'Obama won't focus on Middle East democracy'

Elliott Abrams says US to reach out to Syria, predicts low oil prices will help administration pressure Iran.

obama us army pentagon 248 ap (photo credit: )
obama us army pentagon 248 ap
(photo credit: )
The Obama administration is unlikely to continue the press for democracy and freedom in the Middle East that was a mainstay of the Bush administration's policy in the region, a former senior US administration official said on Sunday. "There is a danger that under the general guise of not wanting to be like the previous administration, there is going to be significantly less emphasis on a freedom agenda and the promotion of democracy," Elliott Abrams, who served as president George W. Bush's deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy, said in a conversation at Jerusalem's Shalem Center. He noted that there was a religious basis behind Bush's fervent support for his "Sharansky-esque democratization policy and freedom agenda." Bush greatly admired cabinet minister Natan Sharansky's book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, and his advocacy of spreading democracy to promote peace in the Middle East. Abrams, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said it would be hard for the new US administration to "turn back the clock" on promoting democracy in the Arab world and beyond. The Bush administration failed in its years-long effort to use economic pressures to force Iran to change its nuclear policies, because of last year's record oil prices, Abrams said. "The policy was to do so much damage to the Iranian economy, which would force the regime to a compromise. It might well have worked if not for the oil bonanza," he said. He added that the recent huge slump in oil prices could help the new US administration as it formulated its policies toward the Islamic republic. At the same time, both the US and Europe made a major mistake in not emphasizing human rights in Iran as they worked to stop the Islamic republic's nuclear program. Attacking Iran and living with a Iran with a nuclear weapons were "two very bad options" that are always there, and the challenge was to create a third, better option, he said, something he conceded the Bush administration failed to do. The Obama administration was likely to reach out to Syria, Abrams said, adding that this was partly because of the Olmert government, which had sought negotiations with the Syrians, and had carried them out via Turkish intermediaries. Finally, Abrams said the US should not have agreed to the participation of Hamas in 2006's Palestinian Authority elections unless the Islamist group first agreed to disarm. Over Israeli opposition, the US administration supported allowing Hamas to take part in the vote, and it won control of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "We thought that we can't wait to have a perfect elections or we'll never get there," Abrams said.