Back in Political Forefront
By Michael Dobbs
The Washington Post
Tuesday 27 May 2003
Iran-Contra Figure Plays Key Role on Mideast
A cycle of disgrace and redemption has brought one of Washington's most accomplished -- and controversial -- bureaucratic infighters back to the center of U.S. foreign policy decision-making.
When Elliott Abrams stood in front of a federal judge in October 1991 and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress, few imagined he would ever return to government. At age 43, he had become one of the casualties of the Iran-contra scandal, detested by Democrats for his combative political style and mistrusted by human rights activists for playing down the crimes of right-wing dictatorships in Central America.
Twelve years later, Abrams is helping to shape White House policies toward many of the world's trouble spots. Appointed in December as President Bush's senior adviser on the Middle East, his responsibilities extend from Algeria to Iran. But nowhere is his influence more evident than on the Arab-Israeli peace process.
A self-described "neo-conservative and neo-Reaganite" with strong ties to Jews and evangelical Christians, Abrams has become a flash point for the debate on how much pressure the Bush administration is prepared to apply to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Last week, the White House sought to address Israeli concerns about a U.S.-endorsed "road map" on Israeli-Palestinian peace by saying they would be considered during the implementation phase.
The question for many critics, both inside and outside government, is whether the White House will risk a public fight with Sharon on freezing and eventually reversing Jewish settlement activity that could antagonize some of its core political supporters in the run-up to a presidential election. Before joining the Bush administration, Abrams expressed skepticism about past U.S. peacemaking efforts in the region and praised Sharon for his "strength" and "firmness" toward the Palestinians in contrast to the "weakness" displayed by his predecessor, Ehud Barak.
Abrams's supporters emphasize his formidable bureaucratic skills, and say his pro-Sharon views will provide political cover for the administration in extracting concessions from a reluctant Israeli government. His enemies depict him as a partisan, ideological figure who pays a lot of attention to the pro-Israel lobby, but has yet to reach out to Arab Americans. Abrams's appointment raised a "red flag for me and my community," said Khalil Jahshan, director of government affairs for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. "If the president is serious about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he picked the wrong person to manage the policy for him."
"Much of the criticism of Elliott misses the fact that he is an extremely intelligent, competent guy," countered William Kristol, a conservative commentator who served alongside Abrams in the Reagan administration. "Bush is more committed to seeing whether he can push ahead with the Middle East peace process than most people believe, and that is true of Elliott as well."
Unlike his previous incarnation in government, when he was a high-profile figure on Capitol Hill and in the media, Abrams this time around is working far from the glare of publicity and congressional oversight. According to people who have dealt with him, however, his operating style has changed little in the intervening decade, and is characterized by the same combination of ideological zeal and bureaucratic toughness that made him a formidable advocate for the Reagan administration.
"He is relentless in pursuit of his agenda," said someone who has clashed with him in internal administration debates. "If that means pushing people out of the way who disagree with him, then that is what he will do."
The White House declined requests for an interview with Abrams. A senior administration official said he was hired for the Middle East post because he had shown himself to be "an extremely good manager." He said that Abrams's personal views on the Palestinian-Israeli dispute were irrelevant as he was implementing "the vision of the president" on Middle East peace.
"It's the president who makes these decisions," the official said. "Our job is to take the president's policies and try to make them happen."
At the time of Abrams's appointment, Middle East policymaking at the White House was in a state of some turmoil, insiders said. Responsibility for shaping policy toward a vast, troubled area of the world was divided among three officials, each with the title of "senior director." The original National Security Council department chief, Zalmay Khalilzad, focused mainly on dealings with the Iraqi opposition and had the reputation of being a poor administrator. A third official, Flynt Leverett, had responsibility for the Middle East peace process.
Administration insiders said Abrams clashed with Leverett and Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns, the State Department's top Middle East expert, over the shape of the final Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. Burns and Leverett believed that any agreement probably would resemble a deal offered to the Palestinians by Barak in early 2001, with the Israelis giving up nearly all the occupied territories in return for Palestinians surrendering their right of return to Israel. Abrams envisaged more limited Israeli concessions.
According to the Abrams camp, his differences with Leverett were more bureaucratic than substantive: Abrams was frustrated by the lack of a clear chain of command on Middle East issues. Leverett left the NSC staff in mid-March after refusing an offer by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to work on the road map under Abrams. Two other officials left the NSC staff as part of a shake-up in the Near East office related to Abrams's arrival.
Administration rivals say Abrams worked behind the scenes to rewrite the road map on the basis of critiques drawn up by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, a leading Jewish American lobby group. He fired off frequent e-mails to Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, trying to reduce the role of international mediators in the peace process.
