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

Abrams points to America’s successful promotion of democracy in postwar Germany and Japan; in Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines; in Latin America, notably El Salvador; and in Soviet central and eastern Europe. Every one of those places, with the exception of Japan, Taiwan and Korea, had some degree of democratic tradition prior to their falling into the hands of autocrats and dictators. Indeed, Japan also had a parliament prior to World War II and then, after having suffered from history’s only nuclear strikes, had no choice but to adopt a constitution drafted by Americans. As for Taiwan and Korea, both suffered under dictators for decades before transforming into democracies.

Abrams devotes relatively little space to America’s efforts to promote democracy in Iraq—at the cost of many lives and much treasure—subsequent to the initial defeat of Saddam. He correctly states that the initial motivation for the attack on Saddam was the belief, mistaken as it turned out but no less legitimate, that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction. While he acknowledges that Iraq was a “morass,” all he can say about the ongoing American involvement there is that “it is fair to say that the combination of our Bush administration rhetoric with the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq led to the widespread conclusion that those invasions . . . were closely related to and perhaps the inevitable product of the Freedom Agenda.” Indeed, he then goes on essentially to deny that this was the case at all: “This was certainly not the view we took inside the administration. We had in mind a variety of traditional and nontraditional efforts to press for change in the Middle East.” That may indeed have been Abrams’s personal view. It was not the view of other neocons, especially those whom Ahmed Chalabi had led into believing that removing Saddam would not only lead to a democratic Iraq, but would trigger a chain reaction leading to democracy in other Arab states, and, a fortiori, create the conditions for peace with Israel. Surely, given Chalabi’s influence in Washington in the early years of the Bush administration, those who conflated regime change in Iraq with the Freedom Agenda were not very far off the mark.

Abrams implicitly criticizes Condoleezza Rice for seeking an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement at the expense of the Freedom Agenda. He asserts that in seeking an agreement that would be a capstone to both the president’s term of office and her own as secretary of state, she felt that “pressure on the Arabs for internal reforms would have to take a back seat to ‘the Annapolis process,’ as the renewed effort on the Israeli-Palestinian front was called.” He does not mention his own skepticism regarding a two-state solution, which underpins the peace process. Just recently, he pointed out to Jewish Insider that

“I have long believed, and said publicly, that an independent and sovereign Palestinian State is unrealistic and is not actually viable. It would fall onto either Israel or Jordan, and it is much more logical that it should have some relationship with Jordan, which is a Muslim Arab state.”

No wonder that he would subordinate the Israel-Palestine peace process to the Freedom Agenda.

Abrams acknowledges that elections do not necessarily bring about democracy. Indeed, Abrams concedes that the participation of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian elections was a disaster. That does not lead him to forego support for elections in potential democracies, nor to exclude Islamists from participating in them. In the case of Hamas, he argues that “the most important error the Bush administration made was to permit a terrorist group to engage in politics without first laying down its arms and indeed without even pledging to do so.” He seems to overlook the reality that Washington might not be able to dictate the terms of who does, and who does not, participate in elections held by another country.

Abrams holds up Tunisia as a model of how the Freedom Agenda should work in the Arab world, even with the participation of Islamists. Yet Tunisia is the exception; it is the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring without reverting to a new autocracy, as in Egypt, or collapsing into civil war, as in Syria and Yemen. Moreover, despite the kleptocratic corruption of the authoritarian Ben Ali government, Tunisia had long been known both for its religious tolerance—Jews and Christians could worship freely there—and for its progressive treatment of women. The latter is something Abrams is willing to forego if other elements of what he considers to constitute democracy can be established, though women might take a different view.

Finally, only two other countries, admittedly both non-Arab, have seen Islamists not only participate in elections but come into power, with distinctly unhappy results. Turkey’s Erdoğan has relaunched a brutal assault on his country’s Kurds, arrested thousands of bureaucrats and hundreds of journalists, and undermined the independence of Turkey’s court system. And the mullahs’ Iran is not exactly a model for the Freedom Agenda, despite having an elected parliament in which even Jews can serve. Nor should one forget that it was democratic Weimar Germany that saw the Nazi movement become the country’s largest political party.