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August 11, 2009

Abrams is Wrong on Obama, History of Middle East Policy

Listed in: Israel, GOP Hypocrisies, Stop the Smears, NJDC News, Opinions

Originally published in Talking Points Memo

By Ira N. Forman, CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC)

Recently Elliot Abrams, the former deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush, penned an op-ed for the The Wall Street Journal, “Why Israel Is Nervous.” One might assume that an individual with a strong policy background would present an objective analysis of President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy and not resort to the cheapest of partisan screeds. That assumption would be wrong.

The first clue that Abrams is interested in scoring partisan points is in his review of the state of the U.S.-Israel relationship under different presidencies. He equates the pro-Israel credentials of President George H. W. Bush’s administration with those of President Bill Clinton’s. Any objective student of history knows this to be a false comparison. Bush Sr. was often critical toward Israel during his term while Clinton is remembered by large majorities of Israeli and American Jews as a trusted friend.

Abrams proceeds to claim that “no other administration, even among those experiencing considerable dissonance with Israel, started off with as many difficulties as Obama’s.” He conveniently forgets that throughout nearly the entire first year of the term of another President he once served, Ronald Reagan, there was a fierce battle between administration backers and Israel supporters over the sale of Airborne Warning and Control System surveillance planes (AWACs) to Saudi Arabia. In fact, during that battle there were Reagan supporters who characterized the congressional vote as a choice between “Reagan or Begin,” and the President himself took a direct swipe at Israel by stating that t is not the business of other nations to make American foreign policy.”

It’s not just history where Abrams can’t get his facts right when they conflict with his highly partisan agenda. Repeatedly, he substitutes his own speculation about the intentions of the Obama administration rather than analyze the actual policy. Often this speculation directly contradicts Obama’s own words.

For example, he opines that Obama’s policies indicate that he wished Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu had lost the 2009 Israeli election to former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Yet this President, unlike some past U.S. Presidents, went to great pains not to show any preference in either the Israeli election or in the following process of forming a government in Israel. In fact, in an on-the-record discussion with Jewish leaders last month the President stated that the strategic choices the U.S. faces today in the Middle East would not be different if Ehud Barack or Tzipi Livini were the Israeli Prime Minister.

Abrams also speculates that Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world, as witnessed by his speech in Cairo, is paired with a policy of distancing the U.S. from Israel. That speech was the first time an American President directly addressed the Muslim world to say that fantasies of destroying Israel must be abandoned. Obama also stated that the ties between the U.S. and Israel are unbreakable. How is this is a policy of disengaging from our relationship with Israel?

The former Bush appointee even constructs a cartoonish worldview that he attributes to our current administration. He claims that Obama’s foreign policy team is fixated on a comprehensive peace in the region to the exclusion of all other considerations. In this construction, Abrams asserts that the President believes that the key to all our problems in the region is an Israeli-Palestinian peace and that this can simply be achieved with pressure on Israel. Anyone who listens to Obama and his major foreign policy officials knows that the caricature Abrams paints of the administration’s policy is ludicrous.

What is astounding about the Abrams screed is his willful blindness to fundamental failures of the Middle East policy of the President he most recently served. Abrams blasts the Obama administration’s six-month record for supposedly being “soft” on the Iranians and for not stopping their nuclear program. Yet, he does not mention Bush’s eight years of failure to undermine the Iranian nuclear threat. He does not mention the apparent signals sent by the most recent Bush administration to restrain Israel from bombing Iranian nuclear facilities. Nor does Abrams explain why the administration he served nixed Israeli request for bunker busting bombs that are designed to destroy hardened Iranian facilities.

Moreover, Abrams repeatedly tells his reader that Obama ignores reality in favor of ideology when it comes to the Middle East. This from a representative of an administration which famously taunted its foreign policy critics that though they might believe in “reality based” analysis ”[w]e’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

The critics of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives have every right to present their views. However, they would better serve their cause if they had a bit less disregard for their reader’s knowledge of recent history and a bit greater regard for their reader’s ability to recognize the ironic.