The Middle East remains, years after President Obama’s historic Cairo speech, a region aflame with conflict from Israel to Syria to Iraq to Egypt. The rise of the Islamic State has added another bad actor to the scene. Elliott Abrams, one of the foremost analysts of the region who has been deeply involved in the shaping of U.S. policy for decades, offers in this wide-ranging interview his take on the terror attacks in Israel and Paris, the expanding reach of ISIS, and the future of American leadership.
Octavian Report: Do you see the recent upsurge of violence in Israel as the beginning of a full-blown intifada?
Elliott Abrams: I don’t think it is an intifada, nor is it likely to become one. An intifada requires the support of the Palestinian Authority. In the past, when there were intifadas, Arafat supported them and fed them. That is not what the PA is doing in the West Bank. The PA is happy to see violence in Israel, but it does not want things to get out of control in the West Bank. They are vulnerable to the charge that they are just serving as Israel’s protector and policeman, and that charge undermines support, but nevertheless, the cooperation between the Israeli security forces and the PA security forces has continued throughout and has kept the level of violence in the West Bank reasonably low. I don’t know when this current round of violence will end, because much of it is not coordinated. It’s individuals or two people going on some kind of terrorist attack on their own. What you’re not seeing is really organized efforts involving a dozen people or 50 people.
OR: Do you think that the surge in violence is going to change either the Obama administration’s position or Netanyahu’s?
Abrams: To me, the interesting question here is: why now? Why did this happen now and not a year ago? I think a big contributing factor has been the lies being told about the Temple Mount. It would be normal for Muslims, including Palestinian Muslims, to protest if there were some kind of dastardly, vicious Israeli plan to undermine the mosques, to undermine the Haram al-Sharif, to do all sorts of sacrilegious things. That’s what they’re being told. These lies are being repeated and repeated, including by Abbas himself. I think that’s the largest single contributor, and it’s all a lie. It’s a complete lie. It’s had a really horrendous impact. Some people have proposed the theory that the role of stabbings is in some sense the product of ISIS. One of their trademarks, so to speak, has been killing people with knives, beheading them. Some argue that this direct violence, this taking blood by yourself, indeed this most intimate form of terrorism has been inspired by ISIS. I must say it seems like an interesting theory to me because we’ve not seen this before. In the previous intifadas, you had bombs going off in Israeli cafes and buses. You didn’t have knifings like this. I would not attribute the timing of this to anything that Netanyahu did or that Obama has done.
OR: Where do you see the initiating forces coming from?
Abrams: Well, let’s distinguish two parts of this. One is the Palestinian part. The other is, if you will, the rest of world and particularly Europe. I think for the Palestinian part, the timing of it has to do with lies about the Temple Mount. This brings up a longstanding question, the question of incitement — teaching hatred of Jews has been around for decades. We have never done anything serious in response to it. Every U.S. president and every Secretary of State has said, “Oh, this is terrible. Oh, incitement must stop.” But in fact the Palestinians never pay a price. I’m talking now not about individuals. I’m talking about the Palestinian Authority and the PLO leadership. Individuals in the West Bank don’t have the ability to name a school or a public square after a terrorist and thereby glorify the murder of Israelis. Only officials can do that, and they’ve been doing it for decades, and there has never been a price to pay. The way to respond to that, I think, is to start making them pay a price. In testimony that I gave before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I suggested, for example, closing down the PLO office in Washington. I suggested keeping track of the individuals who make these statements and revoking their visas for the U.S. if they have visas or denying visas if they don’t. Some penalty needs to be imposed.
More generally, attitudes towards Israel and indeed the BDS movement itself do reflect American foreign policy. It’s always been my view that the European relationship with Israel is, in some part, a triangulation. They don’t want to be closer to Israel than we are. They want to be more distant than we are. How distant or close is that? Well, that depends on how close or distant we are. When they see the U.S. criticizing Israel constantly, when they see a terrible relationship between the Prime Minister and the President, when they see the U.S. behaving as it has in the U.N., threatening not to veto resolutions and in general keeping a certain distance from Israel, they will in turn move further away from Israel. It is not a hydraulic relationship: it’s not the closer we get, the farther they get. Not at all. The closer we get, the closer they get. The farther we get, the farther they get. I think that is one of the reasons the BDS movement has grown in influence.
