Elliott Abrams, a well-known neoconservative ideologue, is a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. A key adviser on Mideast policy at the National Security Council (NSC) during the George W. Bush presidency, Abrams was a leading proponent of pursuing an aggressive "war on terror" after the 9/11 attacks.
Previously, Abrams was a key figure in the Ronald Reagan administration before being convicted (and later pardoned) of charges related to the Iran-Contra scandal. Abrams is the son-in-law of former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz and writer Midge Decter, the trailblazing couple who helped shape neoconservatism in the 1970s. His spouse, Rachel Abrams, who passed away in 2013, was an activist based at the Emergency Committee for Israel.
Abrams has used his perch at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), including his CFR blog "Pressure Points," to comment on high-profile U.S. foreign policy issues and discuss political problems in the Middle East, often with a view to encouraging U.S. intervention and promoting a right-wing Israel-centric agenda.
Abrams has also been a fervent supporter of launching strikes on Syria. In the wake of the takeover of swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria by the so-called Islamic State group (IS or ISIS), Abrams called for a "wider use of power in Syria than solely attacking ISIS." Air strikes, he wrote in September 2014, should be "broad enough to greatly restrict Assad's ability to use air power as an instrument of terror."
Abrams has further implied that American ground forces should be deployed in Syria and Iraq, writing: "If not American [ground forces] then those of some capable force, will also be needed. Combat forces may not be needed, but advisers certainly will be and in the thousands. It is not at all clear that any other forces–Jordanian, Emirati, or Saudi–can actually perform this function that Americans perform so well."
Abrams has sought to tie U.S. intervention in Syria and Iraq to the Iranian nuclear issue, saying that a "display of American power and leadership in Iraq and Syria" should "remind Iran that in the end it is a third world nation of 75 million confronting a superpower."
Abrams supported a congressional resolution that would give Obama the authority to attack Syria, but vigorously criticized the president for seeking one, implying that it weakened U.S. credibility. He opined in a September 2013 piece of Politico: "Who, in Jerusalem or Tehran, will now believe that 'all options are on the table' and that the president might really use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Who in Moscow or Beijing will now think this president is a leader who must be feared?" He concluded that "this president set out, four and half years ago, to reduce American power in the world. … He has delivered."
In Egypt, on the other hand, Abrams broke with many of his neoconservative allies—and seemingly steered away from his thinking during the Reagan administration, when he vouched for the human rights records of right-wing regimes receiving U.S. military assistance in Latin America—and argued in August 2013 that the U.S. should halt its assistance to Egypt's military following its overthrow of elected Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi and its subsequent violent crackdown on his supporters. "Like most Americans, I would like to see the Muslim Brotherhood out of power forever, but killing demonstrators sympathetic to ousted President Mohammed Morsi is not going to bring long-term stability to Egypt or defeat the Brotherhood," Abrams wrote. "Cutting off aid is the only serious way to tell the Egyptian military that its current conduct is beyond the pale."
In a June 2014 article for Politico titled, "The Man Who Broke the Middle East," Abrams sought to portray President Obama as responsible for much of the instability in the region. Abrams wrote: "The Middle East that Obama inherited in 2009 was largely at peace, for the surge in Iraq had beaten down the al Qaeda-linked groups. U.S. relations with traditional allies in the Gulf, Jordan, Israel and Egypt were very good. Iran was contained, its Revolutionary Guard forces at home. Today, terrorism has metastasized in Syria and Iraq, Jordan is at risk, the humanitarian toll is staggering, terrorist groups are growing fast and relations with U.S. allies are strained."
In response, a commentator for the New Republic opined: "Abrams's piece is a rant about President Barack Obama. If it appears odd that someone would claim that Obama, who came to office in 2009, "broke" the world's most infamously broken region, well, it is. The article is almost criminally confusing and ill-argued, which means that it must count, for Abrams, as recidivism."
In early 2013, Abrams was a leading neoconservative critic of President Obama's nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to serve as defense secretary during Obama's second term. Instead of focusing on policy disagreements, however, Abrams publicly and repeatedly accused Hagel of holding anti-Semitic views, writing in the Weekly Standard that "Hagel seems to have a thing about 'the Jews.'" He repeated the charge in an NPR interview, leading the network's ombudsman to admit that he was "troubled" that Abrams was "allowed to use NPR to make an inflammatory allegation for which he offered precious little proof."
