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Abrams: President Obama’s Middle East Speech
| May 20, 2011 | 2:38 pm | Elliot Abrams | No comments

Published for The Council on Foreign Relations’ blog, May 20th, 2011:

I was unfavorably impressed by President Obama’s speech yesterday, and explained why both at the CFR web site and at greater length in National Review.

The President’s remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were off the mark.   As I noted in National Review:

“President Obama also said the “borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” It is worth comparing how President Bush described the agreed, negotiated borders he sought for the Israelis and Palestinians in that 2004 letter: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.” The Obama language is a shift away from Israel and toward the Palestinians.”

My friend Rob Satloff, who leads the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, made a powerful commenton the speech:

“Perhaps more than anything else, the most surprising aspect of the president’s peace process statement was that it moved substantially toward the Palestinian position just days after the Palestinian Authority decided to seek unity and reconciliation with Hamas. Indeed, the president seemed nonplussed that Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, has opted for unity with Hamas, a group the United States views as a terrorist organization. This reconciliation with Hamas “raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel,” the president noted — but evidently not questions so profound and troubling to the United States that they would impede a shift in U.S. policy that advantages the Palestinians.”

Full post here

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Abrams: Ridding Syria of a despot
| March 28, 2011 | 9:41 am | Elliot Abrams | No comments

Published for The Washington Post, March 26th, 2011:

While the monarchies of the Middle East have a fighting chance to reform and survive, the region’s fake republics have been falling like dominoes — and Syria is next.

The ingredients that brought down Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia were replicated in Egypt and Libya: repression, vast corruption and family rule. All are starkly present in Syria, where the succession Egyptians and Tunisians feared, father to son, took place years ago and the police state has claimed thousands of victims. Every Arab “republic” has been a republic of fear, but only Saddam Hussein’s Iraq surpassed the Assads’ Syria in number of victims. The regime may cling to power for a while by shooting protesting citizens, but its ultimate demise is certain.

The Arab monarchies, especially Jordan and Morocco, are more legitimate than the false republics, with their stolen elections, regime-dominated courts and rubber-stamp parliaments. Unlike the “republics,” the monarchies do not have histories of bloody repression and jails filled with political prisoners. The question is whether the kings, emirs and sheiks will end their corruption and shift toward genuine constitutional monarchies in which power is shared between throne and people.

For the “republics,” however, reform is impossible. Force is the only way to stay in power. When Bashar al-Assad inherited power in 2000, there was widespread hope of a Damascus Spring — an end to the bloody repression that characterized the rule of his father, Hafez (which reached its apex in 1982, when he had an estimated 25,000 protesters in Hama killed). Bashar, the thinking went, had lived in London and wanted to modernize Syria. But when he had himself “elected” president with 97.2 percent of the vote, the writing was on the wall. Some still suggested that Bashar’s hoped-for reforms were held back by hard-line forces around him, but over time, his consolidation of personal power , the growing number of Syrian political prisoners and murders in Lebanon made this excuse obscene. The U.N. special tribunal may find the Assad regime, Hezbollah or both guilty of the 2005 murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The car-bomb killings of Lebanese journalists and politicians who criticized the Syrian regime have one address: Assad’s palace.

Full article here

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Abrams: Egypt protests show George W. Bush was right about freedom in the Arab world
| January 30, 2011 | 10:04 am | Elliot Abrams | No comments

Published for the Washington Post, January 30, 2011:

For decades, the Arab states have seemed exceptions to the laws of politics and human nature. While liberty expanded in many parts of the globe, these nations were left behind, their “freedom deficit” signaling the political underdevelopment that accompanied many other economic and social maladies. In November 2003, President George W. Bush laid out this question:

“Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even to have a choice in the matter?”

The massive and violent demonstrations underway in Egypt, the smaller ones in Jordan and Yemen, and the recent revolt in Tunisia that inspired those events, have affirmed that the answer is no and are exploding, once and for all, the myth of Arab exceptionalism. Arab nations, too, yearn to throw off the secret police, to read a newspaper that the Ministry of Information has not censored and to vote in free elections. The Arab world may not be swept with a broad wave of revolts now, but neither will it soon forget this moment.

So a new set of questions becomes critical. What lesson will Arab regimes learn? Will they undertake the steady reforms that may bring peaceful change, or will they conclude that exiled Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali erred only by failing to shoot and club enough demonstrators? And will our own government learn that dictatorships are never truly stable? For beneath the calm surface enforced by myriad security forces, the pressure for change only grows – and it may grow in extreme and violent forms when real debate and political competition are denied.

