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.

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How to Lose Friends and Not Influence People

by Elliott Abrams
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.”

Abbas rejected the Clinton and Obama appeals and/or ignored their threats, in itself a sign of reduced American diplomatic influence. The American veto will have angered Palestinians even more. But it will not have gained the administration any thanks from Israel or from supporters of Israel in the United States, who were appalled by the administration’s search for a bad compromise. According to the New York Times, the administration proposed that instead of a resolution the Security Council issue a “presidential statement” that “would condemn settlements but also call on all sides to resume negotiations. That statement would be paired with a Russian proposal for a fact-finding mission on settlements, and a proposed change in how the quartet, the international group that deals with the Middle East peace process, defines the basic building blocks of negotiations ranging from borders to the political status of Jerusalem.”

So the administration was content with condemning settlements, happy to establish a new UN fact-finding mission, and willing to redefine the role of the Quartet. All that just to avoid a veto of the sort American presidents have been ordering for decades.

Feeling guilty about its veto the administration then issued an extraordinary “explanation of vote,” read by UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Though we had to veto, she explained, “we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel’s security and corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region. Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace….While we agree with our fellow Council members—and indeed, with the wider world—about the folly and illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, we think it unwise for this Council to attempt to resolve the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians. We therefore regrettably have opposed this draft resolution.”

This is amazing language for a diplomat: “folly,” “illegitimacy,” “devastates,” “corroded,” and so on. It’s hard to recall such a vehement statement against Israel, nor one that contains so many conclusions that are, to say the least, highly debatable. Has construction in and around Jerusalem or in Ma’ale Adumim, for example, “undermined Israel’s security?” Given that the Israelis and Palestinians concluded the Oslo Accords and the numerous other agreements while construction activity was far greater than it is today, what is the basis for saying that it “devastates trust?” No doubt the administration decided that as it had vetoed it would “make it up” to the Arabs with this statement. But emotive language such as Amb. Rice employed serves no purpose. Arab newspapers will headline the veto—assuming of course that they have space in their pages tomorrow after covering the revolts in Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria, Libya, Bahrain, and Egypt—and are very unlikely to cover her speech. Only Israelis and supporters of Israel in the United States will study her language, and remember it.

So, the administration emerges having damaged relations with both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Decades of American experience at the United Nations proves clearly the “folly” of such diplomatic action, which “devastates trust” in the United States and therefore “corrodes hopes for peace and stability in the region.” Next time, say you’ll veto, veto, and leave it at that. The United States will end up with fewer angry friends and fewer gleeful enemies.

Post a Comment 22 Comments

  • Posted by Matthew Burman

    Why not ‘Not Veto’ the resolution?

    When Amb. Rice says that successive American administrations have all called for the end of settlement building (as she did this evening in an interview), why are we unable to admit that our longstanding policy of asking them nicely to stop isn’t helping the cause of peace. I also was appalled at the handling of this vote but, in contrast to the author of this article, I think we should have let the resolution pass. What better way to let Israel realize that we really are in a new geopolitical reality. I was appalled by the Obama Administration’s decision to veto this resolution because it shows that they are still holding on to a political position that is vanishing before our eyes.
    Thank you for your thoughts and this forum.

  • Posted by Paul Freedman

    President Obama is a dangerously weak reed, whose cynical appreciation of political realities, faintly bleeds over into a vague appreciation of geopolitical realpolitik, before surrendering to inchoate new-left derived, academically marinated third and fourth hand anti-colonialist and, now, nakedly, anti-Israel vapors. The language of this condemnation is inexcusable, but even more alarmingly, incoherently incomprehensible given the veto itself. The administration would have been better served by frankly sending a shot across Israel’s bow with a condemnatory resolution as it has tacked a de facto seconding of the resolution in the very act of defining its de jure veto. Instead, Rice’s inflammatory adoption of the Palestinian misrepresentative encapsulation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as driven by “illegitimate settlements” in such places as the Kotel plaza has conjoined treachery towards Israel with cowardice towards the very Palestinian position adopted, by vetoing the resolution in the first place.

    The Obama presidency cannot be relied upon as a trustee for Israeli interests. This veto is no triumph for Michael Oren but a poisonous augury. It would be well to recall him immediately and indefinitely for a diplomatic review of where Israel goes from here.

  • Posted by Daniel McCurry

    With all of the protests happening in the Muslim world why is the this being addressed? Surely the recent government changes in Tunisia and Egypt and continued protests in Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen are more pressing matters that the UN Security Council should be focused on.

    Settlements do need to be addressed but now does not seem to be the appropriate time.

  • Posted by Michael

    This entire episode is akin to attempting to vote ‘not present.’