OR: Do you see that dynamic continuing if Hillary Clinton is elected? How much do you think it would change under any of the current Republican hopefuls?
Abrams: It’s easy to predict how it would happen under any of the current Republican crop, perhaps with the exception of Rand Paul. We’d go back to the kind of relationship that we had not only under George W. Bush but under Bill Clinton. It would, I think, be much closer. What Hillary Clinton would do is more difficult to say. As a senator from New York, she was a reliable supporter of Israel. As Secretary of State, she seemed to go along with everything that Obama was doing. Take Syria, for example. We know that in 2012 she advocated a different approach to Syria and wanted to support the Syrian rebel groups. I don’t think there’s any record of her having that kind of argument with the White House over policy toward Israel. She is close to a certain number of people whose attitudes towards Israel are horrible, Sidney Blumenthal being the one that comes to mind first. I think it’s difficult to predict what a Hillary Clinton administration would be like.
OR: Do you think there’s been longer-term damage done to Democratic support for Israel in recent years?
Abrams: The trends on that issue are deep and would be visible even if Obama had never been president. I think that the problem with the Democratic Party is the problem with the Left globally. The Left everywhere has been turning against Israel for decades. The Democratic Party is part of that. I think that it is, to some extent, slowed down or covered over by some of the people in the Democratic Congressional leadership who are very strong supporters of Israel — Steny Hoyer comes to mind. I think that’s changing generationally and I think that the poll data will show that Democratic Party support for Israel is steadily declining. Obama made it worse by making it the official policy of the leader of the Democratic Party to be more and more critical of Israel, but I think that these very unfortunate, deep trends are going to continue even without Obama.
If you’re a 60-year-old Democrat, you were born in the mid-1950s, and you remember the 1967 war, you remember the 1973 war. You remember Arafat turning down peace at Camp David. If you are a 25-year-old Democrat, you really don’t remember any of that, and you have a different image of Israel. Furthermore, if you are that 25-year-old Democrat, we can well imagine what you learned about world politics, Middle East politics, and Israel if you took courses on those subjects at most American universities. Part of it does reflect, I think, the Middle East Studies Association and the usual take on the Middle East that most American academics appear to have.
Why is the Left turning against Israel globally? I think there are other deeper issues here. The question of nationalism is certainly a live one in Europe; I think it’s the case in the U.S. too that nationalism is viewed as somehow primitive. Nationalism and patriotism are viewed as primitive emotions that we need to overcome. Obviously, if you believe that, then you are going to be very critical of Israel, a country in which nationalism and patriotism are very strong. If you believe that the use of military force is primitive and needs to be overcome, then you not only dislike, for example, George W. Bush and American foreign policy; you’re also going to think that Israeli policies are terrible and need to be fought.
Don’t forget, as well, that we are talking about a very different Democratic Party. The Democratic Party used to be built around the labor movement. The labor movement — George Meaney’s labor movement, Lane Kirkland’s labor movement — was very pro-Israel. That was a labor movement, basically, of employees in the private sector. You now have a new labor movement, a government-employee labor movement whose leaders are ideologues on the Left. They are not an anchor of support for Israel in the Democratic Party. On the contrary, they are not supportive in many cases of Israel at all. That’s another, I think, significant change in the Democratic Party over time.
I think it is impossible to talk about these questions without getting to the question of anti-Semitism. That is one of the factors that motivates this criticism. We see it in the Islamic world. I think we see it plenty in Europe as well. Why is it that no one has ever, to my knowledge, proposed the labeling of products from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which from the European legal point of view is, if you will, even worse than the Israeli settlements? We can come up with all sorts of geopolitical explanations, but it’s very hard to believe that an element of it is not hatred of Jews. On the settlement question, there is a massive amount of misinformation, and one of the sources of this misinformation is the U.S. government. It’s very clear that both Obama and Kerry have in their minds that there is a vast expansion of Israeli settlements and that they are gobbling up the West Bank. This, they argue, makes peace less likely with each passing month. Kerry repeated this claim recently. He said in early November that one of the reasons that Palestinians are so unhappy is precisely this vast expansion of settlements. This is false. It’s demonstrably false. These are questions of fact. They’re not judgments. The fact is that Israel is not building new settlements and the fact is that there is virtually no physical expansion of settlements.