Full article here

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Abrams: No More Visas for the State Department
| December 30, 2009 | 10:05 am | Elliot Abrams | No comments

As published for the National Review on December 29, 2009:

Move that law-enforcement function to DHS.

The mishandling of the would-be airplane bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab’s visa is only the latest piece of evidence that the granting of visas should be taken away from the State Department. Doing so would improve our national security — and actually help the State Department itself.

The granting of visas has little to do with State’s main function, which is to manage relations with foreign governments. The department’s “mission statement” reads as follows:

Advance freedom for the benefit of the American people and the international community by helping to build and sustain a more democratic, secure, and prosperous world composed of well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, reduce widespread poverty, and act responsibly within the international system.

Needless to say, there’s not a word there about “keeping terrorists out of our country,” and that is no surprise. Granting visas is a function that most people at State relegate to the margins of their activities. State’s mandarins — foreign service officers or “FSOs” — look down at the consular officials who handle visas. This is considered a third-rate assignment, something young FSOs have to suffer through for a few years at the very start of their careers. It is less a training assignment than a form of hazing. They then escape into “real” State Department work — diplomatic activity, conducted in the regional bureaus of the Department and in our embassies abroad. Relieving State of the need to manage the visa process would remove from it a task for which it has no enthusiasm — and for which its top officials have no expertise.

For the granting of visas — especially today, when terrorism is such a complex threat — is far closer to being a law-enforcement function. The obvious place for this task is the Department of Homeland Security, which houses Customs and Immigration enforcement already and which sees protecting the country from terrorism as its central focus. A consular corps could be created at DHS, and would likely attract people who want to see the world — and help protect America from terror. It’s logical that former military and police officials would apply, perhaps retired after 20 years of service but with plenty of energy and experience. And whoever applied would know his or her job was not to smooth relations with foreign governments, not to avoid unpleasant refusals of visa requests, not to attend cocktail parties; instead it would be to help manage a huge system that affects America’s commercial and economic interests, and nowadays our national security as well. Moreover, within DHS, such officials wouldn’t be second-rate citizens; their functions would be understood as part of the core mission of the department. Compare the DHS mission statement to that from State above:

This Department of Homeland Security’s overriding and urgent mission is to lead the unified national effort to secure the country and preserve our freedoms. . . . [T]he Department was created to secure our country against those who seek to disrupt the American way of life. . . .

Read the full article here

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Abrams: Détente and the Bunker
| October 4, 2009 | 12:48 pm | Elliot Abrams | No comments

As published for the Weekly Standard on October 12, 2009:

How to oppose a president’s disastrous foreign policy.

The appearance in Washington last week of Iran’s foreign minister, while the blood is not yet dry from his government’s continuing suppression of student protests, is a reminder of the disastrous foreign policy path the Obama administration has chosen. Not so long ago, proponents of a stronger U.S. foreign policy faced a similar policy of weakness and accommodation. The 1970s saw some pretty dark days of “détente”–when Gerald Ford refused to see Alexander Solzhenitsyn; when the United States allowed Cuban troops to flow into Angola; and when, in the single year of 1979, Jimmy Carter watched a small band of would-be commies take Grenada, the Sandinistas take Nicaragua, and the Soviets go into Afghanistan–not to mention the shah’s fall and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s takeover of Iran.

One begins to wonder how far we will drift into a new period of generalized disaster. In Honduras, we back the Hugo Chávez acolyte and say we won’t respect November’s free elections. In Israel, we latch on to the bizarre theory that settlement growth is the key obstacle to Middle East peace and try to bludgeon a newly elected prime minister into a freeze that is politically impossible–and also useless in actually achieving a peace settlement. In Eastern Europe, we discard a missile defense agreement with Poland and the Czechs and leave them convinced we do not mean to fight off Russian hegemony in the former Soviet sphere.

Manouchehr Mottaki, foreign minister of Iran, visited Washington, as noted, after such visits had been forbidden for a decade. High-ranking American officials have made six visits to Syria, even while the government of Iraq and our commanding general there complain of Syrian support for murderous jihadists. The highest ranking U.S. official to visit Cuba in decades recently toured Castro’s tropical paradise. The president won’t see the Dalai Lama, however, for fear of offending the Chinese.

Read the full article here

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Abrams: What Carter Missed in the Middle East
| September 8, 2009 | 11:02 am | Elliot Abrams | No comments

As published for The Washington Post on September 8, 2009:

In an op-ed on Sunday ["The Elders' View of the Middle East"], former president Jimmy Carter, speaking on behalf of a self-appointed group of “Elders,” described a rapacious Israel facing long-suffering, blameless Palestinians, who are contemplating a “nonviolent civil rights struggle” in which “their examples would be Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.”

