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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Kerry Foreign Policy: Does the United States Stand for Anything at All?

by Elliott Abrams
November 5, 2013


Does the United States stand for anything at all? Do we have a view about, say, slavery, or child prostitution, or the stoning of gays?

What  should be a ridiculous question is raised by Secretary of State Kerry’s offensive obeisance to the Saudis yesterday when visiting Riyadh. Here is the AP story:

On the move for Saudi women to be allowed to drive, Kerry was careful not to appear to take sides. Noting that while the United States embraces gender equality, “it is up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure and choices and the timing of whatever events.”

Apparently, far be it from us to criticize Saudi repression of women and the ludicrous and offensive practice of preventing women from driving. How far does Secretary Kerry go with this “your own decisions about your own social structure?” Does it matter to him that “Saudis” don’t get to make that decision–because the country has no democratic institutions whatsoever?

Mr. Kerry’s abandonment of American standards when addressing the Saudi leaders was not only offensive, it was useless and unneeded. When his predecessor Condoleezza Rice used to visit there, she refused to cover her hair as current Saudi practices demand; they got over it. Had Mr. Kerry replied “well, as an American of course I think that rule about driving is ridiculous,” do we think they’d have declared war? Kerry was speaking with Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, a graduate of Princeton University who also went to prep school in the United States. Does the Secretary believe that Saud actually thinks women should not be permitted to drive, and that saying so would have offended him? Does the Secretary think he increases respect for the United States when he refuses to defend our view of equality before the law?

The Saudi episode came a day after Mr. Kerry made an inaccurate and unfortunate statement about Egypt: that it is moving toward democracy under Army rule. In an editorial the Washington Post said it all:

A Freedom House report released Monday concludes that “there has been virtually no substantive progress toward democracy . . . since the July 3 coup,” despite the military regime’s supposed “road map.” But that’s not how Secretary of State John F. Kerry sees it. “The road map is being carried out to the best of our perception,” he pronounced during a quick trip to Cairo on Sunday. A liberal constitution and elections? “All of that is, in fact, moving down the road map in the direction that everybody has been hoping for.”

What is it that Mr. Kerry doesn’t perceive? To judge that Egypt is headed toward democracy is to ignore the fact that its last elected leader and thousands of his supporters are now political prisoners facing, at best, blatantly unfair trials. It is to overlook the reality that opposition media have been shut down and that those that remain are more tightly controlled by the regime than they have been in decades. It skips over the rigging of the constitution by the military and that leading secular liberal politicians, such as former presidential candidates Mohamed ElBaradei and Ayman Nour, have been driven out of the country….Mr. Kerry’s embrace of the regime’s empty promises of democracy only makes him appear foolish — or, perhaps, as cynical as the generals.

Chalk up one point for Mr. Kerry: consistency. In both Egypt and in Saudi Arabia, he abandoned any defense of American political and social principles in order to curry favor with the folks with whom he was speaking. Nothing good ever comes of such a stance: we look weak to the very officials to whom we are trying to look strong, and walk away from the courageous individuals in those countries struggling for human rights, for women’s rights in particular, and for political freedom.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Adam

    Actually Elliott, I have to disagree with you on this one. The U.S. has done more than enough lately to piss off the powers-that-be in Egypt and SA, the two most important Sunni Arab countries. It behooves Mr. Kerry to talk nice and patch things up before the Obama administration further alienates key allies.

  • Posted by pnina judith

    Israel prefers an Egypt governed by the military rather than the Islamists. Especially the Muslim Brotherhood, whose forefathers were nazis and whose core beliefs are midevial. The new military leader is not throwing the secular liberal politicians in jail but is tossing a nasty Islamist in jail who is more concerned about the age a girl can marry and ensuring her love life is joyless.
    And come on, if the seculars are embracing Mohamed ElBaradei as their leader, I prefer the military. ElBaradei is an anti-semitic piece of crap, who can’t be trusted, especially with Iranian nucs.

  • Posted by Patrick

    Elliott, why does U.S. foreign policy need to “stand for” anything other than America’s best interests? Do you think Kerry encouraging women to drive would do anything to help the cause of women driving in Saudi? Do you think that a criticism of Egypt’s current military government will actually push them towards democracy? The answer to both questions is no. It’s time to abandon these vague, arguable principles, which cannot be applied consistently anyway, and opt for a realistic foreign policy that is responsive to events in the world as they unfold and that is always calibrating and re-calibrating positions based on America’s best interests–which are bound to fluctuate. Taking the side of an Islamist anti-democratic borderline-terrorist movement that nearly destroyed Egypt in one year in power is not taking a stand for democracy. All these problems started with the Bush administration’s naive and ill-conceived push for democracy, and have only been amplified by the naive Obama administration’s inability to understand the need for realpolitik or to articulate a cohesive foreign policy. Kerry is finally correcting 13 years of mismanaged US foreign policy.

  • Posted by Mike


    Pardon me if I was taken aback by the oh so tired blame it on the previous President. But to Mr. Abrams point and your counter. If not stating a preference for Women’s rights or any other US core democratic issue will do nothing, then why even meet at all?

    I agree with Mr. Abrams. Even were such remarks ineffective, they are still symbols of what the Nation has stood for in the past and it signals we remain committed to such beliefs.

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