Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

Who’s the Superpower? Lessons from Libya

by Elliott Abrams Thursday, February 24, 2011

China is sending a warship, among other planes and ships, to evacuate its citizens from Libya. According to the report, “The PLA Navy has just dispatched Xuzhou, a Type 054 Jiangkai-II class missile frigate, from the ongoing seventh PLAN anti-piracy task force deployment off Somalia to steam to Libyan coast to provide support and protection for the ongoing evacuation mission there.”

In recent days, the White House has been saying that the United States had to watch its words and actions because American citizens were at risk in Libya. So instead of acting, we are building a diplomatic coalition. China has taken a different tack: to use power. Instead of biting their tongue, the Chinese appear to be making it clear to the Qaddafi regime that no danger to Chinese workers will be tolerated.

That’s the path the United States should follow as well. As I’ve said elsewhere, we should be making it clear to Qaddafi and his remaining henchmen that the safety of Americans in Libya is their safety; if Americans are attacked or held hostage, they will end up the way Saddam Hussein did. But the use of power will do more than ensure the safety of Americans; it will also help bring Libya’s civil war to a better end. Today there are no doubt many Libyan officials and military officers who are on the fence. They know that a victorious Qaddafi will take vengeance against those who opposed him, so they won’t jump until they are confident he will lose. American power can help them make that decision. We too should be moving ships and planes, and visibly taking the steps that show our own power. The message should be that we want Qaddafi to lose and will help ensure that he does. The sooner we do this, the fewer Libyans will lose their lives to Qaddafi’s murderous machine and the sooner the violence in Libya will end.

Read more »

How to Lose Friends and Not Influence People

by Elliott Abrams Friday, February 18, 2011

The Obama Administration cast its first veto in the United Nations on Friday, February 18, killing a Security Council resolution that would have condemned Israeli settlement activity.  Its poor handling of the entire episode has left just about everyone angry at the United States, and is therefore a manifest failure of American diplomacy.

The Palestinian Authority began to talk about this resolution months ago. The United States could then have adopted a clear position: put it forward and it will be vetoed. That very clear stand might have persuaded the Palestinian leaders and their Arab supporters to drop the effort early on, when it could have been abandoned with no loss of face. Instead the Administration refused to make its position clear until the final day. In its Friday edition the New York Times was reporting that “the Obama administration was trying Thursday evening to head off an imminent vote in the United Nations Security Council that would declare Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank illegal, but would not declare publicly whether it was prepared to veto the resolution.”  It seems clear that the administration was desperate to avoid a veto, indeed desperate to go four years without spoiling its “perfect record.”  But a “perfect record” in the UN requires vetoes, given the persistent anti-Israel bias of the organization. The administration’s desire to avoid vetoes only served to reduce its bargaining power, for the credible threat of a veto has long served American diplomats seeking to achieve an outcome more favorable to our interests.

On the last day before the vote, the president called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Israeli press reported that “In a 50-minute phone call, he asked Abbas to drop the resolution and settle for a non-binding statement condemning settlement expansion, Palestinian officials said.  Abbas on Friday received a follow-up call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the issue, the Palestinian news agency Wafa said.” But apparently the president did more than ask: “One senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the offer, made in an hour-long phone call from Obama, was accompanied by veiled threats of ‘repercussions’ if it were refused.
‘Obama threatened on Thursday night to take measures against the Palestinian Authority if it insists on going to the Security Council to condemn Israeli settlement activity, and demand that it be stopped,’ the official said. ‘There will be repercussions for Palestinian-American relations if you continue your attempts to go to the Security Council and ignore our requests in this matter, especially as we suggested other alternatives,’ the official quoted Obama as telling Abbas.”

Read more »

Whatever Happened to “Human Rights?”

by Elliott Abrams Friday, February 18, 2011
Lawyers hold a protest march to commemorate Human Rights Day in Harare, Zimbabwe, December 9, 2010.

Lawyers hold a protest march to commemorate Human Rights Day in Harare, Zimbabwe, December 9, 2010. (Philimon Bulawayo/Courtesy Reuters)

One of the more bizarre aspects of the Obama Administration’s reactions to developments in the Middle East is its refusal to talk about human rights. For reasons that are obscure, it has developed the neologism “universal rights.”