"As Ali Gharib of the Daily Beast and others have documented, these charges are baseless," wrote Foreign Policy's Steven Walt. "Not only have prominent Israelis leapt to Hagel's defense against these smears, but so have important American Jewish leaders and some of Hagel's longtime Jewish friends from Nebraska. Abrams knows all this, of course, but that has not led him to retract his earlier calumnies against a distinguished public servant and decorated soldier." Calling the anti-Semitism charge "an odious tactic that runs contrary to how one should behave in a great democracy like the United States," Walt called on Haas to "make a stand for reasoned, rational discourse" and demand that Abrams publicly apologize to Hagel.
Abrams, however, stuck by his accusations, claiming that Hagel believes "lobbying by American Jews to be illegitimate and offensive."
Commenting on Abrams' resilient prominence in the U.S. foreign policy establishment despite a host of scandals—from Iran-contra to Iraq to the Hagel fight—Salon's Jordan Michael Smith wrote that "Abrams' bizarre reincarnation as a pseudo-statesman shows that even committing crimes counts as insufficient to merit excommunication from government service." Smith concluded by quoting a former Joint Chiefs chairman who said of Abrams, "This snake's hard to kill."
Iran has long been a focus of Abram's advocacy. He has censured the Obama administration's nuclear negotiations with moderate leaders in Tehran. "We are fooling ourselves if we see in [President Hassan] Rouhani a reformer who wishes to change the Iranian system, move toward democracy, and abandon the nuclear weapons program. That 'Rouhani narrative' was carefully constructed to ensnare Western diplomats, officials, and journalists. We have no excuse if we fall for it," Abrams wrote in his CFR blog in October 2013.
Regarding negotiations over Iran nuclear program, Abrams wrote in mid-2014 that "the road to peace does not lie through weak agreements with brutal dictatorships" and that "any agreement that strengthens the Iranian regime–that enhances its reputation, that gives it greater leverage in the Middle East, or that strengthens its strangle-hold on the Iranian people–serves neither the cause of freedom nor that of peace."
Remarked one commentator: "If the negotiations fail, the chances of military action increase exponentially. The consequences promise to be disastrous, both to the people of Iran and to the global economy. More death and misery. But, for Mr. Abrams, all that suffering can be winked at."
In January 2013, Abrams wrote a blog post claiming that Iran's Supreme Leader had told former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar—a member of Spain's right-wing Partido Popular and a longtime European proponent of various neoconservative-led interventions in the Middle East—that the Supreme Leader's job is "to set Israel on fire." Abrams claimed to have heard the story at a Henry Jackson Society-Foundation for Defense of Democracies conference in Washington, although the remarks were not reported elsewhere. "As we think through the likelihood of arriving at a good negotiated solution with Iran, and the possibility of persuading and pressuring the Supreme Leader to abandon his nuclear weapons program," Abrams concluded, "it is worth keeping this rare encounter with him by a Western democratic leader very much in mind."
Abrams argued in an August 2012 post for the Weekly Standard blog that Congress should vote on a joint resolution to give the president the authority to go to war with Iran. Commenting on Abram's proposal, ThinkProgress surmised: "The fact that an adviser who played a key role in molding Ryan's foreign policy views is defending dangerous brinksmanship raises serious questions about whether the Romney-Ryan policy might tilt hawkish once in office. Indeed, one commonality amongst the advising corps is a worrying willingness to casually advocate the use of American military force. It's also important to note that, Abrams' distortions notwithstanding, President Obama has said Iran with a nuclear weapon poses a threat to regional and international security has made a 'categorical statement' that his administration's policy is preventing Iran from acquiring one."
In a January 2011 post on his CFR blog, Abrams highlighted apparent setbacks in Iran's nuclear program to urge the United States to aggressively pursue regime-change strategies in that country, including strengthening sanctions. He wrote: "The new Republican leaders of the House Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, and Intelligence Committees—respectively Buck McKeon, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Mike Rogers—ought to make this their first order of business. They should be asking right now what more the United States and our allies can be doing to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program, make our sanctions more effective, and support democratic dissidents in Iran."
