Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as assistant secretary for human rights under Ronald Reagan, and as a deputy national security advisor in the administration of George W. Bush.
His latest book, “Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring,” was just released by Cambridge University Press.
Q: In your book you argue that violent Islamic extremism can only be defeated by democracy and that the U.S. is wrong in supporting Middle East dictators. How do you assess the Trump administration’s policies in this regard?
A: The only solution is a military solution against those who have taken up arms. Once people are shooting at you, you need to shoot back. But the way to stop the spread of violent Islamic extremism is through democracy. [Trump’s policies] are not yet entirely clear. A lot of people have said they are not interested in human rights or democracy but look at their decision about Egypt. The U.S. has canceled $95.7 million in aid and delayed another $195 million in aid precisely on human rights grounds. In Afghanistan, the president said we are not going to do nation building, but he also said we need to see better governance in Afghanistan. The administration is trying to figure this all out. It is a little too soon to make any judgment.
You argue in your book that America’s promotion of democracy in the Arab Middle East has been ambivalent at best. What is the reason for that?
It’s a combination of things: First there is the need to defeat jihadists — and for that we need military allies. Another factor is skepticism about the possibility of democracy in the Arab Middle East. It has existed for a long time, but it deepened because of the failure of the Arab Spring. Also, the victory of Hamas in 2006 [in elections in the Gaza Strip] and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian elections suggest that if you open the political system the Islamists will win.
How has Israel been impacted by all of this?
The main impact is nervousness about Islamist gains in Jordan and Egypt and also Syria. They have seen the rise of al Qaeda and the Islamic State in the north, and in reaction to that the enormously expanded Iranian presence. They have all made advances so that now Iran and Hezbollah and the Shia militias are in Syria — and that is a very, very serious development for Israel.
Israel has been hoping to get Russian help in containing Iran in Syria. How has that worked out?
The Russians have essentially sided with Iran. So in Syria you see the Assad regime, Iran and Russia working together as allies. The idea that Russia would constrain Iran has proven to be unrealistic. What you are seeing is that Russia is not constraining Iran or Israel in any way, and it is saying to Israel that if want to bomb Hezbollah, go bomb it.
President Trump’s America First doctrine has seen the U.S. partially withdraw from the world stage, a move that prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to say Europe “really must take our fate into our own hands.” Is that a good thing?
No, it is not a good thing but it is also not accurate. The president is not withdrawing from the world stage. He made clear his commitment to NATO despite his campaign rhetoric, and he has made commitments to the Gulf Arab states and to Israel. The fear that the U.S. is withdrawing is a legitimate fear, but it does not seem to be happening.
At the same time President Trump canceled aid to Egypt, he is seeking the support of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in crafting an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Will al-Sisi help?
I think he will. I think we are moving to a transactional relationship with Egypt. We do what is in our national interest and they do what is in theirs. For instance, Egypt is trying to defeat the jihadists in the Sinai, and that a good thing for Israel and for us – our interests overlap. Egypt favors an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. They are not helping us as a favor to us but rather because it is in their national interests.
One of the things that led the administration to withhold Egyptian aid is that the Egyptians had promised several things to the administration and they did not follow through on it. One was the prosecution of American NGOs [non-governmental organizations], including Freedom House and the National Democratic Institute. They had promised it would be ended but it has not been. … Now there has to be a price to pay. We are not suckers. You can’t treat us that way.
Do you believe President Trump’s goal of getting the Arab world behind an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord will lead to an agreement?
I’m skeptical. I think the Arabs would also like to see an agreement, but are not wiling to take risks to get one and I don’t think [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas is willing to move either.