Saint Elliott Speaks

Tablet‘s Lee Smith (whom we last saw attempting to expose the machinations of Washington’s “Iran lobby”) has a reverent interview today with Elliott Abrams, the notorious neoconservative operative who was George W. Bush’s top Middle East aide at the National Security Council. Coming on the heels of Smith’s love letter to John Hagee from last week, we are once again forced to ask: why in God’s name did Tablet feel compelled to give this guy a weekly column? Regardless, the Abrams interview is worth reading because it provides a vivid display of the contradictions (to be charitable) or hypocrisies (to be realistic) that pervade Abrams’s thinking.

Since leaving the Bush administration last year, Abrams has cast himself as the world’s foremost defender of “democracy” and “human rights” and excoriated the Obama administration’s alleged neglect of them. The scare quotes are necessary because, as anyone familiar with Abrams’s record will be aware, the notion of Elliott Abrams as champion of either democracy or human rights is utterly laughable. (Abrams’s Right Web profile provides a good rundown of his career.) Abrams got his start in the Reagan administration, running interference in Washington for the various right-wing death squads that were snuffing out left-leaning movements throughout Central America. He became most notorious for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, eventually pleading guilty to two criminal charges that seemed to end his political career.

An eleventh-hour pardon from George H.W. Bush freed him to rejoin government, and he joined the George W. Bush administration in 2000, becoming the chief architect of a Middle East policy that was, by nearly all accounts, a catastrophic failure. If the Bush administration’s philosophy on Israel-Palestine was summed up by the notion that the U.S. should passively follow whatever course of action Israel decided upon, Abrams was perhaps the figure most responsible for this. Many of the Obama administration’s difficulties in enforcing a settlement freeze upon the Netanyahu government stemmed directly from Abrams’s blundering or outright acquiescence to the Israeli government; he claimed, for instance, to have brokered under-the-table agreements with the Sharon government recognizing Israeli sovereignty over most of the major West Bank settlement blocs, thereby giving away the farm prior to any final status negotiations.

All this is to say that I am not inclined to give too much credence to Elliott Abrams’s advice on Middle East peacemaking. More interesting, however, are the ways that Abrams contradicts himself even in the span of a single article. As noted, Abrams has sought to portray himself as a spokesman for the causes of democracy and human rights, champion of the Freedom Agenda, and Smith happily goes along with this conceit. (“Elliott mainstreamed the concern for human rights in the U.S. government,” gushes an unnamed former Reagan and Bush official.)

At the same time, however, Abrams lays into the Obama administration for being insufficiently cozy with the undemocratic elites of countries like Egypt and Jordan. “If we distance ourselves from Israel,” he suggests, “the Jordanians, Egyptians and the rest of our allies in the Middle East will think, ‘if they can do it to the Israelis, why not us?’” He boasts that despite having been “extremely pro-Israel,” and actually having invaded an Arab country, the Bush administration still “had extremely close relations with the Arabs.” By Arabs, of course, he does not mean Arab populations, but rather the ruling elites. Smith reiterates Abrams’s criticism, suggesting that Obama’s principal sin is that he ignores the wishes of foreign ruling elites in favor of the wishes of the people under their control:

Obama appears not to see the world outside of America’s borders as a series of places run by local and regional elites. Rather, [Obama feels that] ruling elites are the source of our problems—and he is most comfortable speaking over their heads to a global public that really does seem to like him.

Thus Abrams and Smith have nothing but contempt for Obama’s (allegedly) favoring the people of Egypt, Jordan, and so on at the expense of their autocratic ruling elites. (I would personally welcome this shift, although I have seen little evidence of it from the administration.) On the other hand, they are the same people who excoriate him in his dealings with regimes like Iran and Syria for allegedly neglecting the wishes of the people in favor of their rulers.

The contradiction is highly revealing of the basic hypocrisy of the neoconservative “democracy promotion” project. Despite casting themselves as champions of democracy worldwide, neoconservatives like Abrams have no interest whatsoever in democratizing authoritarian allies like Egypt or Jordan; democracy promotion for them refers solely to the democratization of rival countries. The Bush administration’s much-vaunted Freedom Agenda did not prevent it from backing a dictator like Mubarak in order to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, or urging a strongman like Mohammed Dahlan to overturn the results of a free and fair democratic election in Gaza. (The Hamas takeover in Gaza, by the way, was in large part the result of yet another disastrous blunder by Elliott Abrams.) Similarly, Abrams’s professed love for human rights did not prevent him from serving as the Washington patron of the Central American death squads in the 1980s.

Both neoconservatives and their critics have increasingly come to identify neoconservatism with democracy promotion–the neocons because it lets them cast themselves as heroes fighting the good fight for freedom, the critics because it lets them cast the neocons as naive idealists unfamiliar with the world as it really is. In reality, neoconservatism has little to do with democracy promotion as such. Like other aggressive nationalists the world over, neocons like democracy when it will overturn hostile regimes and bring allies to power. When democracy does not bring the desired results, however, neocons have shown little compunction in endorsing the most brutal repressions of democratic movements by friendly autocrats.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. Brzezinski has said that when neo-cons talk about democratization, they usually mean destabilization.

  2. Keep reading that headline in my peripheral vision “Sam Eliot” speaks. Keep wondering, “what the hell does Sam Eliot have to do with the I/P conflict?”

    “Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.”

  3. There are critics of the neocons who view them as naive idealists? I didn’t know that. Whoever these particular critics are, they themselves must be quite naive.

    Brzezinsk oughtta know! His years in power were spent trying to destabilize Soviet Central Asia and the Eastern European satellites. I confess I supported such a policy, but whether it actually worked to our advantage in Central Asia remains very much an open question.

  4. RE: “Saint Elliott”
    MY COMMENT: I’m willing to bet that Elliott Abrams had advance knowledge of the announcement that Israel’s Interior Ministry had authorized the construction of another 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem (whilst VP Biden was visiting Israel). In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Elliott Abrams orchestrated it.

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