  • Posted by Yossi

    Obama is a fool, and is not a friend of Israel, period.

  • Posted by Kevin Farrell

    Unfortunately President Obama failed both Israel and the Palestinians with the UN veto. He should have supported it or had the the US abstain. Israel is headed on the road to self destruction over the settlements. Ben Gurion then in retirement after the 1967 war stated that the most important thing that Israel should do was to return ‘all’ the Arab land seized in the war immediately (my paraphrase)For many of us (US citizens who support Israel) the settlements are a disaster and should be removed.

  • Posted by Colin Nelson

    This administration had to work very very hard to produce this utter folly.

    Fortunately for Israel, there will no longer be any illusion as to the true nature of Obama and his regime.

  • Posted by Aaron Levitt

    Obama’s only failure in this case, and it was a big one, was to veto the resolution at all.

  • Posted by Todd

    The author writes: Next time, say you’ll veto, veto, and leave it at that.

    May I add: or don’t say you will veto, then don’t veto, and stop protecting the Israeli government from the repercussions of its own actions.

  • Posted by moderateGuy

    Unfortunately for the entire civilized world Sputnik Obama is viewing the entire world through the haze of a college sophomore dormroom circa 1984; and his “foreign policy” is based on the childish posters adorning a wall of such a dormroom – “No Nukes!” (so he sells out the interest of America’s staunchest allies to the Russians in return for nothing), “Viva Che” (so Honduran democrats are isolated and Venezuelan socialist thugs feted), “End the Occupation” (so Israel is childishly condemned for securing its borders and lives of its citizens).
    The other overweening thread in Sputnink’s worldview is a childish desire to undo the world Ronald Reagan build regardless of how much America’s interests were improved by it.

  • Posted by Press to Digitate

    The sort of ‘nuanced diplomacy’ and ‘realpolitik’ propounded by the Council and practiced by successive administrations of both parties for the past several decades has finally led the United States into a calamity of errors that will likely have tragic consequences for decades to come. The fallacies of subtlety are leading us to make the mistakes of Cuba and Iran all over again, but on a pandemic scale.

    Instead of throwing corrupt dictators under the train and forthrightly supporting the populist movements on the Arab street – clearly, unequivocally, and for all to see – we are nebulously identifying ourselves with tyrants in minds of a billion people.

    Since the revolution sweeping the Arab world from Morocco to Bahrain is obviously not an Islamic fundamentalist movement, but an uprising of genuine democrats, U.S. policy is dangerously ideologically degenerate and morally bankrupt for remaining neutral. We are rapidly losing the philosophical high ground and elevating hypocrisy to an art form, emblematic of official cowardice.

    To preserve American military basing rights in the Gulf, the President should send the 5th Fleet’s Marine Expeditionary Force across town to remove and liquidate the Bahraini government (rather than assist it through neglect), and to stand up a proper new democratic government derived from a cross section of the sectarian and secular opposition. We can be fools and identify with tyrants, or take the smarter, more courageous approach, and be identified with democratic ideals put into practice, in the minds of the billion people watching what we do next.

    This is not a choice between idealism and realpolitik; in all of these emerging uprisings for Arab democracy, our self-interest and our traditional ideals perfectly coincide. Only by being on the right side of the equation – the side of the people, which will inevitably win out – can we preserve our reputation and alliances in the Arab world.

    Do the right thing! This nuanced neutrality poses great (and rapidly growing) danger to our standing and interests in the world. It has already begun in Kuwait, and will spread to Saudi Arabia within days. These “friendly dictators” are already lost; the walking dead who can no longer serve U.S. interests. Jettison them before its too late.

  • Posted by Josep Ortega

    Do settlements help achieve a lasting peace? What country would accept a policy of settlements such as Israel’s in his own ground? Obama should have voted yes to the resolution and I feel ashamed he didn’t.

  • Posted by ConsDemo

    Abrams has it exactly backwards. The US should have voted for the resolution. We’ve been carrying Israel’s water for too long and what has it gotten us?

    American blind allegiance to Israel has made its enemies our enemies. The attacks of 9/11 were, in part, motivated by American support of Israel. What is more, it has emboldened Israeli hardliners. Netanyahu feels free to continue settlement building because he knows American political, economic and military support comes regardless.

    To Yossi, Israel is no friend of the US.

  • Posted by Paul Freedman

    Had Abbas replaced “illegal” with “illegitimate” our anti-Zionist President woud have voted for the resolution. Elliott, he is desperately attempting to shed an alliance with Israel and switch sides but can’t quite bring himself to act according to his natural antipathy to Israel and his dogmatic valoration of an idealized Islamic umma due to political realities in the United States, crimping his global-socialist post-American style.


