A conversation with Elliott Abrams

Ex-Bush adviser on George W. Bush, Obama's wrongdoing on Iran, and a potential Israeli strike.

Elliott Abrams (photo credit: Courtesy: Council on Foreign Relations)
Elliott Abrams
(photo credit: Courtesy: Council on Foreign Relations)
In October 1981, a classified memorandum emerged from the US State Department detailing the role which human rights and democracy must play in American foreign policy. The memo, which carried the modest subject line “Re invigoration of Human Rights Policy,” argued that a “real” US commitment to the protection and expansion of these ideals abroad was necessary not only to maintain the support of the American public and to garner support abroad in the struggle against communism, but also because those ideals were “central to America’s conception of itself.”
“‘Human rights’ – meaning political and civil liberties – gives us the best opportunity to convey what is ultimately at issue in our contest with the Soviet bloc,” the memorandum stated. “The fundamental difference between us is not in economic or social policy, but in our attitudes toward freedom. Our ability to resist the Soviets around the world depends in part on our ability to draw this distinction and persuade others of it.”
The document admitted that “a human rights policy means trouble” for “certain bilateral relations” and went as far as to argue that the US should, when a case merits it, “speak honestly about our friends’ human rights violations,” “abstain or vote against friendly countries on human rights grounds if their conduct merits it,” and withhold the provision of certain equipment and licenses to friendly nations for antidemocratic practices.
The memorandum, which has since been declassified, encapsulates the mixture of idealism and self-interest employed by the administrations of US president Ronald Reagan in defeating the Soviet Union and president George W. Bush in prosecuting the “War on Terror” following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Indeed, many trace Reagan’s approach to democracy, according to which he even turned against undemocratic US allies, to the memorandum.
Though it was sent by deputy secretary of state Richard Kennedy, the man who actually wrote the memorandum was Elliott Abrams, who served in the administrations of both Reagan and George W. Bush.
Abrams came to the attention of many Israelis for his public defense of Israel when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that the US had made no prior commitments to Israel regarding major settlement blocs. Abrams was part of the negotiations in which those commitments were made.
Abrams grew up in a middle-class Jewish family in Queens, New York, and attended Harvard University – both its college and law school – and the London School of Economics. He then worked on the staffs of distinguished Democratic senators Henry M.
After campaigning for Reagan, he obtained the post of assistant secretary of state and served throughout the Reagan administration.
Afterwards, he served in various public positions, including on the Council of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (of which he is still a member) and wrote several books. In June 2001, Abrams joined the Bush administration, serving in various capacities in the White House, often working directly with the president. (He is currently a fellow at the prestigious think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations).
During the last few years of Bush’s presidency, Abrams served as “deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy,” an aptly named position for someone whose views on democracy and security closely mirrored those Bush came to hold.
Bush did not come into the White House with the so-called “freedom agenda” ready in hand. As a presidential candidate, he had criticized the “nation building” efforts of the Clinton administration in the Balkans, Somalia and Haiti.
During a debate with vice president Al Gore in 2000 on C-Span, for example, Bush said, “I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, we do it this way and so should you,” adding that this would make them seem “arrogant” or like an “ugly American.” Instead he urged a “humble” foreign policy.
But the attacks of 9/11, the first massive strike on US soil by foreign agents since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, changed the president’s outlook.
As a high-ranking official in the administration, Abrams not only witnessed the shift, he was part of it.
In a telephone interview, Abrams recalled that things “didn’t change overnight, certainly not in regards to the Middle East.”
In fact, there was a good chance they would stay the same, especially if the State Department had its way.
“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,” Abrams explained.
“It was a line the president rejected.”
Abrams contends that Bush had conceived of the freedom agenda in the months after the attacks. One of the first appearances of the agenda, he says, came with Bush’s demand that a Palestinian state must be democratic and his calling for the replacement of Yasser Arafat as chairman of the Palestinian Authority.
As Abrams tells it, “after 9/11, president Bush tried to make sense for himself in his own mind about what had happened and why... You began to see him coming up with his own answer when he, in June 2002, broke with Arafat and 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.”
At that point, Abrams says, Bush “was beginning to come to the conclusion that the lack of an open society, 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.”
