Mideast expert discusses latest developments

Elliott Abrams


Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, stopped by St. Louis last week to appear at a major gifts event for the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Louis. Before his talk at the Missouri History Museum, the former deputy assistant and national security advisor to President George W. Bush sat down with the Jewish Light to discuss the present situation in the Middle East and some general topics on international affairs. 

Is it too early to make any prognostications about the future of the Arab Spring and what it means for Israel, United States and the world?

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It’s too early. We know what the Arab Spring was against – throwing out these old dictators – but what it ends up bringing is too soon to say. We can see in Egypt right now a struggle over power and a struggle over the role of Islam. I think if you look at Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, so far and Syria presumably next, it’s hard to predict where they’ll be 10 years down the road. What’s encouraging in a way if you look at Egypt is the number of people willing to go out in the street and demonstrate for what they think of as the rule of law and democracy.

When we look at Egypt, one of the things we think about is the treaty with Israel and the fact that it’s not very popular on the Arab street. What’s your take on that?

We in the United States have always believed that that treaty is in the interest of both Israel and Egypt. The conduct of (Egyptian) President (Mohamed) Morsi since June, but particularly in the last couple weeks, suggests he realizes it is useful for Egypt. Egypt doesn’t want a war. Their main problems are demographic and economic. The thing is that (former Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak never defended the treaty and as you say, the street was always against it. Now maybe Morsi will have to defend it because he’s a democratically elected president. That actually would be helpful to have the government of Egypt say to Egyptians ‘You don’t have to love Israel to feel that a peace treaty is a good thing for Egypt.’

Turning to the United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood, you have noted this may have been an overreaction and there might be some unforeseen consequences for the Palestinians. How so?

I think it was a mistake (for the Palestinians to do this) but I don’t think it’s the end of the world. What the Israelis are saying now is that what’s important isn’t the vote, it’s what happens after the vote. Is President (Mahmoud) Abbas (of Palestine) going to use this as a basis for attacking Israel, for example, going to the International Criminal Court tomorrow morning? I think not and he’s certainly been urged by the United States, the British, the French and many other countries to cool it. Don’t embitter your relationship. 

There’s another side to this that the Palestinians need to worry about. There are millions of Palestinian refugees and there is a U.N. agency whose sole duty is taking care of them. Wait a minute. The U.N. says you are a state. Why do you need this agency? They are not a stateless people anymore. They have a state. 

Take another example. What the U.N. recognizes as a Palestinian state includes the West Bank and Gaza. If rockets come from Gaza to Israel, isn’t that an act of war against a state? Maybe Israel could take them to the international court. I think it’s not going to be helpful but it’s kind of a symbolic matter and probably not all that important.

Is there more leverage that Abbas can use against Hamas now? How does this affect the internal politics on the Palestinian side?

One of the reasons he wanted to do this was precisely because he thought it would help him. It’s a victory for him. He’s got the U.N. to say Palestine is a state. This may have played a role in the Hamas decision to shoot so many rockets and mortars into Israel in November. This U.N. vote was obviously coming in late November and it was shifting the attention to Ramallah and they wanted to shift it back . . . I don’t think President Abbas will find it as useful as he might have hoped. It’s big the day of the vote and in the next day’s newspapers and then it’s gone. 

There has been a lot said about the attack on Benghazi and the fallout directed at U.N. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. Do you have a sense of whether Rice really is responsible for any problems or behaved in an unusual way? Does it tell us much about how she’d be as a Secretary of State?

The initial talking points and the initial information were at variance with each other. It was soon clear that it was a terrorist attack and yet the talking points were out there for a week or two saying no, this was a demonstration. Rice had access to the intelligence showing it was not a demonstration, it was a terrorist attack. The question is why did she stick with the talking points? I think what some of these senators are asking is, ‘Well, if you are Secretary of State and you get talking points, are you going to give us bad talking points or are you going to say, “I’m not using these” and say to the White House, “Who drew these up? These are wrong.” I think she’s got a serious problem here. 

Looking back at Hillary Clinton’s time in office, what do you think about how she’s performed as Secretary of State?

Many of the compliments and the criticisms are basically unwarranted. Foreign policy in the United States is usually made by the president. In this case, I think it is entirely made by the president. President Obama is interested in foreign policy. He has views about it and any significant decision you could point to, our relationship with Israel, China, Iran, it’s the president, so if you don’t like any of those policies or you love them, I don’t think it’s Hillary Clinton. Her job is to serve the president and I think she’s done it very well.

You almost make it sound like it doesn’t really affect who is in that Secretary of State’s role. Would we see a significant difference between a Clinton, a Rice and a John Kerry?

It doesn’t matter if it is John Kerry or Susan Rice or anybody else…The fundamental policy…that’s Barack Obama.

Is he unusual or different than other presidents in that respect?

He’s more his own Secretary of State. I think Condi Rice and George Schultz had more influence. I think that in the Clinton administration I’d say it’s more like today. I think President Clinton was pretty much his own Secretary of State… it’s partly because everybody understood there is one decision-maker and he sits in the White House.

When we look at Iran and to a lesser extent Syria there are issues at play that could eventually involve military intervention, particularly with Iran. What sort of a process does the U.S. go through in deciding whether to use force?

Bottom line is that this is the president. Other people have opinions but there is one decision-maker…It’s significant if our Arab friends are telling us to do more or the British or French are telling us that. In the U.S. government, the inputs are CIA, Defense, State (Department). That matters. If the president is told a no-fly zone is easy as pie, he’s more likely to say yes than if he hears from our generals, ‘Man, this is murder, we could lose planes. What are you going to do if a plane is shot down and we have hostages?’ The information and opinions that come from those agencies are significant in a president’s decision. Their job is to advise the president. 

I think they should never speak about it in public. I’ve been unhappy sometimes to see our generals talking about how hard or easy it would be for the U.S. to attack Iran. We’re trying to get a negotiation going here that’ll work. You want the Iranians scared of us. If they are scared, they are more likely to negotiate in good faith and do a deal. Having the message from the defense people being ‘Oh, my God this is terrible’ is wrong, even if they believe it. Say it to the president in private but they should not give that sense in public.