They’re not gobbling up the West Bank. I would guess that nearly every single person in Europe believes what Kerry and Obama appear to believe, but it is not true. The Google map, so to speak, of the West Bank is very close to unchanged over the last 15 or 20 years. What is changing is the size of the population: settlements on both sides of the security barrier are growing in population. They are not growing physically, but they are growing in population. This is having a political impact in Israel, obviously, because those people are voters and they have families. To my mind, the disaster of Obama’s policy toward Israel becomes visible on January 21, 2009, his first full day in office. That day, if I remember correctly, was the day he appointed George Mitchell as his special Middle East envoy. Mitchell was the chief author of an eponymous report demanding that there be an absolute freeze of settlement population in every settlement and in East Jerusalem.
The reason that demand is so stupid is that if you were to call for some kind of freeze or partial freeze or time-limited freeze beyond the security fence, you would have something like 80 percent of Israelis agreeing with you. They never go to those places beyond the security barrier. They don’t want to. They think it’s unsafe. They are not interested in getting near Jenin or Nablus. Most Israelis view the people who live out in those small settlements as fanatics or as extremists. People who live in the major blocks, like Ma’ale Adumim, they view as suburbanites. They’re people who probably would rather live closer in, but they can’t afford it. This is why if you say we need to have a total freeze beyond the security fence, in any of the major blocs that everybody knows Israel’s going to keep or in East Jerusalem, then you’ve got something like 80 percent or maybe 90 percent of Israelis against you. Politically, what Obama and Mitchell did was unbelievably stupid. They threw away an opportunity, if they were looking for one, to begin to address the question of the settler population beyond the security fence in areas that most Israelis believe will not in the end be part of Israel.
“I think the new president is going to have to show that he or she is a strong person willing to do things that are controversial.”—Elliott Abrams
OR: What is your view on Putin’s Syria gambit and how the Syria crisis plays out from here?
Abrams: We’re in a terrible situation, and that terrible situation is entirely, I would argue, Obama’s doing. Not that he created the Syrian civil war, obviously. But we had the opportunity in 2012 when the regime was reeling to really strengthen anti-Assad Syrian forces, to bring down the regime and avoid all of this. To avoid 250,000 to 300,000 deaths. To avoid eight million refugees. I think it was largely the failure of the U.S. to act that led to the vacuum into which Putin stepped. I believe that ISIS grew and grew because Sunnis came to the conclusion that they were under attack by the Iranian-influenced, Shiite-led government in Baghdad and by the Iranian-influenced Alawite government in Damascus. If they’re getting slaughtered and no one is protecting them, they turn to other Sunnis. They recruit other Sunnis. ISIS, I think, largely grows in that context. If you assume we are essentially where we’re going to be a year from now, the options available today and a year from today to a new president are very difficult. They’re not nonexistent.
Obama is coming around now, toward the end of 2015, to giving more help to Syrian rebels. As usual with his policy, it may be too little too late. I would like to see us do a good deal more of that in cooperation with the Turks or the Gulf Arabs. I agree with those who have argued for safety zones or no-fly zones in the north or on the Turkish border in the south. It would reduce the number of people who feel they have to become refugees. I think it’s really quite remarkable that we have sat still for three years while Assad has committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, and conducted chemical warfare against his own population, which he continues to do with these chlorine-laced bombs, the barrel bombs that are dropped over houses and hospitals in Sunni towns. It’s really amazing that we could destroy the Syrian air force in one day and we don’t do it. I would do it. I would deliver an ultimatum to the government of Syria that there would be no more barrel bombs, and if there are more barrel bombs, then we will destroy your air force. I would do the no-fly zone. I understand that it is very difficult. Partly because there needs to be an on-the-ground defense.
