In the wake of the most recent Israel-Hezbollah conflict, Israel is abuzz with criticism of the government and the Israeli Defense Forces for having led the nation to war without achieving any of its objectives. Many Israelis, including IDF officers, are also charging that the Bush administration and U.S. neoconservatives have been encouraging Israel to act as the U.S. government’s stalking horse in its grand strategy to create a “new Middle East” by striking out first against Hezbollah-and then Syria and Iran.
In marked contrast, there is little public debate in the United States about the Bush administration’s role in supporting Israel’s failed and criminal war in Lebanon. As recent press reports reveal, President Bush and his foreign policy team had given Israel a green light to take out Hezbollah at least two months before Hezbollah guerrillas kidnapped two Israeli soldiers.
As was the case in U.S. policy toward Iraq, the neoconservative camp-led by such institutes as the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Center for Security Policy, and the now defunct Project for the New American Century and by such neocon pundits and strategists as Max Boot, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Ledeen, and Elliott Abrams-has long promoted that the United States and Israel implement regime change and preemptive strategies against Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran.
Also like the Iraq War, the neoconservatives inside and outside the Bush administration have seen their own causes embraced, to various degrees, by Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the president himself.
Outside the administration the neocons have vociferously pressed for the U.S. government to proceed “faster, please,” as AEI’s Freedom Scholar Michael Leeden often says, with its Middle East transformation strategy. During the recent hostilities, Ledeen and others, notably Krauthammer, Boot, and William Kristol, have advocated that the United States and Israel take the war to Syria and Iran.
Since he joined the Bush administration in 2002 as the chief Middle East adviser at the White House’s National Security Council, Elliott Abrams has quietly pushed for a transformational Middle East policy with Israel at its center. If one U.S. official were to be blamed-aside from the president, vice president, and secretary of state-for the U.S. government’s disastrous stance with Israel in the recent war, it would be Elliot Abrams. Perhaps more than any other member of Bush’s foreign policy team, Abrams embodies the administration’s zealous, ideological, and dangerously delusional vision of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Abrams, a neoconservative who has dedicated himself to reshaping U.S. foreign policy since the mid-1970s, is the Bush administration’s point man for Middle East transformation. According to Seymour Hersh writing in the August 21 New Yorker, Cheney’s foreign policy staff and Abrams in early summer had signed off on an Israeli plan to wipe out Hezbollah.
During the first administration Abrams was the NSC chief of Middle Eastern and Northern African Affairs. “I have two-thirds of the axis of evil,” he boasted, according to a New Yorker essay (Feb. 10, 2005). Abrams wears two hats in the second Bush administration, serving as the chief of the president’s “Global Democracy Strategy” and also serving as a top deputy to National Security Adviser Hadley. Although closely involved in all Middle East policy, Abrams’ official NSC role is addressing “Israeli-Palestinian” affairs. But Abrams has long insisted on referring to Israel-Palestine tensions as an “Israel-Arab” conflict that is artfully disguised as a self-determination conflict.
As he has in the past, Abrams has either preceded or accompanied Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on her trips to the Middle East-where the main destination is Jerusalem. After more than a week watching Israel unleash its might against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Abrams went to Jerusalem in late July as part of a three-person high-level delegation led by Rice and also including C. David Welch, a career diplomat who is assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.
Although he has spent most of his time in Jerusalem over the past several weeks, Abrams has shuttled back and forth from Washington and has played a central role in holding together the neoconservative-militarist Washington consensus on Israel-Arab/Iran policy.
Bush’s choice of Elliott Abrams as his top Middle East expert and the administration’s point man in the current war speaks volumes about the president’s own views on “global democracy” and Middle East affairs. Bush’s selection of Abrams to play a leading role in two key aspects of the administration’s aggressive foreign policy-U.S.-led democratization and Middle East transformation-also points to the White House’s high comfort level with the foreign policy agenda promoted by the neoconservative camp.
