Elliott Abrams and 'Neocon-ing' Obama
For the eight years of the Bush-II administration, a key behind-the-scenes architect of U.S. strategy in the Middle East was Elliott Abrams, a neoconservative whose devotion to Israel is hard to overstate – and who is now engaged in what looks like a PR campaign to bend Barack Obama’s Mideast policies in the direction favored by Israel’s hard-line Likud government.
However, unlike many neocons, Abrams has been surprisingly frank about his devotion to Israel as a Jewish state. He has even expressed resentment toward Christians who hold nuanced views about Israel or who show sympathy for the Palestinians uprooted from their ancestral homes.
In 1997, Abrams published a book entitled, Fear or Faith: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America, which explained his strong commitment to Zionism; chastised Jews who marry Christians; and lashed out at American Christians for what he regarded as their insufficient support for Israel.
“Where Catholics and mainline Protestants still fall short is in their failure to understand the relationship of most Jews to Israel,” Abrams wrote. He singled out a 1990 statement by the United Church of Christ that Abrams asserted “was remarkably ungenerous when it came to Israel.”
Abrams cited a passage in the statement in which the Protestant church expressed sympathy for Jews who had suffered centuries of persecution but also noted disagreement among its members about whether Jews had a special claim on the Holy Land because of the supposed covenant with God described in the Jewish Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament).
“We appreciate the compelling moral argument for the creation of modern Israel as a vehicle for self-determination and as a haven for a victimized people,” the United Church of Christ statement said, before tempering that sentiment with sympathy for Palestinians.
“We also recognize that this event has entailed the dispossession of Palestinians from their homes and the denial of human rights,” the church statement said.
Abrams objected to this placing of Israeli and Palestinian concerns in the same passage, what neoconservatives often decry as “moral equivalence.”
“Indeed,” Abrams wrote, “at some points the statement referred to ‘the State of Israel-Palestine’ and used the term ‘uprising’ to refer to Arab activities most Israelis see as terrorist violence against them. This was at best a dry evenhandedness and conveyed no sense of joy at contemplating Israel restored.”
Abrams also criticized the Lutherans and the Presbyterians. “In fact, one can search very long among mainline Protestants statements to find a sympathetic word about Israel,” he wrote. By contrast, he cited favorably a comment by Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, who declared:
“The existence, significance, and meaning of the State of Israel to the Jewish people cannot be overestimated. In the Jewish theological and religious assessment the State represents a fulfillment of Jewish history, a validation of the ongoing covenant [with God], and the major creative response to the Holocaust. …
“Christians apparently cannot share this vision nor the psychology and history which have created it.”
Another key point of Fear or Faith is Abrams’s concern that the survival of the Jewish community in the United States is threatened by intermarriage with non-Jews. He admonished American Jews who marry outside the faith, a criticism that has angered some American Jews who have non-Jewish spouses.
Abrams’s surprisingly frank statements about how his Jewish religion and his ardent support of Israel color his opinions and his attitudes toward Christians invite questions about his objectivity as a senior U.S. government policymaker dealing with the Middle East and now a prominent analyst at the influential Council on Foreign Relations.
Since the end of George W. Bush’s administration, Abrams and other neocons have been fighting a spirited rear-guard battle against any Obama initiative that seeks major concessions from Israel to promote a peace deal with the Palestinians. Indeed, the neocons appear to be especially eager to divert Obama’s attention onto Iran and away from Israel.
Rather than continued pressure on Israel’s hard-line Likud Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Abrams is urging “a new approach” that would remove the emphasis on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and instead focus on “countering the designs of spoilers of the peace efforts.”
In a fall 2009 article, “Spoilers: The End of the Peace Process,” co-authored with Michael Singh, Abrams identified the “chief” spoiler as Iran.
“By fomenting instability in the Levant, and putting Arab leaders who want a settlement on the defensive with accusations of collaboration, Tehran distracts Israel and weakens the Sunni Arab states that have dominated the region during the last half century,” the Abrams-Singh article stated.
Abrams recommended bringing heavy pressure on Iran “to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, thus heading off a Middle East arms race that would multiply the region’s troubles and Israel’s insecurities.” (Abrams makes no reference to Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal, which is considered one the most sophisticated in the world.)
Abrams’s position meshes smoothly with Netanyahu’s interest in relieving pressure from the Obama administration on Israel while ratcheting up international condemnation of Iran.
