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.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


In Search of a Middle East Policy

by Elliott Abrams
July 8, 2012


Secretary of State Clinton’s blast at Russia and China last Friday blamed them for holding up international action against the Assad regime in Syria, but surely their position on Syria was not news. Clinton complained that they were “blockading” progress and “paying no price.”

But complaints do not constitute a policy. What Clinton did not supply was any approach or action that would change things—change Russia’s policy, change U.S. policy toward Russia, or change the facts on the ground in Syria. The administration’s diplomatic efforts, which put Kofi Annan at the fore, have failed, but they have not been replaced by anything effective.

The same is true on Iran policy, where the P5+1 negotiations with Iran have failed to produce progress but the administration has nothing new to say. When the talks get nowhere, the administration calls for more talks—sometimes technical talks, sometimes talks led by the EU, sometimes full-scale P5+1 negotiations. But this approach is manifestly not changing Iran’s conduct: the centrifuges keep spinning, the missile tests continue, and we must assume that warhead design is also going forward.

This same pattern is visible on the Israeli-Palestinian front, where administration policy has also failed and been replaced by nothing at all. George Mitchell left the scene in 2010, Dennis Ross resigned last year, the notion that a “settlement freeze” by Israel was the magic formula has been discredited, and there are no negotiations in sight. So what is U.S. policy? Have we advanced beyond Secretary of Defense Panetta’s urgings last December “just get to the damn table,” as if anything positive would happen at that mythical table?

In all three of these theaters, Obama administration policy is frozen solid: no new ideas, no initiatives, and no acknowledgment that what has been tried for three and a half years has failed. Israelis and Palestinians can probably wait this period out, to see if a new president or a re-elected Obama has any new policy ideas. But the Iranian nuclear weapons program is not in suspension, and dozens of Syrians are dying each day. November 6 and January 20 are very far away in those policy contexts.

Consider what Mrs. Clinton said at the international meeting on Syria just held in Paris.

What can every nation and group represented here do? I ask you to reach out to Russia and China, and to not only urge but demand that they get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. I don’t think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all — nothing at all — for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime. The only way that will change is if every nation represented here directly and urgently makes it clear that Russia and China will pay a price. Because they are holding up progress, blockading it. That is no longer tolerable.

That summation of America’s policy and our situation today is far grimmer than Mrs. Clinton appears to recognize. The situation is “no longer tolerable” but there is nothing we plan to do about it except to ask other, smaller, weaker nations to plead with Russia and China to be nicer. With such leadership , and such refusal to acknowledge the bankruptcy of current policies in the Middle East, we can expect a grim summer indeed.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Dan Friedman

    “…we can expect a grim summer indeed.”

    We? Not me. I’m looking forward to Israel attacking Iran and the upheaval in international relations that follows.

  • Posted by Garrard Glenn

    What’s with this pretense as to our omnipotence? That should have died a long time ago. Indeed, it never should have been born.

    States operate in their own perceived self-interest. Occasionally we can alter that perception. Often, we cannot. This is the simple order of things. Accordingly, there will be more “failures” than ” successes.”

    The Palestinians insist on a right of return. There is a logic to this insistence. The Arabs never formally agreed to be imperially dominated by the Ottoman Turks for 500 years. Then, in 1918, they did not formally agree to the transfer of the old Ottoman empire to the conquering European forces. And, they certainly did not agree to the Sykes-Picot treaty,whereby the League of Nations, a Western construct in which they had no say, allowed several European nations to colonize the middle eastern Arab lands. And, finally, the Arabs did not agree with the 1947 United Nations decision to create two states out of the old British mandate of Palestine, one Jewish, and one Arab.

    The Arabs and Palestinians have had no say in their own geo-political affairs for 500 years. And, they are fed up.

    it would be far more logical for the Palestinians to take half a loaf, and accept Israel in peace, and with the inevitable ensuing prosperity. What’s done was done; let’s get on with it.

    But, they will not. Why? Because their values are different. They feel humiliated, and dishonored. Their perceived honor is more important to them than practical solutions that involve compromise. No. Like European gentlemen
    of a mere two hundred years ago, they would rather duel, and risk death, than accept any insults to their honor. In this way, they are rather old-fashioned. Perhaps one day they will change. Perhaps not.

