During the 35-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was accompanied on her shuttle diplomacy to the region by Elliott Abrams. Abrams, who serves as President George W. Bush’s adviser for “Global Democracy Strategy,” is a former Reagan administration figure who was convicted (and later pardoned) for his role in the Iran-Contra affair. Now ensconced in the National Security Council (NSC), Abrams’ portfolio also includes advising on policies related to the Middle East.
It was in this capacity that Abrams was put to use during-and before-the recent conflict. According to an unnamed U.S. government consultant “with close ties to Israel” who was interviewed by journalist Seymour Hersh, Israel had put together bombing plans long before Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, which ostensibly set off the conflict. As they developed their plans early this summer, said the consultant, Israeli officials went to Washington “to get a green light for the bombing operation and to find out how much the United States would bear . Israel began with Cheney. It wanted to be sure that it had his support and the support of his office and the Middle East desk of the National Security Council.” In other words, the Israelis wanted the imprimatur of Elliott Abrams.
The choice of Abrams as a top expert on the Middle East and as the administration’s point man in the recent conflict in southern Lebanon speaks volumes about the president’s views on “global democracy” and Mideast affairs. It also points to the White House’s high comfort level with the foreign policy agenda being promoted by the neoconservative camp.
As a deputy to National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Abrams’ main focus has been the Israeli-Palestinian friction-which Abrams insists is an “Israel-Arab” conflict disguised as a self-determination conflict. After a couple of weeks of watching Israel clash against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Abrams traveled to Jerusalem 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. Abrams travels regularly between Jerusalem and Washington and plays a key role in holding together the neoconservative-militarist Washington consensus on policy related to Israel and Iran and Arab states.
Abrams, a 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 USA and as legal counsel to the hawkish and avidly pro-Israel Democratic 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 hardline anti-communism; then, along with other Cold Warrior Democrats, Abrams became a Ronald Reagan supporter and a Republican.
When not in government service, Abrams has been affiliated with key neoconservative institutes and pressure groups, including the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Project for the New American Century (PNAC), 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”). He worked with Lt. Col. Oliver North to triangulate arms sales through Israel to Iran with the proceeds channeled to the Contras-an illegal operation about which he falsely denied knowledge in congressional testimony, resulting in his criminal conviction.
As befitting his neo-Reaganite identity, Abrams argued in the 1990s for a renewal of Reagan’s “peace through strength” foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. In 1992 he 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 of the committee 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 as a dangerous distancing between the George H.W. Bush administration and Israel that was supposedly evident in U.S. pressure for Israel to pull out of some occupied territories and halt its campaign to expand settlements in these zones.
A charter PNAC member, Abrams signed all PNAC statements published before 2001, including two that called for regime change strategy in Iraq, before he joined the George W. 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.” Presaging the Mideast policy of the Bush administration, Abrams wrote that 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 dual roles 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 direction of U.S. foreign policy, the former providing a moral cover for the latter.
But Abrams and others in the Bush administration are now finding that their “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 on July 20. 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 invitation, saying that such meetings undermined the credibility of the Iranian opposition. In a speech in Washington, Ganji said that the Iraq War had fostered the growth of Islamic fundamentalism and had 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 an anti-Israel and anti-U.S. regime, the invasion and occupation of Iraq-supported by Abrams and other neoconservative ideologues-has created a new breeding ground for non-state Islamic terrorists as well 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 the IRC policy director and a Right Web contributing writer. A longer version of this article is available from IRC at: http://www.irc-online.org/content/3462.