“It is frequently asserted that progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will bolster the effort to negotiate Tehran out of its nukes, but this puts the cart before the horse,” Abrams and Singh wrote. “Iran has no real interest in the Palestinian issue and merely manipulates it to advance its own interests.”
Abrams and Singh said the real concern should be over “Iran’s nuclear and hegemonic ambitions.” In essence, it appears that Abrams wants the Obama administration to extend George W. Bush’s hawkish policies toward any Islamic nation or group considered militantly anti-Israel.
“Concerted multilateral action must be taken against terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas,” the Abrams-Singh article said. “Because they masquerade as political parties, the West is increasingly tempted to engage these groups or to treat as separate entities their military and political ‘wings.’ …
“Syria’s role is most important, and the United States, Israel, and their allies must compel the Assad regime to choose between Iran and the international community. Confronting Damascus with this choice will require a level of fortitude from the United States and European countries beyond anything they have mustered in the past.”
Abrams also expressed demographic concerns about Jews maintaining their numerical dominance in Israel – similar to his alarms in Fear or Faith about the Jewish people surviving in the United States.
“Demographic trends in the region pose stark choices for both sides,” the Abrams-Singh article said, noting that the Palestinian population has more than doubled in less than two decades and “is growing half again as fast as the Israeli population. … Many Israelis have concluded from these developments that for Israel to remain a democratic Jewish state, it must separate from the Palestinians and allow them their own state.
“But some Palestinians have reached the opposite conclusion. … Why accept a Palestinian state that would be divided into two parts, the West Bank and Gaza, contain some Jewish settlements, consist of only 6,000 square kilometers, and lack resources? Why not push for a single unified state?”
So, for Abrams, the chief goals of a two-state solution would be to confine the Palestinians to a tiny, disjointed area of the West Bank and Gaza while ensuring that the Jewish state of Israel gets Jerusalem, some choice lands on the West Bank where settlements already are located, and nearly all of its pre-1967 territory, except for some undesirable land that might be traded away for the West Bank settlements.
Abrams worries about a shift in sentiment among the Palestinians toward a multi-ethnic state living under an American-style separation-of-church-and-state principle, and embracing the democratic ideal of one person one vote. That might lead to “the state of Israel-Palestine” that so riled Abrams in his book.
Though Abrams and other neocons deny that their strong sympathy for Israel has influenced their judgments as U.S. officials and opinion leaders regarding the Middle East, there can be little doubt that neocon policies have consistently dovetailed with the hard-line Likudniks who have dominated Israeli politics for the past three decades.
Those shared interests were especially obvious during George W. Bush’s administration when Abrams and other neocons held key positions in the national security bureaucracy, especially inside the Pentagon and in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office.
Though the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War and follow-on sanctions had reduced Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to Third World status, the neocons still viewed the regime as a cornerstone of Arab opposition to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Iraq also sat geographically between Iran and Syria, two Muslim countries that supported Lebanon’s Hezbollah militias, which had fought Israel’s occupation of south Lebanon, and Hamas, which had led the Intifada uprisings against Israel’s military control of Gaza and the West Bank.
Since the Clinton administration, leading neocons – through William Kristol’s Project for a New American Century (PNAC) – had pressed for “regime change” in Iraq, but the 9/11 attacks finally made that possible.
On Sept. 20, 2001, with the remains of New York’s Twin Towers still smoldering, PNAC urged Bush to remove any Middle East regime or movement that was hostile to Israel or the United States, with the invasion of Iraq only the first move in this strategy. The next would be elimination of regimes in Iran and Syria if they continued to support Israel’s enemies in Lebanon and Palestine.
Beyond removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, Bush should “demand that Iran and Syria immediately cease all military, financial and political support for Hezbollah and its operations,” said the letter signed by Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, and 40 other neocons and allies.
The signers then added: “Should Iran and Syria refuse to comply, the administration should consider appropriate measures of retaliation against these known state sponsors of terrorism.”
And, the Bush administration was told to spare no expense in this endeavor.
“A serious and victorious war on terrorism will require a large increase in defense spending,” said the letter. “We urge that there be no hesitation in requesting whatever funds for defense are needed to allow us to win this war.”
However, first, the Bush administration had to at least make a show of going after Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders judged responsible for killing nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11 – and those targets were in Afghanistan living under the protection of the Taliban.
So, in October 2001, Bush ordered an attack against Afghanistan, though committing few regular U.S. troops and relying mostly on air power along with CIA officers and U.S. Special Forces on the ground coordinating with Afghan warlords opposed to the Taliban.