“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,” Abrams said.
In the inspiring November 2003 speech given in London, at an institution co-founded by Reagan for the promotion of democracy, Bush recalled Reagan’s commitment to democracy and said that the lesson of the fall of communism – that “the advance of freedom leads to peace” – is a lesson which “we must apply... in our own time,” especially in the Middle East.
“As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish,” Bush argued, “it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo.”
“Therefore,” Bush declared, “the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.”
The freedom agenda was also seen as a justification for the war in Iraq, which had been launched a few months earlier and in which the US eliminated a ruthless dictator in the heart of the Middle East and replaced him with a democratic government.
Abrams has insisted, however, that it wasn’t about invading Iraq or even the use of force, but merely “defending self-government.”
What was Abrams’s role in the adoption of the freedom agenda? He is careful not to take credit, perhaps because as a senior policymaker in the executive branch it would just not be appropriate, or because he knows that the president is the person who bears ultimate responsibility.
But the parallels between Bush’s NED speech and that given by Reagan in 1982 – in which Reagan called for “a crusade for freedom,” and which is credited with leading to the creation of the NED – are hard to ignore.
I asked Abrams about the similarities. He only said, with the humility of Moses, that “others are better placed to judge that. I am just grateful to have played a role at those historic moments.”
There was one person aside from Bush to whom Abrams was willing to give some credit: Israel’s own Natan Sharansky, via his book, The Case for Democracy, which appeared in 2004, at the end of Bush’s first term.
Bush read the book and called it “part of my presidential DNA.” Abrams still references it.
By the time the book had been published, Bush had already come to the conclusion that freedom and fighting terror were linked, Abrams says, but Sharansky’s arguments, those of a dissident who witnessed first-hand the impact of US policy on Soviet society, “reaffirmed” Bush’s conclusion and “gave more of a systemization to it.”
In The Case for Democracy, Sharansky argues that when the United States pushes for more democracy and human rights in tyrannical states, this pushes the state closer to democracy, whereas toleration of tyranny and human rights abuses, as exemplified by the detente policy pursued by president Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, strengthens a tyrannical regime.
The pro-democracy approach to which Bush had committed the US following 9/11, was “quite controversial,” as many criticized it “saying this is nuts, this is ridiculous, this is ideological,” Abrams recalled.
“And then here was Sharansky saying this works, and in fact this is much more pragmatic than the policies that say ‘let’s ignore that stuff on behalf of stability.’”
The allure of the rhetoric notwithstanding, one can’t help but recall how Sharansky’s call for the Western world to “put our trust in freedom” in the midst of the Egyptian revolution was followed with the victory of Islamist parties in Egypt’s parliamentary elections (the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour party won a combined 71.5 percent of the parliamentary seats); the victory of the Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsy in the presidential elections; the growing calls in Egypt for amending or canceling the peace treaty with Israel; and the general outpouring of hatred for Israel as exemplified by the near murder of Israeli staff at Israel’s embassy in Cairo by an Egyptian mob in September 2011.
Similarly, Bush’s call for Palestinian democracy in 2002, and later the Palestinian Authority parliamentary elections in 2006, seem hopelessly naïve given Hamas’s victory in the 2006 elections, its subsequent takeover of Gaza, as well as the current PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s unwillingness or inability to enter negotiations with Israel, and the fact that Abbas is currently serving the seventh year of his five-year term, which began in 2005.
But when asked if the time may not have been ripe, or may still not be ripe, for the democracy approach in the Middle East, Abrams brushes these examples to the side as mere setbacks.
He is quick to point to the example of Libya, where “it was widely thought that given the immense amount of violence it would be years and years before you could have any kind of election.”
“Well they had a free election,” Abrams said, “and observers said it was a good election and what happened? A secularist wins, not the Brotherhood or other Islamists.”
With regard to the Palestinian elections, Abrams blames the fact that in 2006 Palestinians were “fed-up with Fatah corruption” and that polls show that they are now also fed up with Hamas corruption. If another election would be held, he suspects Hamas would not do as well.