On a no-fly zone, which Hillary Clinton has now supported, the counterargument that people pose is the Russians. I don’t see that as a conclusive counterargument. If we declare a no-fly zone because we do not wish Syrian war planes to drop bombs on the population living in that area, it doesn’t mean, for example, that there can’t be Russian flights in that area. It means that there cannot be any military attacks in that area. If there are military attacks, then I think we need to shoot down the planes. My reading of Putin’s actions in Georgia and Ukraine and Syria is that he is a cautious leader. I don’t think he took in any of those cases significant risks. The limits to what he’s going to be do, I think, are going to be set by his assessment of what the U. S. is going to do.
If we never do anything, that’s really very dangerous. We may, for example, persuade Putin by doing nothing in Syria that we would do nothing in Estonia. If he were to make a move in Estonia, he would be challenging NATO and the entire structure of the European-American relationship and stability in Europe since the 1940s. It is really very dangerous, it seems to me, to be doing what Obama is doing, which is very little. I think we do need in Syria to make it clear to the Russians that there are limits that we will impose and enforce. I don’t think there is anything positive about the Russians going into Syria. Yes, some portion of the bombing they’re doing has been directed at the Islamic State. Though most of it still is directed at anti-government forces that are not part of the Islamic State. If we need more bombing of ISIS, we have the capability to do that ourselves, particularly in conjunction with allies European and Arab. We don’t need Putin for that.
OR: How do you think we should deal with ISIS? And what is the calculus on opposing ISIS and Assad at the same time?
Abrams: First, I believe that there would be no ISIS as we know it today without Assad. I believe that the Assad regime is largely responsible for the creation of ISIS, though so is the government in Baghdad — but the mass killing is taking place in Syria, not Iraq. I believe that Assad is the best recruiter that ISIS has, because he is continuing to slaughter Sunnis and that is what allows ISIS to go to every Sunni community around the world and recruit. But I don’t think that getting rid of the Assad regime actually undermines ISIS if there is no real successor to the regime. What would replace it? I don’t know that we’re paying any attention to that. We hear people talking in the negotiations in Europe about an 18-month transition period. I don’t know why we weren’t, three years ago, beginning to think about things like recognizing and building up a government in exile of Syrians who could step in.
One proposal I have been hearing has been to establish a government in exile that would operate just across the border, say from Turkey. Then we could recognize it and help build it up. It’s harder to execute on plans like that now, and it requires, I think, that we degrade ISIS some more. I hope that we do not agree to a deal in which there is, let’s say, an 18-month transition period where Assad is president. I don’t think we should agree to any deal in which we, the United States of America, legitimize this butcher.
The recent attacks in Paris show that ISIS has become strong enough now to reach out not only to Egypt but to Europe, and it’s impossible to believe they won’t try to attack us as well. Our response should be to hit ISIS much harder than we are now — from the air, by giving more help to the Syrian rebels and Kurds fighting it, and by putting more Americans on the ground. Our response should not be the one Obama and Kerry appear to have adopted, which is to view the Russians and Iranians as allies against ISIS and to give up on ousting Assad for two or more years. As noted, it is the brutal Assad campaign against Sunnis and the Iranian-backed sectarian regime in Baghdad that largely created ISIS, and Assad’s presence in power and his slaughter of Sunnis will fuel ISIS further. If we agree to a Syria deal that keeps him in power, we are legitimizing his rule without even stopping the barrel bombs and other war crimes. That would be a terrible policy morally and it would be a gift to ISIS.
OR: Could you lay out your view of the Iran deal?
Abrams: I think we need to think of the Iran deal in two ways. First the details, the words in the music. On the details I was not happy with the deal. It seems to me that the Obama administration was desperate for a deal. If you talk to some of the European diplomats who were involved in this, they will tell you that was their perception, that it would have been possible to get a much tougher deal. We held all the cards. The Iranian economy was really reeling. The Iranians perceived the desperation of the Obama administration to achieve this deal and they got more then they should have gotten. The main problems in the deal, I think, are the inspections regime, which I do not trust, and the time-limited nature of the agreement, which will when it runs out leave Iran in a position to become a nuclear-armed state very quickly.