The initial phase of the Afghan War went smoothly. Taliban forces crumbled under the massive U.S. aerial bombardments and abandoned the capital of Kabul. Soon, bin Laden and his top lieutenants were fleeing to their old base camps in the mountains of Tora Bora, near the Pakistani border.
The small team of American pursuers believed they had bin Laden trapped and called for reinforcements to seal off possible escape routes to Pakistan and to mount assaults on al-Qaeda’s mountain strongholds, according to a recent analysis of the Tora Bora battle by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
But Bush and neocon advisers already had turned their attention to Iraq. Instead of staying focused on capturing bin Laden and destroying al-Qaeda, Central Command Gen. Tommy Franks was instructed to begin planning for an invasion of Iraq. The Senate report said:
“On November 21, 2001, President Bush put his arm on Defense Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld as they were leaving a National Security Council meeting at the White House. ‘I need to see you,’ the president said. It was 72 days after the 9/11 attacks and just a week after the fall of Kabul. But Bush already had new plans.”
Citing Bob Woodward’s book, Plan of Attack, the Senate report quoted Bush as asking Rumsfeld, “What kind of war plan do you have for Iraq?”
In an interview with Woodward, Bush recalled instructing Rumsfeld to “get Tommy Franks looking at what it would take to protect America by removing Saddam Hussein if we have to.”
In his memoir, American General, Franks said he got a phone call from Rumsfeld on Nov. 21, after the Defense Secretary had met with the President, and was told about Bush’s interest in an updated Iraq war plan.
At the time, Franks said he was in his office at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida working with one of his aides on arranging air support for the Afghan militia who were under the guidance of the U.S. Special Forces in charge of the assault on bin Laden’s Tora Bora stronghold.
Franks told Rumsfeld that the Iraq war plan was out of date, prompting the Defense Secretary to instruct Franks to “dust it off and get back to me in a week.”
“For critics of the Bush administration’s commitment to Afghanistan,” the Senate report noted, “the shift in focus just as Franks and his senior aides were literally working on plans for the attacks on Tora Bora represents a dramatic turning point that allowed a sustained victory in Afghanistan to slip through our fingers. Almost immediately, intelligence and military planning resources were transferred to begin planning the next war in Iraq.”
Losing Bin Laden
The CIA and Special Forces teams, calling for reinforcements to finish off bin Laden and al-Qaeda, “did not know what was happening back at CentCom, the drain in resources and shift in attention would affect them and the future course of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan,” the Senate report said.
Henry Crumpton, who was in charge of the CIA’s Afghan strategy, made direct appeals to Franks to move more than 1,000 Marines to Tora Bora to block escape routes to Pakistan. But the CentCom commander rebuffed the request, citing logistical and time problems, the report said.
“At the end of November, Crumpton went to the White House to brief President Bush and Vice President [Dick] Cheney and repeated the message that he had delivered to Franks,” the report said. “Crumpton warned the president that the Afghan campaign’s primary goal of capturing bin Laden was in jeopardy because of the military’s reliance on Afghan militias at Tora Bora. …
“Crumpton questioned whether the Pakistani forces would be able to seal off the escape routes and pointed out that the promised Pakistani troops had not arrived yet.”
But the Iraq-obsessed Bush still didn’t act. Finally, in mid-December, the small U.S. Special Forces team convinced the Afghan militia fighters to undertake a sweep of the mountainous terrain, but they found it largely deserted.
The Senate report said bin Laden and his bodyguards apparently departed Tora Bora on Dec. 16, 2001, adding: “With help from Afghans and Pakistanis who had been paid in advance, the group made its way on foot and horseback across the mountain passes and into Pakistan without encountering any resistance.
“The Special Operations Command history (of the Afghan invasion) noted that there were not enough U.S. troops to prevent the escape, acknowledging that the failure to capture or kill … bin Laden made Tora Bora a controversial battle.”
Bush, however, was following the advice of Washington’s influential neocons who considered Afghanistan essentially a sideshow with the main event awaiting in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, in defeating Israel’s enemies.
So, U.S. forces in Afghanistan had to make do with the limited attention of Washington while the Bush administration whipped up public support for attacking Iraq. Even as bin Laden apparently found safety in Pakistan – and al-Qaeda and the Taliban began to regroup along the Afghan border – the neocons focused on selling an invasion of Iraq.
Turning on Iraq
The neocons, especially at the Pentagon and inside Vice President Cheney’s office, fabricated the case against Iraq based on bogus claims about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's alleged ties to al-Qaeda.
