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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Middle East Diplomacy: Forgetting the Past

by Elliott Abrams
May 8, 2013


During Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Moscow, it seems we have proposed an international conference on Syria as a step toward peace there. Here is the BBC version:

Russia and the US have agreed to work towards convening an international conference to find a political solution to the conflict in Syria. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry announced it would follow on from an Action Group for Syria meeting in Geneva last June. Mr Kerry said they would try to “bring both sides to the table”.

International conference…Geneva…Middle East…Russia…it all brought back memories. Once upon a time, the Carter Administration had the same idea. In 1978 it decided this was the way to move forward in the Middle East. So opposed to this idea were Egypt under Sadat and Israel under Begin that they worked together to thwart it; this was a central factor in Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem to address the Knesset. In particular Sadat feared that Syria, backed by the Russians, would have undue influence at any such conference.

Today’s situation is different in very many ways, yet there is a thread that ties these two efforts together: the foolish American view that the Russians really mean to help. Sadat and Begin doubted it, and they were right. It is difficult to understand why Secretary Kerry thinks Vladimir Putin and we have common interests, because Putin has been arming and supporting the Assad regime. Nor does Syria’s humanitarian crisis appear to move him. And as for the fate of Jordan, a key American strategic interest, Putin no doubt thinks it would be just fine to see Jordan unstable.

This time around, there will be no Begin and Sadat to rescue us from a foolish American diplomatic effort. But the Syrians fighting to overthrow the regime, and the Israeli determination to prevent the current crisis from strengthening Hezbollah, seem likely to have a greater impact on events in Syria than words spoken by American and Russian diplomats. The American position so far appears to be to evade action, using words, red lines, visits to Russia, and next an international conference to provide justifications for doing too little to protect our interests.

And all of this comes in the aftermath of President Obama’s apparent bluff and the disappearing red line. Last January, months before the President made that great error, former Secretary of State George P. Shultz spoke here at the Council on Foreign Relations and had something to say about the subject. Words of wisdom:

When I was in the Marine Corps boot camp, sergeant hands me my rifle. He says, take good care of this rifle; this is your best friend. And remember one thing: never point this rifle at anybody unless you’re willing to pull the trigger. No empty threats.

Now, I told this to President Reagan once. He kind of blanked on it, and I said, Mr. President, we need to be very careful in what we say. Because if we say something is unacceptable, that means there have got to be consequences if it happens. You say something is unacceptable, and it happens and you don’t do anything, nobody pays attention to you anymore.

Vladimir Putin made the American Secretary of State cool his heels for three hours before seeing him. Perhaps there is a connection here.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Eliyahu

    The Carter administration foreign policy which wanted an international conference to decide how to do away with Israel, was the brain-child of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Insecurity Advisor. But Zbig was also a mentor to Pres. Obama. Hence, the same sort of bad thinking may be going on again.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    It would seem ( the silence of the media notwithstanding ) that Obama’s “red line” posturing is all but forgotten … which is more than okay with him .

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