The term “human rights” has a long and distinguished history and is used…well, universally. The “rights of man” was an earlier phrase (and was actually used by President Obama in his Inaugural Address) but “human rights” appeared as early as the 1840s; William Lloyd Garrison wrote in his abolitionist newspaper The Liberator that “human rights is the great question that agitates the age.” The Charter of the United Nations states as a purpose for the organization’s founding in 1945 “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.”  The UN adopted the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” in 1948. The phrase “human rights” is now everywhere: in the United Nations Human Rights Council, NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Inter-American Court and Commission on Human Rights, the European Court and Convention on Human Rights….well, one could go on for pages.

Read more »

Catching Up with the Middle East

by Elliott Abrams Wednesday, February 16, 2011
People carry the body of a protester killed on Monday, February 14, 2011 in Bahrain.

People carry the body of a protester killed on Monday, February 14, 2011 in Bahrain. (Hamad I Mohammed/Courtesy Reuters)

The Middle East has for decades seemed to be in permanent stasis, with little political change despite the statistics showing very young and frustrated populations. It was a commonplace that no regime had been overthrown in decades except by force of American arms and aging rulers could expect to die safely in bed.

Those years are over. Some thoughts about aspects of the current situation follow. Read more »

Mubarak and Obama: Music and Lyrics

by Elliott Abrams Tuesday, February 8, 2011

There has been considerable criticism of the Obama Administration’s handling of the Egypt crisis. One telling complaint in my view is that they’ve been all over the lot: seeming to back the protesters one day, then saying Mubarak is stable (Clinton) and isn’t a dictator (Biden) the next, then back to saying the transition must begin right now, then suggesting that perhaps a slow Mubarak-and-Suleiman-led transition would be the best outcome. The decision to send Frank Wisner to Egypt was a disaster, and was an unforced error. Anyone familiar with Wisner knew he was on the Mubarak side and would sooner or later say so—and would never deliver a tough message to his old chum. The White House has blamed the State Department, and Secretary Clinton ought to review who told her this was a good idea and banish that person from her office. But the damage was done: our one official envoy to Mubarak thinks he should stay in office. By Tuesday February 8 the White House was sounding tough again, reading out a Biden-Suleiman call where the Vice President made several strong demands (stop the beatings, end the emergency law). This back-and-forth isn’t a “messaging” problem but a signal that the administration cannot seem to make up its mind.

The Egypt crisis is more complex than many uprisings against tyranny and many transitions to democracy in previous decades. In the cases of the South American military juntas with which I dealt in the Reagan Administration, the path was often clearer because it was a return to civilian rule and democracy. The generals—all ruling in uniform, with none of the trappings of false democracy that we see in Egypt—simply had to go back to the barracks. The future was supposed to look like the (democratic) past. There were strong parties in many countries, Christian Democrats and Socialists who could immediately jump into the political fray once more. By contrast Hosni Mubarak wears a suit and Egypt has all the trappings of republican democracy—a parliament, courts, elections, and so on, though they are all hollow—so the nature of the transition is more obscure. Is it from military to civilian rule? From Mubarak to not Mubarak? From having a ruling party to having real competition? More important, Egypt cannot return to any democratic past, nor can it model itself on neighbors who are democratic. The immense influence of Western Europe and the EU on the political development of the former Soviet republics and satellites is missing in the Arab cases. Like the Tunisians, the Egyptians will have to make it up as they go along.

There are precedents for “pacted transitions” in which those in power and those outside negotiate a deal. The best example may well be the “Club Naval” Agreement in Uruguay in 1984. And there are certainly examples of successful transitions from dictatorship to democracy outside of Latin America, such as in Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Defenders of the Mubarak/Suleiman government and its conduct this week suggest that all those examples provide a model for Egypt and that this sort of transition is their goal. The Egyptian regime says it is discussing the future openly with all parties, and one of Mr. Biden’s demands was “broadening participation in the national dialogue.” This assumes of course that the regime is not playing for time, not seeking to crush the protests without the massive violence of a Tienanmen-style crackdown, not aiming for cosmetic changes that leave the power structure unaffected.

Read more »