Then, with many Americans believing that Saddam Hussein possessed stockpiles of WMD and was sharing them with al-Qaeda, Bush and the neocons found it easy to stampede the Congress into passing a use-of-force resolution. The few people who did speak up against the rush to war were either ignored or ridiculed in venues like the Washington Post.
Bush launched the Iraq invasion on March 19, 2003, and the neocons were thrilled when the U.S. military was able to defeat the Iraqi army in only three weeks. Cable pundit Chris Matthews spoke for many Washington insiders when he declared in awestruck tones, “we’re all neocons now.”
With their confidence unbridled, the neocons chose to make the ancient land of Iraq a test tube for free-market nation-building. The neocons rejected plans for a quick election, favoring instead a U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and a long U.S. military stay. The goal was to ensure that the new Iraq would be a reliable ally of the United States and Israel in the heart of the Arab world.
Through their chosen viceroy, Paul Bremer, the neocons also cashiered the Iraqi army and fired government bureaucrats who had belonged to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Young American neocons arrived to lecture Iraqis on how to form a new government.
But the occupation didn’t go as smoothly as the neocons had expected. Before long, Iraq was torn by a bloody insurgency and was split along bitter sectarian lines.
The ultimate cost of the neocon folly has been more than 4,300 U.S. soldiers dead, along with estimates of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, and $1 trillion or so of taxpayer money squandered.
Because of the Iraq calamity, other elements of the neocon vision of remaking the Middle East were put on hold, though the neocons enthusiastically supported Israel’s military assaults on Hezbollah inside Lebanon in 2006 and on Hamas-ruled Gaza in late 2008. The neocons also haven’t yet given up on the idea of a military strike against Iran.
Yet, looking back at the failures of the Bush administration’s Middle East policies, two troubling characteristics about the neocons stand out – a lack of empathy for people not like them (i.e. the Iraqis, Afghanis, etc.) and a stunning lack of realism.
Like classic armchair warriors, they act as if their theoretical constructs don’t have to be measured against empirical evidence, nor tempered by practicality, nor moderated by concerns about the loss of human life.
Central American Carnage
This also was a characteristic of the neocons who first emerged as important players during the Reagan administration’s brush-fire wars in Central America.
In those conflicts, tens of thousands of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans and others perished at the hands of U.S.-backed military forces – and again Elliott Abrams, as assistant secretary of state for human rights and later for Latin America, was at the center of the carnage.
In the early 1980s, as a reporter for The Associated Press, I had a get-to-know-you meeting with Abrams at his State Department human rights office. At the time, a right-wing military government in El Salvador was slaughtering hundreds of workers, peasants and students a month, often dumping their mutilated bodies in trash heaps or along roads.
When I pressed Abrams about these human rights crimes being committed by a regime that was getting U.S. military assistance, Abrams responded that he considered the human rights conditions worse in Nicaragua although the leftist Sandinista government had engaged in nothing like the political killings underway in El Salvador.
Abrams argued that the Sandinistas’ infringements on freedom of the press in restricting La Prensa, a Managua-based newspaper that was known to be collaborating with U.S. efforts to destabilize Nicaragua, was a far worse human rights crime than what was occurring in El Salvador.
I left Abrams’s office stunned that the Reagan administration’s point man on human rights had such a callous disregard for the butchery in El Salvador.
Abrams’s hawkish zeal eventually led him to engage in outright lying about the secret operations that became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. He ultimately pled guilty to misleading Congress, but had his slate wiped clean when President George H.W. Bush pardoned him on Christmas Eve 1992.
Abrams reemerged eight years later when Bush’s son was putting together a new Republican administration. Abrams became deputy national security adviser with chief responsibility for Middle East policy. He was in the perfect position to turn the neocon dreams for the Middle East into a bloody reality.
Ironically, Abrams and the neocons, who wanted the U.S. government to shift its attention from Afghanistan to the Arab world in 2001 and 2002, now -- with Obama in the White House and Israelis fearing that he might pressure them into making major concessions for a peace deal -- want Obama to refocus America’s attention on Afghanistan and Iran, anywhere but Israel.
Over the past year, Abrams has joined influential neocon columnists in bashing Obama for putting renewed pressure on Israel for a peace deal. By fall 2009, key neocons also were baiting Obama to escalate the war in Afghanistan.
Washington Post neocon columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote an Oct. 9, 2009, column entitled “Young Hamlet’s Agony” accusing Obama of cynical dithering. “Obama agonizes publicly as the world watches,” Krauthammer said.