The NSC Neocon
Abrams was widely regarded as a key champion within the George W. Bush administration of the neoconservative line on foreign affairs, shunning negotiations in favor of confrontational U.S. policies and promoting views in line with those of hardliners in Israel, who have rejected land-for-peace proposals like those negotiated as part of the Oslo peace talks, which Abrams opposed.
Abrams served as a point person for policies related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pushed a hardline stance on Iran, Syria, and Iraq. Abrams also appeared to use his perch in the NSC to fight efforts by some administration officials and members of Congress to promote diplomatic approaches to crises. The Inter Press Service reported in early April 2007: "Just as [Abrams] worked with Reagan hardliners to undermine the Arias Plan [for Central America] 20 years ago, so he appears to be doing what he can to undermine recent efforts by Saudi King Abdullah to initiate an Arab-Israeli peace process and, for that matter, by Republican realists, and even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to push it forward."
After Bush took office in 2001, Abrams was appointed to serve as the NSC's chief human rights officer and later as senior director of Near East and North African Affairs. In January 2005, after Bush's second inauguration, the White House announced that Abrams would serve as Bush's deputy assistant and as the deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy under national security advisor Stephen Hadley, who had been Condoleezza Rice's deputy at the NSC.
Abrams often appeared alongside Hadley during trips to the Middle East and elsewhere. During a May 2008 trip to Jerusalem aboard Air Force One, Hadley and Abrams discussed the Bush administration's involvement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during Bush's tenure as president. Hadley opined: "What [Bush] did was really launch—what the parties did was launch a three-pronged effort. One was the formal negotiation of the contours of the Palestinian state—borders, refugees, security, Jerusalem. Second was to accelerate the building of the institutions of a Palestinian state so the Palestinians would be able to govern democratically the state that they would get as a result of the negotiations. And finally, at the same time, he negotiated a third element, which was the broader outreach to the Arab world, to get the Arabs involved in this process—so as I say, Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation to be in the context of a broader Arab-Israeli reconciliation."
Hadley then turned to Abrams, asking, "Elliott, do you want to add anything to that?" Abrams shifted the discussion to groups opposed to Israel, saying, "I would add one thing, which is that as we move forward there are those who would like to slow us down and stop us. It's interesting, as I was listening to you recite the progress of the last seven years, one other thing that's happened in these years is a very significant increase in the amount of assistance that Iran is giving to Hamas. Seven years ago there really wasn't much at all. Now there is a lot. So you see the enemies of a peaceful settlement stepping up their activities in an effort to stop us."
Abrams participated in a November 2004 meeting in the Oval Office between Bush and Natan Sharansky, a hardline Likud Party figure. The meeting was arranged by the president after he read galleys of Sharansky's book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror, which reportedly helped inspire Bush's democracy agenda.
Sharansky's connection to the neoconservatives dates to the mid-1970s, when he worked closely with Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-WA), who employed Abrams, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and other nascent neoconservatives. After Jackson's failure to win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Abrams joined the staff of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) and later became his chief of staff. Abrams later switched to the Republican Party and went to work for the Reagan administration.
In 2006, Abrams played a role in shaping the U.S. response to the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah. The New York Times noted that Secretary of State Rice was accompanied on her mediating trips in the Middle East "by two men with very different outlooks on the conflict"—namely, Abrams and the State Department's C. David Welch. According to the Times, "Abrams, a neoconservative with strong ties to [Vice President Dick] Cheney, has pushed the administration to throw its support behind Israel. During Ms. Rice's travels, he kept in direct contact with Mr. Cheney's office."
According to an unnamed U.S. government consultant "with close ties to Israel" interviewed by Seymour Hersh, Israel had put together bombing plans long before Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, which set off the conflict. As they developed their plans, according to the consultant, Israeli officials went to Washington "to get a green light for the bombing operation and to find out how much the United States would bear.... Israel began with Cheney. It wanted to be sure that it had his support and the support of his office and the Middle East desk of the National Security Council."
