Elliott Abrams, the semi-scion of the founding neoconservative Podhoretz family (or scion-in-law?) has an insightful piece on Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama and first impressions at the Wall Street Journal, ably covered by my colleague Ben Harris at our Telegraph blog.
The insights, as I said, are valuable, but for me at least, a little jarring. Four years ago, when Abrams handled Middle East for the Bush White House, I was on the wrong end of an Abrams impression.
I had written this piece about Ariel Sharon’s less then happy visit to George W. Bush’s Crawford ranch in April 2005. Abrams went ballistic, convened a conference call of the Jewish leadership and made it clear to them that I was, basically, journalist scum. The meeting was a success, he insisted, and my story was a distortion.
Now, I wasn’t in on the call, obviously, but I got a second hand account from some machers the next day, and I heard that a few of them even came to my defense.
His WSJ piece isn’t exactly inconsistent with that view, nor does it count out my piece; this is because his worldview apparently is predicated on first impressions as somehow being all-important. We know that the first impression George Bush and Ariel Sharon had of one another was a good one, formed in a helicopter overflying Israel in 1998, and we know that overall the relationship was strong, as Abrams restates in his WSJ piece.
This doesn’t mean that the Crawford meeting was not problematic. The disagreement between Bush and Sharon was fundamental: Bush believed the "road map" had kicked in and that settlements should freeze; Sharon said there was no road map until the Palestinians contained terrorism, and settlement building was still a go.
Even after fabulous first impressions, in other words, relationships can falter.
(One quibble with Abrams’ piece in the WSJ: Obama and Netanyahu have already formed a first impression of one another, a year or so ago, and apparently it was favorable: Obama incorporated some of the then-opposition leader’s Iran sanctions strategy in his presidential campaign; Netanyahu paid Obama the sincerest form of flattery when he ripped off Obama’s campaign gestalt.)
Anyway, these are the passages that stood out for me in Abrams’ WSJ piece:
Foreign leaders come and go in the White House week in and week out, as fast as you can change the sheets in Blair House. (Blair House is for one-night stands, two if you’re lucky. When the King of Jordan dropped by for a whole week in late April he had to stay at a fancy hotel instead. Mr. Netanyahu will happily take Blair House, a physical token of his return to the prime minister’s office after 10 years in the wilderness.)
Mr. Obama appears to have enormous faith in his own personal charm (and why not? Look where it’s gotten him) but we do not yet know when he pours it on. Just how much do personal relations with foreign leaders matter to him? For George W. Bush, they mattered a lot: His negative view of Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac and his trust in Ariel Sharon changed U.S. foreign policy.
The White House leaks will be more interesting, for the staff may want to keep Mr. Netanyahu nervous; we’ll have to watch what favored journalists are told about the chemistry in the days after the visit. We should not expect to hear the kind of crack that French President Nicolas Sarkozy apparently made to journalists after meeting the president (that Mr. Obama was "not always at his best when it comes to decisions and efficiency"), as that does not appear to be the Obama style. If he makes an exception for Mr. Netanyahu and has the staff trash the prime minister to the media, we’ll know the two men decided to loathe each other.
These passages stood out because this is the passage in my piece four years ago that drove Abrams to take time out of preventing another Middle East war to call the combined Jewish leadership:
It was clear even before Monday’s summit began that there would be tensions, and that the visit might not go as well as expected.
Sharon spent Sunday night at a hotel in Waco, 30 miles away, while a host of other world leaders accorded the privilege of an overnight stay in central Texas have slept in the Crawford ranch’s guest house — among them Mexico’s Vicente Fox, China’s Jiang Zemin, Britain’s Tony Blair, Australia’s John Howard, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Japan’s Junichiro Koizumi. When Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin stayed recently in a nearby hotel, it was seen as a snub by Bush, who is frustrated with Canada’s decision not to participate in a missile defense program.
That was the passage that was at the crux of his call – minus the laundry list of world leaders who had spent the night at Crawford, and the business about Martin. I had updated the story with the names and anecdote after getting frantic calls from Jewish leaders who said that Abrams had insisted that no world leader had stayed overnight at Crawford. The original passage had ended at "guest house."
Abrams told the Jewish leaders that Bush was jealous of his privacy, and that Waco was easier to secure. (Bush’s home was less secure than the Holiday Inn?)
Abrams’ protest was, to say the least, weird. I knew from my days in the AP Washington bureau that Bush staffers had made it clear to White House reporters that an overnight at Crawford was a "get," a sign that bilateral relations were just dandy. It took me literally ten minutes with Google and Nexis to come up with the names of world leaders who had provably overnighted at Crawford.
It took me ten minutes to make Abrams look, well, stupid, which is a shame because – as the WSJ piece shows – he has much to contribute to Middle East policy debate.
My one caveat – my one note to myself – had been to wonder whether the theater of Sharon’s Waco overnight was worth reporting. Abrams’s overall argument, I was told, was the color was a cheap shot; that was a point I thought worth considering.
I wondered whether the substance of the disagreement should have been enough; on the one hand, our readers (and editors) expect and appreciate color, drama, theater; on the other, providing such color can slip easily into cheap psychological speculation. I satisfied myself that I reported what I knew, not what I guessed; and that I had at least led with the substance.
So now, free from the shackles of government-imposed silence (Abrams, by the way, rebuffed my attempt at the time to reach him directly), we know what Abrams thinks: Substance, indeed, is much more important than show, but show matters too:
*A Blair House stay means something (and two nights mean even more);
*White House staffers are not above using theater to make it clear which world leader is in favor and which is not;
*Bush did not like Chirac and Schroeder – and neither man overnighted at Crawford.
I won’t speculate why Abrams, who strikes me as usually eminently rational, misplaced a few marbles four years ago.
That would be unprofessional.