Abrams notes that while the transition to democracy in Egypt did not follow the more cautious and stable path the Bush administration had urged there, nevertheless, in the recent presidential elections, the secular candidate Ahmed Shafiq, who had been Mubarak’s last prime minister, lost by only 3.7%, demonstrating that a secular candidate has a real shot the next time around.
While concerned with Morsi’s moves against the military last week (removing the defense minister and the chief of staff), Abrams still believes that in time, in Egypt and elsewhere, “the Islamists are going to do badly... because they don’t have any answers.”
“Islam is not the answer,” Abrams argues. “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.”
But did Bush’s push for democracy in the Middle East have any practical effect – especially with regard to the invasion of Iraq, where the US arguably spent more creating democracy abroad than at any other time in its history? Abrams argues that it has.
In a January 2011 op-ed in the Washington Post, and earlier this year in Foreign Policy, Abrams defended Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom” and argued that the protests in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, and even the failed “green” protests in Iran, proved that Bush was right about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East.
In our conversation, Abrams went further, arguing that eliminating Saddam Hussein, a supporter of “terrorist groups and extremist groups all over the place” was “a precondition for even the idea that democracy is possible” in the region.
“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,” he said.
Establishing a democratic government in Iraq also showed others in the region that it was possible, Abrams argued.
“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?’” Why some had the opportunity to vote and others didn’t was the essential point in Bush’s 2003 speech, when he said: “Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty?... I, for one, do not believe it. I believe every person has the ability and the right to be free.”
The legacy of the freedom agenda may hinge on Abrams’s prediction that over time, the “Islamists will do badly” in elections because they simply don’t have the answers. But according to the freedom agenda itself, what the US does will also prove critical.
This may be especially true when it comes to Iran, the most anti-democratic, anti-Western regime in the region, which is also alleged to be seeking the most powerful weapon. Armed with nuclear weapons, many predict that Iran’s subversive activities will increase exponentially, including in new democracies like Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, which currently finds itself in the midst of a revolution.
While the Obama administration has formally endorsed the push for democratic reform in the region, it began with a non-confrontational approach to Iran, first by calling for negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program and recognizing its “right to access” nuclear power and then in not supporting the “Green movement” which protested the election of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the grounds that the results were falsified.
Even of late, Abrams fears that the Obama administration has made a grave error in dealing with Iran by demonstrating a lack of public confidence in the US capability to stop Iran, which may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“The way that the administration has addressed this has been weak,” Abrams said. “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.
“We have not made the Iranians afraid of a strike and I think they ought to be afraid of an American strike in reality,” Abrams said. “This is one of the reasons diplomacy has failed... We talk and talk and talk but the Iranian program has moved forward...
“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.”
Abrams also commented on the possibility of unilateral action by Israel, the country which feels most threatened by a nuclear Iran. Despite the Obama administration’s urging of Israel not to strike Iran, Abrams says an Israeli strike “would be justifiable” and that the American people would see it as a “completely understandable step for Israel to take.”
This would also mean, in Abrams’s view, that Israel would not likely face punitive action from the Obama administration because “in an election year it’s particularly hard for a president... to take a position against Israel as the American people are taking a position in favor of Israel.”
Abrams also credited Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for “helping along” the non-military option for stopping Iran, sanctions, saying that the “the international sanctions regime has a very close relationship to the prime minister’s speeches and the Israeli position about Iran.”
“The Europeans, for example, would not have supported sanctions as much as they have nor I think the Russians, the Chinese,” Abrams said, “had it not been for Israel’s drawing attention to the threat from Iran and drawing attention to the possibility that Israel would feel ‘I must act against that threat.’” Whether unilaterally acting against that threat would be wise for Israel, Abrams wouldn’t say. That decision is for the Israeli government and not “an American sitting 5,000 miles away,” he said.
“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.”
But it would also be justifiable, Abrams says, for “Israel to decide that this is not an Israeli problem, it’s a global problem and the US should take the lead.”
To what extent the US, under Obama or the next president, is willing to take to the lead in stopping Iran and in supporting democracy in the region has yet to be determined. Proponents of the freedom agenda like Abrams can only hope that those ideals of liberty and equality, which are “central to America’s conception of itself,” and upon which Bush drew in adopting the freedom agenda, will continue to motivate the US to act in what Bush called “the great liberating tradition of America.”