Neoconservative and Neo-Reaganite
Abrams, a proud self-declared “neoconservative and neo-Reaganite,” is the son-in-law of Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, an activist couple who played a leading role in establishing neoconservatism as an influential political tendency in the 1970s. There’s no doubting Abrams’ neoconservative and neo-Reaganite credentials. Like many other second-generation neocons, Abrams got his political start as member of the right-wing Social Democrats USAand as legal counsel to the hawkish and avidly pro-Israel Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson. In the late 1970s Abrams worked with other right-wing Democrats in the Coalition for a Democratic Majority as part of an unsuccessful attempt to turn the post-Vietnam War Democratic Party back toward hard-line anticommunism, and then along with other Cold Warrior Democrats became Reagan supporters and Republicans.
When not in government service, Abrams has been affiliated with key neoconservative institutes and pressure groups, including Ethics and Public Policy Center, Project for the New American Century, Center for Security Policy, Committee for U.S. Interests in the Middle East, Committee for the Free World, and the Nicaraguan Resistance Foundation.
As a Reaganite, Abrams served in President Reagan’s State Department, in the first term as assistant secretary of state for human rights and then as assistant secretary for inter-American affairs. As a State Department diplomat, Abrams helped coordinate illegal government support for the Nicaraguan contras, known by Reaganites as “freedom fighters,” and worked with Lt. Col. Oliver North to triangulate arms sales through Israel to Iran with the proceeds channeled to the Nicaraguan contras-an illegal operation about which he falsely denied knowledge in congressional testimony resulting in his criminal conviction.
During the Reagan administration, Abrams was the government’s nexus between the militarists in the National Security Council and the public-diplomacy operatives in the State Department, White House, and National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Abrams worked closely with Otto Reich, who directed the White House’s Office of Public Diplomacy, which was in charge of disseminating “white propaganda” to the U.S. public, media, and policymakers to build support for the Reagan administration’s interventionist policies in Latin America and elsewhere.
Before joining the Bush administration, Abrams served as the first chairman of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, a government commission established at the initiative of House Majority Leader Newt Gingrich and a coalition of neoconservatives and Christian Right organizations.
Regarding Abrams’s biased stance on Middle East affairs, Dr. Laila al-Marayati, a former member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, wrote: “From the vantage point of the [U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom], as an American and as a Muslim, I had the unfortunate opportunity of witnessing-clearly and unequivocally-the deep bias that Abrams brings to his new position As chairman of the commission at the time, Abrams led the delegation to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but did not go to Jerusalem with three of us as he was of the opinion that there are no problems with religious freedom in Israel that would warrant the attention of the commission Bypassing Israel was not the only way Abrams undermined the Commission’s visit to the Middle East Abrams managed to snub the leading Islamic cleric in Egypt which nearly created a diplomatic nightmare that was only narrowly averted by the intervention of the U.S. ambassador.”
“Peace through Strength” in the Middle East
As part of his neo-Reaganite identity, Abrams in the 1990s argued for a renewal of Reagan’s “peace through strength” foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. In 1992 Abrams helped form the Committee for U.S. Interests in the Middle East, which was actually a committee to ensure that U.S. policy was aligned with the Likud party in Israel.
Other members included Richard Perle, Douglas Feith , Frank Gaffney, and John Lehman, among dozens of other neoconservatives and pro-Israel hawks. The committee spoke out against what it perceived was a dangerous distancing between the Bush administration and Israel, evident in its pressure for Israel to pull out of some occupied territories and halt its campaign to expand settlements in these zones. “Mr. President, we don’t agree that the current policy of antagonism toward Israel is in the U.S. national interest.”
A charter member of the Project for the New American Century, Abrams signed all PNAC statements published before 20001, including two calling for regime change strategy in Iraq, before he joined the Bush administration. In 2000 Abrams participated in the ad hoc Lebanon Study Group, which was jointly sponsored by the Middle East Forum and the U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon. The group called for the United States to rid Syria of its alleged weapons of mass destruction, initiate strict sanctions against Syria, and for Syria to remove its troops from Lebanon.
Also in 2000 Abrams authored a chapter in a PNAC volume titled Present Dangers that was designed as a policy blueprint for the incoming president. “Our military strength and willingness to use it will remain a key factor in our ability to promote peace,” wrote Abrams. “Strengthening Israel, our major ally in the region, should be the central core of U.S. Middle East policy, and we should not permit the establishment of a Palestinian state that does not explicitly uphold U.S. policy in the region,” he asserted. Presaging the Middle East policy of the George W. Bush administration, Abrams wrote: U.S. interests “do not lie in strengthening Palestinians at the expense of Israelis, abandoning our overall policy of supporting the expansion of democracy and human rights, or subordinating all other political and security goals to the ‘success’ of the Arab-Israel ‘peace process’.”
