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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Obama’s “New” Middle East Policy: “Modesty” or Pullback?

by Elliott Abrams
October 27, 2013


Today’s New York Times carries a remarkable story about the “new” Obama Middle East policy, based on interviews with National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The Times describes the policy as “modest,” but that is not the right word. The policy defines an American abandonment of leadership in the region.

On Iran, the new policy seeks a negotiated deal and previous claims that “all options are on the table” are gone. No one appears to have calculated how the American and Western negotiating positions are weakened when the Iranian fear of a military attack is eliminated. A second focus is the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” despite the fact that no sober Israeli or Palestinian official believes a deal can be reached at this time. The third focus is Syria, where the policy now appears to be centered on Geneva talks that are sinking even as the Times article appears in print. I would rate the new policy focus as 0 for 3.

What’s missing? A determination to end the Iranian nuclear weapons program– and to do so even if negotiations fail or if Iran’s position in the negotiations is unacceptable. A decision to prevent Iranian and Hezbollah expeditionary forces from achieving a victory in Syria that will change the balance of power in the entire region. A commitment to help those individuals in the region who are struggling peacefully for democracy and human rights. An American promise to allies, such as Jordan and the Gulf countries facing Iran, that we will stand by them in the face of refugee crises, economic difficulties, or Iranian aggression and subversion. Add it all up and what is missing is American leadership, and this is precisely the complaint – and the fear – of our friends in the region.

The Times story cannot be dismissed as sheer speculation; it is based on the words of the new National Security Advisor. It will hearten our enemies in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah and the Assad regime and Iran, and confirm to our friends there that they will be far more on their own for the next few years than they have been for most of the last few decades. Think of it this way: who will be smiling when reading that article? An Israeli thinking about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, an Egyptian newspaper editor wondering about the limits of free speech, a Jordanian fearing a continuing flow of refugees from Syria and Hezbollah/Iranian dominance there, an Emirati worried about Iranian subversion– or Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Al Assad, and Ayatollah Khamenei?

Post a Comment 11 Comments

  • Posted by stephen Albert

    The headline of the Times article talks about a modest Middle East strategy. Calling this approach a strategy is a bit of stretch.Unless ,its a strategy of avoidance.

    Rice talks about giving too much emphasis to Middle East distracting the US. from other priorities like the pivot to Asia. Yet, she deplores the President’s decision to cancel his trip to an Asian summit because of the government shutdown/default drama.

    Friday’s W.S.J reports that Prime Minster Abe says that Japan is ready to reply to any aggressive moves by China, that threaten stability in Asia. Its hard not to draw the conclusion that, having seen Obama abandon his redline over chemical weapons use in Syria,Abe doesn’t have much faith in his Asian pivot.

  • Posted by Aaron Landgarten

    The link to the New York Times article is broken.

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    Thanks. Due to my location outside the US today I cannot fix the link. But it’s easy to find the article by simply googling rice, ländler, modest.

  • Posted by Dan

    I guess in the polite diplomatic circles that Mr. Abrams travels in, nobody has heard the NY Times went over the side on its Middle East coverage ages ago. Thank goodness that can’t be said for their former subscribers.

  • Posted by ah

    The readers of this blog should certainly keep in mind the point that the Iranian regime was certainly smiling when under the Bush Administration under the “strategic” guidance and advice of Mr. Abrams, the US invaded and overthrew the regimes of Iran’s two adversaries on its borders – the Afghani Taliban and Iraq under Saddam.

  • Posted by Jay

    Mr. Abrams continues to promote the same policies that have spelled disaster for the US, as well as misery for the people of ME.

    “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” is perhaps a quote Mr. Abrams should ponder.

  • Posted by Andrew

    It seems Pres. Obama’s strategy is to simply was his hands of the whole region. Let them fight it out themselves. The winners will still sell oil.

    The biggest problem with this is that it allows Iran to get nuclear weapons. And then Saudi Arabia and Turkey will get nuclear weapons. Eventually one will go off on a ship in the harbor in New York.

  • Posted by Thanks NSA

    Ah, but what about the flip side to that coin? Saudi Arabia and even Jordan are hardly the beacon of personal freedom and liberty that form the cornerstone of American values; quite the contrary. Haven’t their inability to reform their institutions or lack thereof been a result of our guarantee to safeguard their interests and concerns? Why feel compelled to change if you know Big Brother will back you up – whether right or wrong.

    It’s about time that these so-called friends start taking ownership for their own problems, which hopefully will begin to effect the kind of change their societies desperately need.

    I would argue that our bedrock support for the Saudi monarchy breathes hypocrisy that is quite evident to any observer in the region and around the world.

  • Posted by Lily

    It was obama’s aim all along to diminish US power, abroad and at home. He loathes the West, and he loathes what it represents. That much can be said with certainty about anyone who chose to spend years at the feet of jeremiah wright.

    We can all see what is happening abroad under the obama administration; but how many are monitoring his activities at home? How many realise that muslim brotherhood functionaries — the same brotherhood rejected by libyans and egyptians — are gaining an ever-greater foothold in the US government?



  • Posted by Doc

    Eliot, I worry we are far too focused on the uranium program in Iran and ignoring the steady progress they are making on the heavy water reactor. A smart Iranian position would be to cut a deal accepting a 5% limit on U enrichment, allowing the intl. community to declare victory and an end of the crisis. The US would be isolated in its attempt to maintain sanctions until the Pu program is also canceled. The bottom line would be the Iranians would end sanctions, make the US look bad, and still maintain the ability to manufacture fissile material.

  • Posted by Omerk

    The bigger danger is not that the US is currently MIA but that this short-sighted abdication of leadership and responsibilities is much more likely to make a US intervention inevitable when someone in the region (not one known for its level-headed appraisal of options), pushes too far and a serious foreign policy team is at the helm in the US.

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