going to be like in 2012. I do think, as Ajami and other scholars have said, that the idea that you were going to promote democracy in the region while Saddam Hussein is sitting in the middle of it would have been ludicrous. I think that’s a fact.
I think that, strategically speaking, eliminating the Saddam Hussein regime clearly turned out to help Iran, in that its rival Iraq became weaker. But that’s not a function of getting rid of Saddam Hussein, that’s a function of turmoil in Iraq since then. I have to say that I’m not Iraq expert, I wasn’t involved much in that.
Q: Based on what you were saying before and also in your op-ed, in which you said that president Bush was right about democracy sprouting in the Middle East, do you think the Iraq War could have been the trigger? Can you elaborate on that?
A: I wouldn’t say that it was a trigger; look at the time gap between that war in 2003 and the Arab Spring. I would say that there is a relationship. There was a point at which there were no Arabs voting in a free election anywhere, for anything. And all of a sudden you have these elections in Iraq and it must have made people wonder, “How come the Iraqis get to vote and we don’t?”
And I would say Hussein was also of course supporting terrorist groups and extremist groups all over the place, including Palestinian groups, so eliminating him from the Middle East, I think, is also a precondition for even the idea that democracy is possible.
Now remember that this idea is spreading and not just from Washington. You have the Arab human development report in 2002 published by UNDP, in which they speak about a knowledge gap – a knowledge deficit, a freedom deficit – in the Middle East. So the idea is beginning to appear that this is a central issue in the region.
Q: In Israel some criticism has been made in the past few months against Prime Minister Netanyahu for being overly alarmist or even “messianic,” in one person’s words, in dealing with Iran and discussing it. I would ask you: Is Netanyahu correct in his assessment of the danger? Has he been handing it properly? In my view it seems that there wouldn’t be any sanctions if not for him being a so-called alarmist.
A: I think it is correct that the international sanctions regime has a very close relationship to the prime minister’s speeches and the Israeli position about Iran. I think the Europeans, for example, would not have supported sanctions as much as they have, nor, I think, [would] the Russians [or] the Chinese, had it not been for Israel’s drawing attention to the threat from Iran and drawing attention to the possibility that Israel would feel [it] must act against that threat, I think that’s true.
And I think I’ve seen even critics of the prime minister, and in the US, the acknowledgment that the prime minister’s speeches have in fact helped along the international sanctions regime. That I think is certainly true.
I don’t myself think that what he has been saying suggests he has some messianic view of this. It seems to be that – look, the president of the United States has agreed with him that containment is a bad policy; it will not be possible to contain a nuclear Iran and that we must prevent a nuclear Iran. That is, at least on paper, the view of the P5+1, and it’s certainly the American view. It’s very hard to call the prime minister names for saying that this is something that’s unacceptable for Israel.
Q: When the US Defense Secretary [Leon Panetta] was in Israel, it was pointed out that... he said the US ‘would not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons’ while the prime minister said ‘nuclear weapons capability.’ Would it be justifiable for Israel to strike now, when they are really just trying to make the deadline for when Iran could ‘harden’ its nuclear program against a future attack, even though it wouldn’t be at the point of deploying nuclear weapons?
A: My answer to that is that yes, it would be justifiable. Whether it is a good idea is for the prime minister to decide... certainly not for an American sitting 5,000 miles away. The penalty for that strike, the potential for penalty, is going to be borne by the people of Israel, not by someone sitting here in Washington. So I am careful never to urge that Israel undertake that option. But I am saying that it would be justifiable.
Q: Would the US react negatively? Would there be some kind of punitive action?
A: I don’t think so. I think that most Americans would view that as a completely understandable step for Israel to take. Obviously in an election year it’s particularly hard for a president in any event to take a position against Israel, as the American people are taking a position in favor of Israel. And we should remember always that since 1979, Americans have really hated the Islamic Republic – I don’t say hated Iran or the Iranian people, that’s not true – but I think there has been a widespread understanding of the vicious and terrible nature of the regime in Iran.
Q: What should Obama be doing right now to stop Iran?
A: I think the president has made one very big mistake. It seems to me that judging Iranian conduct, that they are not afraid of an American military strike. They do not think it’s possible. They do not think it’s in the cards. I think that is one of the reasons diplomacy has failed – and it has failed.
We talk and talk and talk, but the Iranian program has moved forward. I think that the way that the administration has addressed this has been weak on a number of occasions. Critically important spokesmen like the secretary of defense have wrung their hands in public about how terrible it would be if the United States had to strike Iran. I think it’s much wiser, particularly for the secretary of defense and members of the joint chiefs, to have been saying in public, “this is not hard, the president has told us to do [it] and we’ll do [it], and the Iranians will regret it.”
So I think we have not made the Iranians afraid of a strike and I think they ought to be afraid of a strike – of an American strike in reality. That fear might have made these talks successful. If the Iranians over the last couple of years had genuinely feared an American military strike, it seems to me to be plausible that, not only a negotiated deal, but a good negotiated deal might have been possible. So I think the administration made a great error there.
Q: You mentioned that “in reality they should be afraid.” If Israel didn’t strike them before this hardening point, is it possible that the US might not strike, or [that] Iran might develop some kind of “breakout capability,” so that when the attention of the US was somewhere else it might deploy nuclear weapons? Is it possible that the US won’t strike?
A: I think it depends on what... policy they undertake. I think neither scenario, [that] the US does or doesn’t strike, can be ruled out.
Q: Ehud Barak has said that if Israel doesn’t strike, it would be subcontracting its security out to America. I guess my question really is: Would it be justifiable for Israel do that? To rely on the president’s, and on other administration officials’, promises that they’ll get the job done?
A: Well, I don’t know. I think Israel is in a very difficult situation. For one thing we’re thinking about what the United States might do in 2013 or 2014. First, we don’t even know who is going to president in 2013-14. We don’t even know where the Iranian program will be – it will probably be more advanced than it is now.
I think we do know that the US will have the military capability to put an end to the Iranian nuclear program, as I understand the military capabilities here. But again, I think that it would be justifiable, I don’t think it would be a bizarre decision for Israel, to decide that this is not an Israeli problem, it’s a global problem and the US should take the lead.
Nor do I think that it would be unjustifiable for Israel to say, we can’t be sure what the US would do and therefore we have to act. The question is what is the better decision, which is the wiser decision for an Israeli prime minister, and again, as I said before, I’m not going to sit here in Washington and say to Israel, “Go get involved in a military action.”
Q: So you wouldn’t be able to tell Ehud Barak or the prime minister, ‘You can rely on the United States getting the job done,” you wouldn’t be able to make that promise? Or would you?
A: First of all there is the question of whether it would be wise for Israel to rely on another country and a promise that is made now, when you don’t know who is going to be president and you don’t know what the international situation is going to be at the relevant time down the road.
I think that, and I don’t think that an American president is going to be able to give that promise: “I guarantee that in March of 2014 I’m going to do this.” It’s just not the way international politics works. I think it’s just a very difficult decision that Israel is going to have to make. I don’t know when that so-called window closes. Israeli leaders, based on the intelligence that’s available there, they’re going to have to use their best judgment.
Q: Ok. Thanks a lot. I appreciate your time.