Capitol Letter / Some Rain for Obama's Parade

Elliot Abrams, no fan of the U.S. president, tells Haaretz that America is falling behind in the Middle East, but says Israelis should not fear the winds of change sweeping the Arab world.

WASHINGTON - On Saturday, at the White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington, comedy writer Seth Meyers said that the only person who could beat Obama in 2012 is "Barack Obama 2008."

The President's birth certificate that he finally published last week to silence those who still believe he was born in Kenya ("birthers" like Donald Trump ), got its own share of national attention. But in doing so they distracted the country from the fact that the more serious issues these days are not between Hawaii (where he was born ) and Kenya (where birthers think he was born ), but between Cairo and Damascus.

Obama May 2, 2011.

One of the most ardent critics of the Obama administration's foreign policy is Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former deputy national security advisor under George W. Bush. While lauding the operation that killed Osama bin Laden on the CFR blog yesterday, he was critical of Obama's attempt to bask in the limelight of the operation.

"His remarks last night were far too much laced with words like 'I met repeatedly,' 'at my direction,' and 'I determined,' trying to take personal credit for the years of painstaking work by our intelligence community," Abrams wrote. "Mr. Obama might have noted that this work began under President Bush, but as usual he did not. It was also a mistake for him to use this occasion to deliver unrelated comments about 'the pursuit of prosperity for our people' and 'the struggle for equality for all our citizens.'"

However, Abrams said the news should spur the administration to redouble its efforts vis-a-vis the so-called Arab Spring, specifically in Syria and Libya.

"Al-Qaida and its view of the world are being pushed aside in favor of demands for new governments, free elections, freedom of speech and assembly, and an end to corruption," he wrote. "Bin Laden's death weakens Al-Qaida and Salafi movements further by taking away their most powerful symbol. ... As the republics of fear fall, Al-Qaida's message will fall further into disrepute and the message of freedom that is now spreading in the Middle East will grow stronger."

Speaking to Haaretz earlier, Abrams said Obama's policy of "leading from behind" in the NATO airstrikes on Libya were ill-fated.

"I think Obama's administration is trying to diminish American influence. The New Yorker article about the Obama foreign policy quotes the Obama administration official saying 'the policy is leading from behind.' This is an abdication, you cannot lead from behind. You lead from the front. What happened in Libya is a good example of this. When we pull back, NATO begins to falter. You know, I've been doing this over 30 years, when I entered the Reagan administration. And we used to complain about the inadequate British and French commitment to NATO. So now, 30 years later, we see British and French complain about inadequate American commitment. I don't think that we are losing influence in a sense that it's some natural or unavoidable process - it's a policy choice by the Obama administration, and in my opinion, it's a very bad choice".

Is there an Obama doctrine for the Middle East?

"I don't think so. I don't think they know what they are doing. And I think you can see it in a policy toward Israel, toward Syria, toward Libya. I think they've been confused and slow to react. ... I think the president came to the office with the view that the United States has been too pushy in the world, and we must restrain ourselves, and I think he continues this policy and it's a big mistake".

What do you think of Former President Jimmy Carter's quick endorsement of the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

"I don't agree with that. President Carter is no friend of Israel, I wouldn't rely on his advice regarding the future and the security of the State of Israel. I don't see how the coalition with a terrorist group promotes cause of peace."

What of the White House's cautious wait-and-see reaction?

"It's reasonable to ask for details. There is still no agreement, and it seems that some details are not negotiated yet, so the whole thing may collapse the week after. But what suggests the real danger - it seems that Hamas that has never been part of the Palestine Liberation Organization will now be able to compete in elections in the PLO next year. The PLO will be reconfigured. The PLO is the body, not Fatah, that is supposed to negotiate peace with Israel. The PLO cannot negotiate peace with Israel if it is under the control of the terrorist group that is dedicated to destroying Israel. I think that Hamas has a long-term plan to take over the PLO, but it has made no progress until this agreement. The second thing I worry about is security. As I understand the agreement, Hamas remains in charge of Gaza and Fatah remains in charge of the West Bank. But the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, trained by the U.S., have been working closely with the Israel Defense Forces to fight terrorism and to fight Hamas terrorism. With this agreement, they are not going to fight Hamas. That would blow the coalition in one day. So they will start backtracking. ... That means that Hamas grows stronger in the West Bank."

Is there a point in threatening to cut the aid to the PA? Will be there any leverage left?

"We have to see what this unity agreement is. We do not give aid to the PLO and we do not give aid to Fatah, we give aid to the Palestinian Authority and we have to see what is the PA. Who is the prime minister and who is the finance minister. If they are thieves, and all the money is stolen, not only U.S. and Europe, but the Arab countries might stop giving the aid."

There has been talk that President Obama should use the occasion to go to Jerusalem to present a peace initiative?

"Things have changed because of this Hamas-Fatah agreement. I think the idea of pushing Israel now to make concessions to get to the negotiations table is for the moment out, because no one can push Israel to the negotiations table with Hamas. I think it is possible that this administration will decide to offer the outlines of the American view - more like the Clinton parameters. Here's what we think would be a good outcome and we urge both sides to return to negotiations. Because I think they won't want to be in a situation where there is really nothing to say and they are criticized that they have no policy. But Israel won't negotiate with Hamas, and I don't think right now Abbas wants negotiations, he is focused on internal politics and the elections that he says will take place the next year."

But in theory, there is a perfect logic in the Palestinian unity, if you are interested in one Palestinian state.

"But this coalition with Hamas makes me think they might be less ready for statehood, when you don't know what role a terrorist group will play in that young state. I think it weakens the Palestinian's drive in the UN. There are probably a hundred countries who would vote for this under any circumstances, but I think it weakens them in Europe, because if the U.S. and the Europeans are against this - if Zimbabwe votes for it, it's not important."

With a slight post-revolutionary hangover starting to show up in several places - should Israel reach out to these countries, or stockpile weapons in case the situation gets worse?

"Both. I was in Israel about a month ago, and people told me: It's easy for you to understand the up side, because you live 5,000 miles away, but we live here, so we understand the downside. There are real dangers, but there are real opportunities here. The fall of the Syrian regime could be very important for Israel and the U.S. But the peace that Israel had with Egypt was a very cold peace. Mubarak in 30 years came to Israel once - for Rabin's funeral. And Egyptian textbooks, television and radio taught hatred of Jews and Israel. Now you have a debate in Egypt. Does the army want a war with Israel? No. Will it be useful for the development of their economy? No. Do they want to be a Saudi Arabia and live that way, with this kind of Wahabi view of shariah? So yes, there will be a difficult period, but fundamentally I think it will be more stable if you can have peace with a democratic Egypt. Friendship might take generations more - but it will be a more reliable peace."