Clash of the Strategists

Clash of the Strategists

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

Kaplan’s volume includes an essay, written over a decade ago, that is likely to command special interest. In “When North Korea Falls,” Kaplan speculates as to the effect of a collapsed North Korean regime on the South, on America and on Korea’s neighbors. He observes that

“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).

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.