    What to do? I suggest some Israeli leader speak to them by first acknowledging the above historical insults. That would take more guts than are normally possessed by the average, or even above-average politician. And, of course, it would by no means guarantee a change in attitude on the part of the Palestinians. But it would definitely
    clear the air. The Palestinians would doubtless be impressed by the courage of any leader willing to face and state these simple but enduring matters of humiliation and non-representation.

    Don’t get me wrong. Like the vast majority of Americans, I support Israel, through thick, and thin. We Americans must guarantee the security of the Jewish state, in perpetuity. Period.

    But. Some hard things have happened in that land, with unresolved repercussions. Somebody should start talking honestly about all that.

  • Posted by Jay T.

    A hard summer indeed. With the Summer Olympics to be held in the backyard of Islamic extremism, forty years after Munich, there is much to be concerned about, security notwithstanding.

  • Posted by Bob Brown

    Gerrard: You make some good points, but exclude others that need to be made. Firstly, Palestinians like modern day Syrians, Lebanese, Iraqis, and Jordanians never formed a state because they never considered themselves a “people.” Ottoman/Turks, Persian/Iranians, Egyptians did, and hence formed nation states early on. Palestinian nationalism only came to the fore in contradistinction to Zionism. Palestinian national identity only began in the early twentieth century.
    Your points about Sykes-Picot and the mandates are well taken, but more important is the fact that the Palestinians have never agreed to any compromise of any kind (Peel Commision, U.N. Partition Plan of 1947, Clinton in 2000, Olmert 2008). Agreeing that both sides have valid claims, history shows us that one side is always ready for compromise the other side never is.
    Also, when Netanyahu finally agreed to a settlement freeze of ten months, Abbas showed up nine months and one week later and promptly demanded another settlement freeze.
    Further the Israelis have always shown a penchant for compromise and sacrifice. The hard right wing Begin gave up the Sinai for a peace treaty, the harder line Sharon unilaterally pulled out of Gaza, thousands of Palestinian prisoners have been released as good will gestures. The Palestinians have never done a darn thing to prove they have any interest at all in a peace treaty.
    The usually unspoken points must be stated as well. Islam does not permit any land that was ever Muslim to be returned to infidels. Further, The Arab defeat in 1948 is referred to by the Palestinians as the Nakba – Catastrophe. There won’t be peace because the Palestinian leadership doesn’t want it. Watchdog groups like MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch display myriad comments by Palestinians in leadership positions stating that their true goal is the elimination of Israel. Of course these comments are never made to the Western press.

    Point of information: The Ottomans riled Palestine for 400 years not 500, begining in the 16th century and ending after WW1.

  • Posted by Ron M

    Dear Garrard Glenn, we appreciate your support. But from here in Israel let me be clear. There will never be any “Right of Return” – There’s a state of Israel now, the Palestinians on their own accord chose to leave it, as opposed to becoming citizens as offered by Israel. Many other Palestinian Arabs did, they now make up 20% of Israel’s population.

    In life you deal with the consequences of your actions, or your mistakes. We are not rolling back time for the Palestinians, and we are not accepting a single Palestinian to Israel, most especially since those ‘refugees’ are 3-4 generations out. In INTL law Refugee status is not passed on generationally, only for the Palestinians this is done. It’s a travesty.. to real refugees.

    No more bending over backwards to accomodate the absurd reasons Palestinians refuse, and have refused to make peace for 60+ years. Screw their honor. It’s not our problem in Israel to satiate Palestinian deranged views on ‘honor’.

    In life, you snooze.. You lose.

  • Posted by Angel

    Garrard, besides the other excellent responses you received above, I’d also add that giving so much credence and room to the notion of Palestinian “honor” is not going to change their attitude in any way. The Germans’ and the Japane’s “honor” at the end of WWII was trampled upon, and rightly so because they fully deserved it. The same goes for the Palestinians: “Vae Victis”, whoe unto the vanquished, especially since they were the initial aggressors. As someone else put it here, the Palestinians need to learn to live with the consequences of their actions rather than whine about their non-existent “honor”. That concept has been completely devalued because they use it as an excuse for refusing to grow up (not to mention as a sick justification to murder their women when deemed disobedient). “Palestinian honor” is a complete oxymoron.

  • Posted by Peter

    Russia and China are on the sidelines? I think this Administration is on the sidelines. Russia is on the field, doing all it can to support and arm the Syrian Baath. It has a detestable and immoral Syria policy, but at least it has a policy and is undeterred in implementing it, not sitting and complaining like Secstate Clinton.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required