Clash of the Strategists

A U.S. Marine, who is part of a military honor guard, takes his position before a welcoming ceremony for German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere

Clearly, the debate over how America should conduct itself on the world stage is far from over.

May-June 2018

“many South Koreans have an interest in the perpetuation of the Kim Family Regime, or something like it, since [its] demise would usher in a period of economic sacrifice that nobody in South Korea is prepared for. . . . China’s infrastructure investments are already laying the groundwork for a Tibet-like buffer state in much of North Korea, to be ruled indirectly through Beijing’s Korean cronies once the KFR unravels. . . . From the point of view of the average South Korean, the Chinese look to be offering a better deal than the Americans, whose plan for a free and democratic unified peninsula would require South Korean taxpayers to pay much of the cost. The more that Washington thinks narrowly in terms of a democratic Korean Peninsula, the more Beijing has the potential to lock the United States out of it.”

It is an observation that should give Trump administration policymakers pause as the president seeks an agreement with Kim Jong-un.

IN CONTRAST to Kaplan’s cautious realism, Elliot Abrams argues passionately and forcefully that democracy, that quintessential American value, is actually a universal one, and that Washington should do all it can to promote it in the Arab world, democracy’s stagnant backwater. An unabashed neoconservative—his intellectual honesty contrasts sharply with many of his fellow neocons, who deny their intellectual plumage—he spends a considerable portion at the outset of his book relitigating the policy debates of the 1970s and 1980s. Abrams is a prince of the neocon movement. Related by marriage to neocon stalwart Midge Decter (wife of Norman Podhoretz), he had worked for both Sens. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Patrick Moynihan, the hawkish liberal Democrats who were political fathers of the neocon movement. Not surprisingly, Kissinger comes in for special criticism because he valued détente with the Soviets over human rights, and especially because he opposed the Jackson-Vanik amendment that linked trade with the USSR to Soviet Jews’ freedom of emigration. In fact, as Kaplan notes, but Abrams does not, Jewish emigration from the USSR actually declined after the amendment passed Congress. Abrams will only go so far as to say, “Debate continues on whether the amendment itself led to more emigration,” which, of course, is different from acknowledging that it had precisely the opposite effect. Abrams next contends, surprisingly, that “it can safely be said that emigration increased whenever the Soviets wanted anything from the United States, from increased trade to approval of the SALT I and SALT II treaties.” Having just acknowledged that any Soviet linkage between its desire for increased trade and emigration was debatable, he then fails to note that neocons, to a man or woman, bitterly opposed the SALT treaties. Evidently, while “realism” should not be permitted to trump humanitarian concerns, they considered it perfectly acceptable for an ideology that opposed arms control to do so.

After providing an account of the hoary battles between neocons and realists, Abrams then turns to the theme of his book: the Freedom Agenda and the Arabs. He contends that despite cultural and historical differences with the West, citizens of the Arab world value and long for democracy every bit as much as those of other countries. Employing extensive, indeed far too lengthy, quotations from President George W. Bush in particular, he asserts that Bush was really the only president who understood that promoting human rights involved not merely focusing on individuals, such as dissidents imprisoned by dictatorial regimes, but instead seeking to plant the seeds of democracy through greater support for nascent political parties. For this reason, he is critical of Jimmy Carter, who, while elevating the importance of human rights, did so only in terms of the rights of individuals, without calling for wholesale changes in governance.

Abrams’s commitment to overhauling the way the Arab world is governed even includes a role for Islamic parties. He argues that their participation in government would moderate them, while their exclusion would only result in their alienation and, ultimately, insurrection.

Abrams devotes most of his attention to the non-monarchical Arab states, Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen in particular. With the notable exception of Bahrain, which he lumps with the four civilian-led regimes, he argues that the traditional monarchies—the Gulf states, Jordan and Morocco—have the advantage of both legitimacy and gradual (if halting) attempts at reform. But just as Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms have focused less on democracy and more on improving the economic and social conditions of ordinary Saudis, the same can be said about the reforms undertaken by the other traditional rulers. Some, like Kings Mohammed of Morocco and Abdullah of Jordan, as well as the emir of Kuwait, do work with parliaments, even allowing Islamists to run for and win seats in parliamentary elections. Yet power remains firmly in the hands of the monarchical families and their most loyal supporters. The ruling families of the other traditional monarchies, including Bahrain, likewise retain power. Moreover, Abrams does not give sufficient credit to the Bahraini Al Khalifa family for attempting to reach out to the Shia majority, nor does he once mention Iran’s attempts to use the Shia to destabilize what it calls its fourteenth province (as Saddam called Kuwait his nineteenth province).