Although an NSC spokesman who talked with Hersh denied that Abrams had any role in supporting Israel's plan, a second unnamed U.S. official, a former intelligence officer, claimed, "We told Israel, 'Look, if you guys have to go, we're behind you all the way. But we think it should be sooner rather than later—the longer you wait, the less time we have to evaluate and plan for Iran before Bush gets out of office.'"
While many of Bush's neoconservative supporters were generally pleased with the administration's strong backing of Israel, some criticized the State Department and Rice for softening many of Bush's policies. Abrams reportedly worked to intervene on Rice's behalf. A 2006 New York Times article reported that State Department officials said Abrams served "as a buffer for Ms. Rice with some neoconservatives who are critical of her policies. 'The genius of Elliott Abrams is that he's Elliott Abrams,' one senior administration official said. 'How can he be accused of not sufficiently supporting Israel?'"
When she still served as Bush's national security advisor, Rice apparently relied on Abrams for his unambiguous views. A friend of Rice told the New Yorker that she saw Abrams "not just as a good manager but a good strategist. As an NSC administrator, you want someone who can think several moves ahead, who has a peripheral vision and an instinct to get where you want to go—someone who can really play the high-stakes game."
Richard John Neuhaus, a longtime Abrams acquaintance and fellow neoconservative, told the New Yorker: "What runs through Elliott's thinking is a deep, almost quasi-religious devotion to democracy. He thinks real democratic change can happen in the Middle East. It's breathtaking, in a way."
History and Trajectory
Throughout his career, Abrams has moved back and forth between government and a web of right-wing think tanks and policy institutes, holding positions as a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), advisory council member of the American Jewish Committee, and charter member of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).
Abrams's family ties have also placed him at the center of neoconservatism. His 1980 marriage to Rachel Decter brought him into the Podhoretz clan, a key family associated with neoconservatism. Abrams became a frequent contributor to the American Jewish Committee's Commentary magazine when it was edited by his father-in-law Norman Podhoretz. While in the Reagan administration, Abrams also frequently made appearances at the forums organized by mother-in-law Decter's Committee for the Free World in the 1980s, a rightist foreign policy pressure group that was co-led by Donald Rumsfeld.
As an aide to Senator Jackson in the 1970s, Abrams began his political career mixing the soft and hard sides of the neoconservative agenda as both a proponent of Jackson's strategically driven human rights policies and as an advocate of his proposals to boost the military-industrial complex. Through Jackson, Abrams became involved with a group of Cold Warriors called the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, which was led by Democratic Party-affiliated neoconservatives like Penn Kemble.
Former members of Jackson's staff who later received posts in the Reagan administration foreign policy team included such neoconservative operatives as Feith, Perle, Frank Gaffney, Charles Horner, and Ben Wattenberg. Another up-and-coming neoconservative who was close to Jackson and later joined the Reagan administration was Paul Wolfowitz, who together with his mentor, Albert Wohlstetter, advised the senator on arms issues. Other Jackson Democrats who secured appointments in the Reagan administration included Jeane Kirkpatrick, as UN ambassador, and neoconservatives on her staff, such as Joshua Muravchik, Steven Munson, Carl Gershman, and Kenneth Adelman.
Abrams is best known for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. He was indicted by a special prosecutor for intentionally deceiving Congress about the Reagan administration's role in supporting the Contras—including his own central role in the Iran-Contra arms deal. In this deal, national security staff led by Oliver North brokered the sale of weapons from Israel to Iran in exchange for Iran helping broker the release of six Americans held hostage by Hezbollah. Some of the money made from the sale was channeled to the U.S.-backed and -organized Contras, who were spearheading a counterrevolution against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Congress had prohibited U.S. government assistance to the Contras because of their pattern of human rights abuses. At the time of his involvement, Abrams was the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, working under George Shultz. Abrams pleaded guilty to two lesser offenses (including withholding information from Congress) to avoid a trial and a possible jail term. Throughout the proceedings, Abrams denied knowledge of the NSC and CIA programs to support the Contras. He blamed Congress for the deaths of two U.S. military members shot down by the Sandinistas in an illegal, clandestine arms supply operation over Nicaragua. He described the legal proceedings against him as "Kafkaesque" and called his prosecutors "filthy bastards" and "vipers."