In his writings in Commentary, the neoconservative magazine of the American Jewish Committee, Abrams expressed his support for right-wing Likud positions, including those of prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon. Abrams has consistently rejected any “land for peace” formula for Israel-Palestinian negotiations, calling the Oslo Accords an “illusion” and criticizing the “policy of concessions” of the Israeli government. What is more, Abrams, who has family members living in Israel, has repeatedly called for the United States to publicly back Israel’s sovereignty claims over Jerusalem by moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Peace in the Middle East, according to Abrams, will be the product of Israeli and U.S. military strength. In October 2000, Abrams wrote: “After a decade of self-delusion, American Jews must face up to reality. The Palestinian leadership does not want peace with Israel and there will be no peace.” Criticizing dovish American Jewish organizations for supporting the “peace process,” Abrams advocated a tough response and wrote that “years of U.S. pressure on Israel must end.” Following Ariel Sharon’s election as prime minister, Abrams wrote that Sharon embodied a new approach “of firmness and resistance to violence or the threat of violence.” Abrams likened the return of Sharon to head the Israel government as similar to the return of Winston Churchill to government when Great Britain’s survival was threatened.
There’s no doubt that Abrams is an ardent proponent of Israel and a fierce critic of Hezbollah in the enfolding Middle East crisis. On a trip back to Washington from Israel in late July, Abrams briefed a delegation of Jewish organizations seeking assurance that the administration would unconditionally back Israel. On July 20 Abrams, who serves unofficially as the president’s liaison to Jewish organizations on Middle East issues, told the delegation that Hezbollah is “a monster that needs to be dealt with.”
Abrams’ strong opinions extend to the religious and national identity of U.S. Jews. A radical separatist, Abrams argues that Jews should not date or attend elementary schools with non-Jews. According to Abrams, “Outside the land of Israel, there can be no doubt that Jews, faithful to the covenant between God and Abraham, are to stand apart from the nation in which they live. It is the very nature of being Jewish to be apart-except in Israel-from the rest of the population.”
Abrams takes care to insist that his positions imply no “disloyalty” to the United States, but at the same time insists that Jews must be loyal to Israel because they “are in a permanent covenant with God and with the land of Israel and its people. Their commitment will not weaken if the Israeli government pursues unpopular policies.”
Ideologue Turns Diplomat
Outside Washington, particularly in the Muslim world, it might seem that the U.S. government is unified around its support for Israel’s military campaigns in Gaza and Lebanon. However, traditional fissures between the militarists and the neoconservatives on one side, and the diplomats and the realists on the other belie the apparent unity in support for Israel.
This divide cuts right through the administration’s three-person team that is managing the U.S. response to the crisis. A New York Times report (Aug. 10), titled “Rice’s Hurdles on Middle East Begin at Home,” noted that Rice has been accompanied in the Middle East “by two men with different outlooks on the conflict,” namely the NSC’s Abrams and the State Department’s Welch. According to the NYT, “Mr. Abrams, a neoconservative with strong ties to Mr. Cheney, has pushed the administration to throw its support behind Israel” and during Rice’s travels Abrams has “kept in direct contact with Mr. Cheney’s office.”
One administration official told the NYT that Welch and Abrams serve as “counterfoils” with Abrams “articulating the Israeli stance.”
While President Bush’s supporters on the right are generally pleased with the administration’s strong backing of the Israeli position, many criticize the State Department and Rice. Leading the attack is Richard Perle, who along with former DOD undersecretary for policy Douglas Feith has worked with Abrams since the mid-1970s when both advised Senator Jackson. In a Washington Post op-ed (June 25) that served to coalesce conservative forces against Rice, Perle wrote that, having moved from the National Security Council to the State Department, Rice is “now in the midst of-and increasingly represents-a diplomatic establishment that is driven to accommodate its allies even when (or, it seems, especially when) such allies counsel the appeasement of our adversaries.”