The music is even worse than the lyrics, in the sense that the meaning of this deal, to every Iranian official and to the Arabs and to the Israelis, is that the U.S. has conceded that Iran will become a dominant power in the region. The U.S. has agreed to the rise of Iran, over a 10- or 15-year period; it has agreed to Iran’s becoming a greater conventional-weapons power. That will happen because the arms embargo comes off, because Iran is getting so much money out of this deal. It will happen because at the end of the agreement, I’m confident that they’ll become a nuclear-armed state. From the point of view of people who fear Iran — the Arabs and the Israelis — what we have agreed to is very dangerous.
OR: What is your view in general of President Obama’s foreign policy, specifically vis-à-vis Russia and China?
Abrams: There is an argument that Obama has no policy, it’s all ad hoc, you never know what’s next. I don’t believe that. I think that the president is an ideologue, I think he does have a view of the world and America’s place in it — that we’ve been hyperactive, that we’ve been over-militarized, that the world needs less of the U.S. rather than more, less American leadership rather than more. The impact of this is easily understood if you ask any of the traditional American allies who are facing what they view as danger. You talk to the Baltic states or the Poles and the Czechs. You talk to the Japanese, the Australians, the South Koreans, the Vietnamese, the Cambodians. You talk to the Saudis, the Bahrainis, the Israelis, the Jordanians. They’ll have the same view, which is that dangers are increasing and the U.S. is receding. I think that the U.S. will need under the next president to reassert its presence and its leadership.
For example, I would have given lethal weapons to Ukraine when it asked for them. Russian aggression in Ukraine is crystal-clear and ongoing. There are news reports about more Russian aggression. People say, “Wow, you know Ukraine isn’t going to defeat the Russian army.” No. The question is: what is the price that Putin pays for this aggression? We have it in our power to raise that price. The Ukrainians ask us to help them. We should be saying “Yes.” I would say the same thing about the islands in the South China Sea. What have we done in the end? For months and months, the Pentagon has been asking for the permission of the White House to do something. For months and months, the White House said, “No.” Finally, what does the White House agree to? One ship, one time. Maybe we’ll see one ship a second time, but it’s not a carrier task force. It’s not a group of ships. We appear to have chosen the single island where the Chinese have the weakest claim, which suggests that where they have a stronger claim, we may be willing to acknowledge their claim. All this is disastrous, though I understand that the reaction to and the criticism of what I’m saying is going to be: “You’re going to get us in a war.”
On the contrary, weakness and miscalculation are what might get us into a war. It is the conclusion on the part of Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin that they can take steps that actually become intolerable for the U.S. That presents the danger of an actual conflict. I think that the next president is going to have to be more assertive. Look, we’re talking about — at the earliest — the spring of 2017. It takes time for a new president to get a staff in place, get the government filled. It’s not tomorrow morning and it’s hard to predict exactly where we will be then. I think that weakness and the prospect of miscalculation are the real danger here.
OR: Do you still think that George W. Bush’s foreign-policy vision was correct? Should we reconsider?
Abrams: The one-word answer is no. We should not reconsider. I think Bush was exactly right. We had had what Sam Huntington called the third wave. That is, democracy had extended to places beginning in Latin America and Asia. People had long argued, “Oh, you don’t understand Confucian culture; you don’t understand Catholic culture — there will never be democracies in those regions.” All that proves to be wrong, and then you have the collapse of the Soviet Union and the expansion of democracy in central and eastern Europe. The question, really, was Arab exceptionalism. Is it possible that democracy is going to grow everywhere but in the Arab world? You see the expansion of democracy in Africa as well. But never, ever in the Arab world. This question was being asked. George Bush didn’t ask this question. I always point people to the 2002 Arab Human Development report from UNDP, written by Arab intellectuals, which used the term “freedom deficit.” The question was in the air.