Abrams and five other Iran-Contra figures were pardoned on Christmas Eve 1992 by President George H.W. Bush, shortly before he left office.
In his book Reagan, Bush, and Right-Wing Politics, Philip Burch underscores Abrams' unapologetic attitude regarding the excesses of the war in Nicaragua: "A few years after he stepped down as assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, Abrams, once the State Department's top human rights official, wrote an article on El Salvador in the National Review titled 'An American Victory'; at the end of this piece he proudly proclaimed that 'El Salvador's decade of guerilla war cost thousands of Salvadoran lives, and those of eight Americans. The violence is ending now in part because of the collapse of Communism throughout the world, but more because Communist efforts to take power by force were resisted and defeated. In this small corner of the Cold War, American policy was right, and it was successful.' Perhaps Mr. Abrams should read Mark Danner's The Massacre at El Mozote (which contains an appendix giving name, age, and gender for almost every one of the 784 people killed in this grizzly episode)," which was perpetrated by the Salvadoran Army's Atacatl Battalion, a U.S.-trained counterinsurgency force.
Abrams, like a number of other prominent neoconservatives, was not invited to serve in the George H.W. Bush administration. In 1992 he helped form the Committee for U.S. Interests in the Middle East, which was regarded by many as an advocacy campaign to ensure that U.S. policy was aligned with the Likud Party in Israel.Other members included Perle, Feith, Gaffney, and John Lehman. The committee spoke out against what it perceived as a dangerous distancing between the George H.W. Bush administration and Israel in the administration's pressure for Israel to pull out of some occupied territories and halt its campaign to expand settlements in those zones.
In 1996 Abrams became president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. At EPPC, he wrote widely on foreign policy issues, especially Mideast policy, and on cultural issues, including what he saw as the threats posed by U.S. secular society to Jewish identity. Directed by Abrams from 1996 to 2001, EPPC has counted among its board members well-connected figures in the neocon matrix including Neuhaus, Bill Kristol, and Mary Ann Glendon. (For more on EPPC, see Right Web Profile: Ethics and Public Policy Center.)
In his writings,Abrams has consistently voiced strong support for Likud positions on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and against "land for peace" negotiations. After the launch of the Al Aqsa Intifada in late September 2000, Abrams lambasted mainstream Jewish groups for their continued support for peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and for their call to Israel to halt its attacks.
Abrams has also established strong Likudnik positions in articles for Commentary and in various books. Abrams authored the chapter on the Middle East in the 2000 blueprint for U.S. foreign policy by the Project for the New American Century. Edited by PNAC founders Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy is a playbook on how to deal with U.S. adversaries. In his chapter, Abrams laid out the "peace through strength" credo that became the operating principle of the George W. Bush administration. "Our military strength and willingness to use it will remain a key factor in our ability to promote peace," wrote Abrams. "Strengthening Israel, our major ally in the region, should be the central core of U.S. Middle East policy, and we should not permit the establishment of a Palestinian state that does not explicitly uphold U.S. policy in the region." Presaging the Mideast policy of the Bush administration, Abrams wrote: U.S. interests "do not lie in strengthening Palestinians at the expense of Israelis, abandoning our overall policy of supporting the expansion of democracy and human rights, or subordinating all other political and security goals to the 'success' of the Arab-Israel 'peace process'." Like other right-wing Zionists, Abrams refers to the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis not for what it is—a conflict over occupied Palestinian land—but rather as an "Arab-Israel" conflict, implying that U.S. support of Israel necessitates a foreign policy that confronts all the Arab countries.
In his book Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America, Abrams takes care to insist that his positions imply no "disloyalty" to the United States, but at the same times insists that Jews must be loyal to Israel because they "are in a permanent covenant with God and with the land of Israel and its people. Their commitment will not weaken if the Israeli government pursues unpopular policies."
Abrams' other books include The Influence of Faith (2001), Security and Sacrifice (1995),Undue Process (1993). He has also contributed articles to Commentary, Weekly Standard, National Interest, Public Interest, and National Review. In 1998 he and Donald Kagan edited the EPPC volume Honor Among Nations: Intangible Interests and Foreign Policy.