As with most of Carter’s recent statements about Israel and the Palestinians, instead of facts we get vignettes from recent Carter travels. And while he finds “a growing sense of concern and despair” among “increasingly desperate” Palestinians, polls do not sustain this view. The most recent survey by the leading Palestinian pollster, Khalil Shikaki (done in August, the same month Carter visited), shows “considerable improvement in public perception of personal and family security and safety in the West Bank and a noticeable decrease in public perception of the existence of corruption in [Palestinian Authority] institutions.” This does not sound like despair. In fact, positive views of personal and family safety and security in the West Bank stood at 25 percent four years ago, 35 percent two years ago and 43 percent a year ago, and they have risen to 58 percent in the past year, Shikaki reports. There are other ways to measure quality of life in the West Bank: The International Monetary Fund recently stated that “macroeconomic conditions in the West Bank have improved” largely because “Israeli restrictions on internal trade and the passage of people have been relaxed significantly.”

The IMF predicts that “continuation of the relaxation of restrictions could result in real GDP growth of 7% for 2009 as a whole,” a rate of growth that would be far in excess of ours — or Israel’s.

Read the full article here

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Abrams: Why Israel Is Nervous
| August 1, 2009 | 5:20 pm | Elliot Abrams | No comments

As published for the Wall Street Journal on August 1, 2009:

Tension is escalating between the U.S and Israel. The problem: The administration views the Israeli-Palestinian issue as the root of all problems, while Israel is focused on Iran’s nuclear threat, says Elliott Abrams

The tension in U.S.-Israel relations was manifest this past week as an extraordinary troupe of Obama administration officials visited Jerusalem. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, National Security Advisor James Jones, special Middle East envoy George Mitchell and new White House adviser Dennis Ross all showed up in Israel’s capital in an effort to…well, to do something. It was not quite clear what.

Since President Obama came to office on Jan. 20 and then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 31, the main motif in relations between the two governments has been friction. While nearly 80% of American Jews voted for Mr. Obama, that friction has been visible enough to propel him to meet with American Jewish leaders recently to reassure them about his policies. But last month, despite those reassurances, both the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League issued statements critical of the president’s handling of Israel. Given the warm relations during the Bush years and candidate Obama’s repeated statements of commitment to the very best relations with Israel, why have we fallen into this rut?

U.S.-Israel relations are often depicted as an extended honeymoon, but that’s a false image. Harry Truman, who was a Bible-believing Christian Zionist, defied the secretary of state he so admired, George C. Marshall, and won a place in Israel’s history by recognizing the new state 11 minutes after it declared its independence in 1948. Relations weren’t particularly warm under Eisenhower—who, after all, demanded that Israel, along with Britain and France, leave Suez in 1956. The real alliance began in 1967, after Israel’s smashing victory in the Six Day War, and it was American arms and Nixon’s warnings to the Soviet Union to stay out that allowed Israel to survive and prevail in the 1973 war. Israelis are no fans of President Carter and, as his more recent writings have revealed, his own view of Israel is very hostile. During the George H.W. Bush and Clinton years, there were moments of close cooperation, but also of great friction—as when Bush suspended loan guarantees to Israel, or when the Clinton administration butted heads with Mr. Netanyahu time after time during peace negotiations. Even during the George W. Bush years, when Israel’s struggle against the terrorist “intifada” and the U.S. “global war on terror” led to unprecedented closeness and cooperation, there was occasional friction over American pressure for what Israelis viewed as endless concessions to the Palestinians to enable the signing of a peace agreement before the president’s term ended. This “special relationship” has been marked by intense and frequent contact and often by extremely close (and often secret) collaboration, but not by the absence of discord.

Read the full article here

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Abrams: An Unworkable Compromise
| July 20, 2009 | 11:46 am | Elliot Abrams | No comments

As published on nationalreview.com on July 20, 2009:

The Palestinians lose on a ‘settlement freeze’ too.

Everyone knows that the Obama administration’s demands for a settlement freeze are a huge problem for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition in Jerusalem. But they are also a great problem for the Abbas/Fayyad government of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

Why? Because the United States is now seeking some form of compromise, while the Palestinians are seeking a true, unalloyed, immediate, total freeze.

Having failed to bully Netanyahu into a total freeze, U.S. negotiator George Mitchell is said to be asking for a moratorium that would allow completion of all projects already underway, perhaps 2,500–3,000 units. Moreover, that moratorium is said to apply to the West Bank but to be silent about construction in Jerusalem, which would be handled separately. (News reports inform us that the new Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, was called to the State Department on July 18 to be browbeaten over new Israeli construction in East Jerusalem. The demand that it cease was promptly rejected by Prime Minister Netanyahu the next day.)

Read the full article here

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