    The Palestinians don’t seem to get the actual drift here but in time they will appreciate President Obama’s chilly antipathy towards the Jewish state and more successfully exploit it.

  • Posted by Rousseau

    When it comes to Israel, it just reveals that the United States suddenly becomes a country which cannot tell black from white. The word “justice” is not valid. The US will do whatever to support Israel. That means the US is losing its credibility in front of the rest of the world.
    I am a friend of Israel, but I am more a friend of justice and a friend of what is right.

  • Posted by David Schoen

    Brilliant and right on! The only relevant matter not addressed (perhaps beyond the scope of the piece’s limited purpose) is the role the Obama team played in getting to this point. As I suppose all conventional wisdom recognizes by now, the ill-advised Obama/Clinton strategy of elevating the “settlement” freeze, with “settlement” including areas in the heart of historically Jewish eastern Jerusalem, the intrasigence and now this development were inevitable.

    The pre-vote pandering and “offers” by our government to Abbas et al. truly was unprecedented and, of course, with Susan Rice as the messenger (working in tandem with the President to supplement his embarrassing “50 minute” phone call with Abbas), we seeing what all expected at the time of that appointment.

    Putting aside the completely inappropriate substance of the “compromise” our government pushed, one readily can imagine the fallout if it had been Israel forcing a resolution over U.S. objection.

    Instead, a member of the Obama administration said to me: “You have no idea how difficult Israel is making this for us.” Right, Israel’s fault once again. It is its existence which makes life difficult for this administration.

  • Posted by Avi Morris

    I disagree with those who allege that President Obama is anti-Israel or an anti-Semite. He’s trying maintain communications with Israel and with the Palestinians with a view to achieving a mutually satisfactory peace agreement, not an easy thing to do when one considers the depth of the animosity. I do agree that he should have told the PA from the start that such a resolution would be vetoed; by the time he made clear his position, they were in too deep to back out.

  • Posted by David Turner

    By focusing on President Obama we tend to miss the real issue. Yes Obama has been wrong or misguided from the start, his highlighting of settlements bot only being a non-starter from Israel’s point of view, but death knell to any possibility of “peace talks” by setting the pre-conditions precedent.

    And certainly the handling of the Turkish flotilla incident, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Egyptian military coup com revolution continues the demonstrated lack of understanding, the gap between anticipated outcome and realpolitik consequences.

    Today we read that the US has those two Iranian trans-Canal minor warships surrounded by a flotilla of American major warships. Should the Iranians choose to turn around that will, to America, appear a victory; to the Muslim street yet another demonstration of American bullying, weakness. How could the US have come out a winner in this confrontation? By “persuading” the Egyptian military to block the passage. That would have established some credibility in face of the massive US loss of prestige in the wake of the army takeover (one wonders if the US even today understands the nature of that “revolution”?).

    And the list goes on.

    But as to my suggestion regarding trees and forest, while we could go back to Eisenhower and Suez, or Iran and the shah; how about Iraq and Sadam? Bush topples the Baathists and introduces democracy, right? Except Bush toppled the Sunnis and turned the country over to the Shiites and, at the cost of a few thousand US lives, and many thousands of Iraqis, transformed Sunni Iraq into a Shiite suburb of Iran! But we can forgive Bush the mistake since he admittedly had no idea that there were Sunnis and Shiites. To Bush Arabs were, well, just Arabs.

    Since the invasion Bush was dependent on America’s and the Arabs and Israel’s principal enemy (unwittingly?) for assistance in containing the civil war that resulted. Up one more for Iran. The nuclear issue that Bush avoided (can’t expect help containing Iraq after you bomb your “ally’s” bomb factories; the failure to confront Hezbollah or Hamas, two open Iranian proxies; the failure to stand behind the America-allied Hariri government in Lebanon: the list is endless; the pattern trans-administration.

    The United States, by design or default, is opting out of the Middle East and, by extension, the world.

    Should the US quit/lose the Middle East where will that leave us, leave the rest of the world? In the short term Russia, principal supporter of revolutionary Iran (in mid-20th century principal supporter of revolutionary Egypt), will step in to the American role. And controlling the region also means control of the Mediterranean. And control of that body of water means Europe, already drifting towards a Russia accommodation will speed up the alignment.

    And the United States will return to its 19th century isolationist security, surrounded by its two protective oceans.

    Except this is the 21st century and not the 19th; and oceans do not afford the same protection, response time needed to counter a foreign threat.

  • Posted by Jerry

    Netanyahu has done exactly the right thing by publicly praising Obama for his veto action. No one but the Arabs will be fooled by Netanyahu’s condemnation with lush praise.

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