A month later an article titled “Dump Condi” (July 25) in Insight Magazine, a publication of the Washington Timesand written by its editors, approvingly reported: “Conservative national security allies of President Bush are in revolt against Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, saying she is incompetent and has reversed the administration’s national security and foreign policy agenda.” All of Rice’s main critics, who include Newt Gingrich and William Kristol, charge that Iran is taking advantage of Rice’s inexperience and incompetence, as well as the State Department’s purported tradition of “appeasement.”
Abrams’ close association with Ms. Rice-when he worked under her at the National Security Council during Bush’s first term and more recently as one of the secretary of state’s top Middle East advisers-has raised questions among conservatives about his ideological integrity. When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon advocated unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, many neoconservatives, Christian Zionists, and national security radicals were critical, along with such radical Likudniks as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while Abrams voiced support for Sharon’s initiatives.
However, those close to Abrams have never doubted him. When conservatives started wondering if he was capitulating to conservative moderates like Rice and to the State Department “appeasers” during Bush’s first term, then-defense undersecretary Douglas Feith and Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum told those in the pro-Israel community to hold their fire-that Abrams knew what he was doing was in the best interests of Israel.
Working inside government, both during the Reagan and Bush administrations, Abrams has proved adept at advancing his own radical policy agendas through all key departments of the executive branch. With his own neoconservative, pro-Israel credentials well established, Abrams has focused on the pragmatic implementation of policy agendas rather than holding fast to ideological positions. As a senior administration official told the New York Times: “The genius of Elliott Abrams is that he’s Elliott Abrams. How can he be accused of not sufficiently supporting Israel?”
A novice in Middle East affairs, Condoleezza Rice-while national security adviser and currently as secretary of state-has relied on Abrams for his unnuanced view of Middle East affairs. A friend of Rice told the New Yorker: She sees Abrams “not just as a good manager but a good strategist. As an NSC administrator, you want someone who can think several moves ahead, who has a peripheral vision and an instinct to get where you want to go-someone who can really play the high-stakes game.”
Abrams is a neoconservative ideologue who as a government operative has turned ideology into strategy and policy. But are his instincts and vision for the Middle East in keeping with U.S. national interests and Mideast realities? Richard John Neuhaus, a longtime Abrams colleague since the 1970s and fellow neoconservative, told the New Yorker: “What runs through Elliott’s thinking is a deep, almost quasi-religious devotion to democracy. He thinks real democratic change can happen in the Middle East. It’s breathtaking, in a way.”
In his dual role as chief of the White House’s global democracy initiative and as NSC deputy adviser, Abrams is well positioned to ensure that his radical ideas about a U.S.-led democracy crusade and about an Israel-centric Middle East determine the directions of U.S. foreign policy-the former providing a moral cover for the latter.
But Abrams and others in the Bush administration are finding that its “democratic globalist” and “power through strength” ideologies are badly backfiring.
As part of his job spearheading what the president calls the “global democratic revolution,” Abrams helped organize a Washington meeting for Iranian dissidents, coincidently on the same day he ensured representatives of Jewish organizations that the Bush administration would continue its virtually unqualified support of Israel. But most of the invited Iranian dissidents brushed off the invitation saying that U.S. government involvement in Iranian affairs undermined the struggle for democracy. Akbar Ganji, who had been imprisoned by the Iranian government in 2000, declined the White House’s invitation, saying that such meetings undermined the credibility of the Iranian opposition. In a speech in Washington, Ganji said that the war in Iraq had fostered the growth of Islamic fundamentalism and hampered the democracy movement in the Middle East.
The “peace through strength” vision of spreading Pax Americana and ensuring Israel’s security has proved illusory and wrong-headed. Rather than ridding the region of anti-Israel and anti-U.S. regime, the invasion and occupation of Iraq supported by Abrams and other neocon ideologues have created a new breeding ground for non-state Islamic terrorists and a state that shows signs of becoming part of a new anti-Israel bloc in the region. Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed Israeli campaign to hunt down other declared monsters-Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, and Syria-may indeed lead to a new Middle East, but one in which Israel is much less secure and the United States still more hated.
TOM BARRY is policy director of the International Relations Center.