Abrams was the ‘resident skeptic’


The Jerusalem Post has a fascinating, and lengthy, interview with top Bush administration national security official Elliott Abrams about  U.S. Middle East policy and Bush administration decision making over the last eight years. Among the insights in the interview, conducted by Abrams’ sister-in-law Ruthie Blum Leibowitz, is Abrams’ dissatisfaction with the way Middle East policy was made through the State Department during Bush’s second term when Condoleezza Rice moved over to Foggy Bottom, as opposed to the White House control of the policy during the first four years of the administration:

The role of the State Department then became much more important, though it depended on the issue. For example, when it came to Iraq, the State Department was far less important, because Iraq policy was really being made by the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense and the joint chiefs. But there were other areas of policy in which the State Department was very directly and deeply involved. Palestinian-Israeli affairs was one of them. The other was North Korea. In both cases, policy was essentially made in the State Department.

In this area, you have a kind of organizational problem. You want the president – any president – to get a variety of opinions and to make choices based on them. And when the secretary of state is by far his closest foreign policy adviser, you sometimes don’t get the full panoply of advice. In the Reagan and Bush administrations, there was the view – it will be interesting to see whether it will be so in the Obama administration, as well – that policy disputes should be ironed out at the level of cabinet principals: the national security adviser, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the chairman of the joint chiefs, the head of the CIA, etc. The idea was that you don’t go to the president with these fights; you go to the president with a solution, with a policy proposal that reflects a consensus.

This has always seemed to me to be a gigantic mistake. When people of that rank and office have policy disagreements, the president should hear them, and be allowed to choose among the options that are being debated. He should not be presented with a homogenized, consensus, compromised position. There’s an old story told about the way the State Department works: There are always three options, one of which is so weak, another of which is so over-the-top strong, that it’s obvious the middle one is the one you’re going to choose. And it’s true! Well, it’s a mistake, and presidents should not permit that kind of thing. And I think that in the case of Middle East policy, it happened all too often.

So I was the resident skeptic. We were hearing, both from secretary Rice and from prime minister Olmert that there was a very good chance of concluding a final-status agreement. I never believed this, neither before Annapolis nor after. So I was always like a little black cloud in all these meetings, saying, "I don’t think this is going to happen."

Why were you skeptical?

Because others said that the solution here, the eventual deal, was pretty well understood on both sides – that there weren’t a million possibilities for where the border between Israel and the Palestinian state would be. The same with regard to Jerusalem. Therefore, they said, it won’t take all that much negotiating to get there. That was the conventional wisdom. But it seemed to me that the opposite view was right: that if everybody knows what a deal has to look like, and year after year and decade after decade, it is not possible to reach it, isn’t it obvious that it’s because neither side wants that deal? Now, the reasons for not wanting it can vary, and they can also change over time, but it does seem to me that if everybody knows what the options are, and the most Israel can offer is less than the least the Palestinians can accept, the solution is not close at hand.

Furthermore, no agreement would be implemented immediately. It would be a so-called shelf agreement. This was obvious in the road map, which was a step-by-step plan. From the Israeli point of view, this seemed to me to be problematic, because once a deal were to be signed, there would be a lot of international pressure to implement it, even if the Palestinians weren’t really ready – even if, for example, they had not defeated terrorism, as the road map requires, and dismantled all terrorist organizations.

From the Palestinian point of view, it was also problematic. They would need to make a number of compromises. They would not be getting what the Arab plan calls for, which is a return to the pre-June 1967 situation. And what would they get in exchange? Not a Palestinian state. Only an Israeli promise that some years down the road, when they have fulfilled all the conditions of the road map, would they get a state. Well, what Palestinian leader is going to be able to make all those compromises up front, in exchange for an Israeli promise? It did not seem to me then – and it does not seem to me now – that we’re on the verge of a final-status agreement.

There’s also this story about the rationale behind former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s push for Gaza disengagement:

Disengagement was not an American initiative. The US did not say to the Israeli government: "You need to get out of Gaza." Discussions of this sort had been going on for years, not only during Bush’s tenure, but also during the Clinton administration. …

Sharon’s decision to pull out of Gaza, therefore, was not a surprise to us in the sense that doing so was something that had been talked about for years. But the timing certainly was a surprise.

So, when Sharon came to visit Bush’s ranch in Crawford, the president asked him about it. Now, obviously, what politicians and statesmen tell each other is not necessarily exactly what they think. But Sharon’s answer, as I recall, was that, after the defeat of the intifada, a vacuum was left in the Israeli-Palestinian front. And it was being filled with many, very energetic diplomatic proposals – mostly emanating from Europe – that were all damaging to Israel, all saying that now was the time for final-status negotiations.

"Let’s have a conference," they were saying. "Let’s reconvene Madrid."

And some Israelis and Palestinians came up with the Geneva Initiative, which Sharon hated. According to Sharon, these bad ideas were growing in importance, and he needed something to fill the vacuum that would be good, rather than bad, for Israel. Disengagement was it.

Abrams also says he never believed Bush would bomb Iran before leaving office, because he wasn’t willing to use military force in Sudan:

It’s hard to remember what I believed about that in, say, at some date in 2002 or 2003. But I did not really believe it in the second term. There was one telltale sign: his decision not to bomb the air force in Sudan so that it could not be used to kill more people in Darfur. And it wouldn’t have been that hard to do. But he decided against it, fearing that – after having attacked Afghanistan and Iraq – attacking yet another Arab country would have been very poorly received in the Arab world – and much of the rest of the world.

But isn’t there consensus about the genocide in Darfur?

Yes. So, given the consensus about Darfur, and given the military ease with which an operation could be carried out against Sudan, if Bush didn’t do it, that was certainly a hint that he wasn’t going to turn around and feel it was fine to bomb Iran. In addition, in much of this period, Iraq was a war that everybody thought was lost. And the last thing the US military or the president wanted was increased Iranian activities in Iraq that would have harmed the US war effort there.

And as for his takes on the pardons Bush didn’t grant to Scooter Libby and Jonathan Pollard:

As for Scooter, I really don’t know. I think it was a serious mistake on the president’s part not to have pardoned him. As for Pollard: There are details of his case that have always made his release problematic, and that’s all I’m going to say about it. But I can assure you with absolute certainty that Olmert – like all of his predecessors – did attempt to secure his release.

And for an "anti-neocon" view of the interview, including praise of the Post, here’s Steve Clemons at TPMCafe:


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