To self-described realists, I would say: let’s not build the argument about democracy. Let us talk about legitimacy. We’ll start with Ben Ali in Tunisia and Gadhafi and Mubarak and Assad. These governments had no legitimacy in the eyes of their people. Legitimacy can be achieved from democracy. It can be achieved at least partly — and we see this in the case of China — through economic performance that’s superlative. It can be achieved by monarchy, and I think that it is noteworthy that there has been no Arab Spring revolt in any Arab monarchy, with the partial exception of Bahrain for obvious Sunni-Shi’a reasons. Ben Ali, Gadhafi, Mubarak, and Assad ruled and rule by brute force. They were not democratic. They produced nothing. They built nothing. Why is it shocking to us that this resulted in rebellion? Who wants to live like that? I would say to you that one of the people who understood this was Hosni Mubarak. You can read people like Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton saying that Egypt was a stable place. That is not the way Mubarak ruled. He ruled with enormous attention to the smallest uprising, the smallest bread riot in some town we’ve never heard of. Because he viewed Egypt, in my opinion, as a tinderbox. He understood that he was sitting on an illegitimate government. Do we really think that illegitimate governments are going to be stable forever? And do we really think that it is helpful and useful for the U.S. to help illegitimate, brutal, and repressive regimes stay in power? What is the price we pay, in those cases, in public opinion?
I don’t think that what we were doing in the Bush administration was foolish at all. If you take Egypt as an example, the Bush administration didn’t push Hosni Mubarak out of power; it pushed him toward a political opening. Why did we do that? We did it partly for moral reasons, but also because we thought illegitimate regimes fall sooner or later, and what then can take their place? If there are zero institutions, you will get a vacuum into which the best-organized and often worst groups can move and take power. We learned that lesson in 1959 in Cuba. We learned it in 1979 in Iran. We learned it in Nicaragua in 1979 as well. In all of those cases, the regime collapses. The security forces collapse. The worst people, Communists in two cases and Khomeinists in the Iranian case, have an opportunity to take over. What we should be trying to do is prevent those situations from developing. People like Mubarak are no help. Mubarak’s practice during his 30 years in power was not to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. In the 2005 election, they won 88 seats in parliament, and would have won more had it been freer. When he fell, every Muslim Brotherhood leader was in Egypt.
He did not crush the Brotherhood. He crushed the center. He did it deliberately, because he saw the center — moderates, liberals, democrats, secularists — as the real danger and he wanted to be able to say to the U.S., “Hey, it’s me or the Muslim Brotherhood.” That produces the kind of Egypt that we see, the kind of Libya that we see — countries with zero institutions. Tunisia, for interesting reasons, is in better shape. The answer is not that the U. S. should adopt a policy of throwing over regimes as quickly as possible, but should promote political life, should promote the ability to have freedom of expression, freedom of the press. Political parties. Free labor unions, which are critical in the case of Tunisia. In other words, the development of civil society, the development of political society, and the development of political institutions, because those regimes collapse sooner or later. Then the question is: who’s around to pick up the pieces?
OR: What do you think Reagan would make of all this?
Abrams: On the one hand Reagan was very prudent. When and where did he use force? Grenada? He supported the Contras and supported Savimbi. There was support for rebel groups and one very small use of direct American military power. The Soviets and others believed that if they pushed him, he would use more military power. I think it’s very clear from what we did in Afghanistan and what we did in Nicaragua that he would have been supporting the Syrian rebels against Assad sooner and more energetically than Obama. I do not think that he would have signed such an unbalanced and terrible deal with Iran. Why do I think that? He walked away from Gorbachev at Reykjavik, despite the fact that virtually everybody in his own administration was urging him to do the deal. He did not think the deal was the one he wanted, he did not think it was good enough, and he had the character to walk away from it. I think he would have walked away from an Iran deal that was not good enough.
I want to say one other thing about Reagan. I’ve advised friends in the White House, the Obama White House, who say they are doing what Reagan did with respect to Russia. That is, you negotiate. But there’s something they’re missing there. Reagan did negotiate. We had lots of negotiations with the Russians. Obviously he met with Gorbachev; George Schulz had many meetings with the Russians. While we were having those meetings, Reagan’s moral position was clear: evil empire, dustbin of history.