"Elliott was suspicious of anything that involved the United Nations and the European Union," a participant in the administration debates said. "It's an open question whether he is going to be the guy who becomes the one to push for a document he has expressed such ambivalence about."
Administration officials said Abrams is now fully on board with the peace plan, which envisages a freezing and eventual dismantlement of Jewish settlements in occupied Arab territories in return for an "unconditional cessation of violence" by the Palestinians.
Much of Abrams's adult life, beginning with his days as a Harvard Law School student during the tumultuous 1960s, has been preparation for an important role in government. In conventional political terms, he was a liberal, criticizing the Vietnam War and the Cambridge police for using force to end a 1969 student strike. By campus standards, however, he was a conservative, opposing the militant tactics employed by Students for a Democratic Society.
"He was culturally straight and had short hair," recalls a former roommate, Steven Kelman, now a professor of public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "Elliott was the only person I knew who threw his blue jeans out when they started to fade."
Kelman believes that Abrams, as a bright young kid from the Hollis Hills neighborhood of Queens who was reared in the progressive Jewish tradition, was "traumatized" by his experiences of campus politics at Harvard. "There is a part of him that is still fighting the student radicals of the '60s," he said. "He doesn't like people whom he sees as anti-American, or down on the United States."
After Harvard, Abrams followed a classic neo-conservative trajectory, taking a job with Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, a hawkish Washington Democrat. "They hit it off more or less immediately," said Richard N. Perle, a Pentagon official during the Reagan administration who introduced Abrams to Jackson. "He was comfortable with Scoop's combination of a tough foreign policy and a liberal domestic policy."
Abrams joined the neo-conservative aristocracy in March 1980 through his marriage to Rachel Decter, daughter of conservative pundits Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter. By the time Ronald Reagan was elected president later that year, Abrams had become a Republican. As an assistant secretary of state, he found himself implementing the Reagan doctrine of "rolling back communism" in Central America.
For Abrams, fighting communism and promoting human rights were one and the same. Although he criticized the right-wing Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile, he played down or ignored human rights violations by pro-American governments in Central America, where the struggle for geopolitical influence with the Soviet Union was most intense. In an exchange with the human rights activist Aryeh Neier on ABC's "Nightline" in 1984, Abrams insisted that widely reported massacres by right-wing death squads in El Salvador "never happened."
"Elliott was willing to distort and misrepresent the truth in order to promote the policy adopted by the administration," Neier said. "His approach was that the ends justified the means." Abrams has replied to past criticism by Neier by describing his human rights work as "garbage" and "completely politicized."
Abrams also had problems with Congress over the Iran-contra scandal. In 1991, he was forced to admit in court that he had not disclosed his knowledge of a secret contra supply network and his solicitation of a $10 million contribution for the contras from the sultan of Brunei. He received a pardon from President George H.W. Bush in December 1992. An administration official brushed aside questions about the plea bargain, noting that Abrams had received a full pardon. In a 1993 book, "Undue Process," Abrams forcefully defended his actions, describing the legal proceedings against him as "Kafkaesque" and his prosecutors as "filthy bastards."
As president of the Center for Ethics and Public Policy, a Washington-based religious think tank, Abrams called for reconciliation between Jews and conservative Christians. He also wrote about the threats to the Jewish identity in the United States because of assimilation and intermarriage, arguing that it is important for Jews to understand that "tomorrow's lobby for Israel has got to be conservative Christians because there aren't going to be enough Jews to do it."
Under the Bush administration, evangelical Christians have emerged as an important source of political support for Israel. In some cases, they have been even more insistent than Jews in their backing for a Greater Israel, which they see as sanctified by the Bible. Abrams's years in the political wilderness ended in June 2001 when Rice chose him to head the NSC's office for democracy, human rights and international operations. In addition to his regular responsibilities, he took part in brainstorming sessions with Rice and other NSC officials to consider new approaches to Middle East peace.
"Elliott could always be relied upon to give clear expression of the Israeli line, and whether or not it would fly with the Jewish community," another participant in the sessions recalled.
Abrams received first-hand insight into Sharon's besieged worldview earlier this month when he made a secret visit to Israel with Hadley, the deputy national security adviser. According to Israeli sources, the prime minister took his guests up in a helicopter for a bird's-eye view of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank that Israel could be required to abandon under a peace deal with the Palestinians.
The helicopter tour has become a standard feature on the itinerary of U.S. officials visiting Sharon, said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. "You look down at all these settlements in the hills below you, and you get the distinct impression that they will not be moving anywhere in the lifetime of your administration," he said.
"If anyone in the Bush administration is going to push Israel on the settlements, it would be Abrams, because he has credibility with the Israeli government," said Aluf Benn, diplomatic reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, who broke the story about the secret helicopter tour. "But so far we have not seen the political will on the part of the White House to seriously press the issue."