Krauthammer also made clear that the neocons hadn’t given up on their grandiose vision of a permanent American military dominance astride the globe, whatever the cost.
In an Oct. 19 article for The Weekly Standard, entitled “Decline Is a Choice: The New Liberalism and the End of American Ascendancy,” Krauthammer demanded that the United States resist the temptation to withdraw from its status of global hegemon.
“Heavy are the burdens of the hegemon,” Krauthammer wrote. “After the blood and treasure expended in the post-9/11 wars, America is quite ready to ease its burden with a gentle descent into abdication and decline.
“Decline is a choice. More than a choice, a temptation. How to resist it? First, accept our role as hegemon. And reject those who deny its essential benignity.”
Abrams added his voice to the neocon chorus portraying Obama as dangerously naïve and lacking a moral compass.
In a National Review article on Nov. 10, entitled “Dazed and Confused,” Abrams wrote that he discovered during a trip to Israel in late October that “Israelis of all political hues confessed that they were amazed, perplexed, and confused by the policy” of the Obama administration.
“American policy under Obama has aligned itself in a curious and possibly unintended way with the worst elements of Arab policy,” Abrams wrote. “Like that of the Arabs, it is cold toward Israel: Despite several visits to the region, the president has skipped Israel, and the White House’s aloofness toward Netanyahu is obvious.” [Abrams didn’t mention that Obama made a high-profile visit to Israel during the presidential election campaign last year.]
Calling for the firing of Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell, Abrams also blamed Obama’s policies for the widespread condemnation of Israel’s assault on Gaza a year ago, which was the subject of the recent Goldstone Report, accusing the Israeli military of war crimes for its indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
“As a result, ‘world opinion’ toward Israel has gone from cool to frigid — in Europe especially,” Abrams lamented. “Denunciations of Israel, not to mention efforts to prevent Israeli officials from speaking on campuses and indeed to jail them if they come to Europe. …
“The cause is clear: As the United States, Israel’s closest friend, has backed away from Israel since the Obama inauguration, Europeans have backed even farther. They have seen the American coolness as license, indeed encouragement, to excoriate the Jewish state, and have enthusiastically done so.”
Tea with Dictators
In a Nov. 30 article entitled "People Not Placards," Abrams broadened his assault on Obama calling the President’s efforts to talk with adversaries a foolhardy attempt to “engage, apologize, avoid friction, be humble, reach out to previously scorned tyrannical regimes.”
Abrams complained that Obama’s “multilateral diplomacy means small talk with torturers, tea with dictators, negotiations with regimes that survive through sheer brutal repression – and it means putting such unpleasant facts aside to gather U.N. votes and seek consensus.”
Abrams left out that in the 1980s he himself coddled Central American dictators responsible for mass murder and arranged weapons for Nicaraguan contras who engaged in acts of terrorism. Nor did Abrams mention that he just left an administration that practiced torture against Muslims in the “war on terror,” with his colleagues on the National Security Council virtually choreographing the near drowning of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, beatings and painful stress positions.
Despite Abrams’s contempt for Obama’s supposed “dithering,” some neocons feel their pressure tactics have succeeded in getting Obama to escalate the war in Afghanistan and to give a Bush-style speech – albeit with much better grammar – before the Nobel Peace Prize committee.
During the Peace Prize acceptance speech on Dec. 10, Obama slipped six decades of violent excesses in U.S. foreign policy behind the five-word phrase “whatever mistakes we have made” and followed that by asserting the overarching morality of U.S. military interventions.
In describing U.S. concerns about nuclear arms, Obama accused Iran and North Korea of doing what they could to “game the system,” adding that “those who care for their own security cannot ignore the danger of an arms race in the Middle East or East Asia. Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war.”
However, Obama made no mention of Israel’s undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal – or for that matter, the secret a-bomb programs of U.S. allies, Pakistan and India.
“The shift in rhetoric at Oslo was striking,” observed neocon theorist Robert Kagan in a Washington Post op-ed on Dec. 13. “Gone was the vaguely left-revisionist language that flavored earlier speeches, highlighting the low points of American global leadership -- the coups and ill-considered wars -- and low-balling the highlights, such as the Cold War triumph.”
Abrams has yet to join his former State Department colleague, Kagan, in popping champagne corks in celebration of the neocon-izing of Barack Obama, but Abrams and the neocons clearly have reason to celebrate that they have blunted any serious Obama pressure on Israel to accommodate the Palestinians in a Middle East peace accord.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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