One of the striking things about Obama that differentiates him here — very badly differentiates him — is that he seems to believe that in order to have a successful negotiation, you need to self-censor. You need to do nothing that would offend your opponent. In June 2009, you have the Green Revolution in Iran, and we basically say nothing. We give no moral support. That was not Reagan’s way. Reagan’s way was to negotiate but make a moral position crystal clear. I remember the story Natan Sharansky tells of hearing about the “evil empire” speech while in prison. It so cheered them up, these political prisoners, because they said: finally, there is an American president who understands it. That element is completely missing in Obama.
OR: Will the freedom agenda make its way back into American foreign policy?
Abrams: I think the freedom agenda will come back. I think the pendulum has swung too far under Obama to a kind of indifference. I think a lot of politicians believe that the lesson of Iraq that has been learned by the American people was: foreign policy is dangerous. Just stay out. Stay out everywhere. Don’t get involved in anything. I don’t think that that was a lesson the American people learned, because there’s a fair amount of poll data suggesting that Americans do want to have a leadership role and be the strongest country in the world. I think to the extent that there was a desire or belief that we could just turn away, the beheading of three Americans by ISIS was a turning point. It was a reminder that 9/11 did happen, that you cannot turn away, and that these people want to kill Americans.
We can’t make believe that they’re not there. They are there and evil exists in the world. And I do believe that over time George W. Bush’s reputation will rise, and I think that things will change in the Middle East over the next generation and we’ll have to reevaluate. I have to say I am not clear in my own mind about the collapse after the military victory in Iraq. I have some theories, but I wasn’t working directly on Iraq after the war, so I’m not sure what the answer is. Because the war, per se, was brilliant. Then everything fell apart. Why did it fall apart, and can we prevent it from happening again? One can rewrite history. I suppose we made a mistake in not removing Saddam in the first Gulf War. I do believe that. One can argue that it was the collapse of the army. That created the conditions of chaos. I don’t know enough about it to have a theory that I would argue as to what explains the post-war horrors of Iraq. I think one has to remember where we stood the day before the war, with every intelligence agency in the world saying that Saddam was building weapons of mass destruction and with the no-fly zones significantly frayed.
OR: Do you see things deteriorating from here? And what advice would you give to the next U.S. president?
Abrams: I think things will deteriorate over the coming year. The current policies that are in place are not going to change. I think the next president is going to have to send some signals very quickly about the return of the U.S. As in the markets, this is partly a matter of discounting future events. If you turn around the military budget, it’s obvious that you don’t have a lot of new planes in the following year. You are talking about, let’s say, an eight-year program. I think if the military budget begins to change, if the U.S. begins to assert itself in ways that it can quickly — if the inauguration were tomorrow I’d say those patrols in the South China Sea or telling Assad the use of barrel bombs is now over — that would, I think, have an immediate global impact. I think a change of rhetoric is very important, too.
One of the things I would advise the next occupant of the White House to take note of is demography. If you look at China’s demography, Europe’s, Japan’s, even India’s — we’re in great shape demographically by comparison. We have these new discoveries of gas. If it weren’t for Obama, we’d have the XL pipeline. We have immigration of about one million people a year and we can fix our immigration policy to orient it more toward the economy. We are continuing to get the best and the brightest. I think what you need to begin to hear from an American president is precisely this kind of discussion of how, “Man, if you’re going to talk about the next 50 years, you need to bet on the United States.” I think there are things you can do in the first year, things in fact that you have to do. I think there needs to be a change in attitudes and rhetoric.
Scott Walker was ridiculed for saying something that he overstated but that was fundamentally right rather than wrong about Reagan and the air traffic controllers. That was a signal moment early in the Reagan administration, and it shows you that everything is connected to everything else. Certainly Reagan’s reaction in that case had nothing whatsoever to do with foreign policy.
It did have, however, an impact on telling foreign leaders that this was going to be a strong president who was willing to do things that were controversial. I think a new president is going to have to show that he or she is a strong person willing to do things that are controversial.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as deputy assistant to the President and deputy national security advisor under George W. Bush and as an assistant secretary of state under Ronald Reagan.