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Think Again: Chutzpah on the Right

SOURCE: AP/Oded Balilty

Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, right, meets with U.S. Senior Mideast specialist on the National Security Council Elliott Abrams at Qureia's office in the town of Abu Dis, in the outskirts of Jerusalem on August 5, 2004. In recent weeks, Abrams, now associated with the Council on Foreign Relations, has criticized the president for his insufficient attention to democracy around the world in general and Egypt and Tunisia in particular.

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You may have noticed conservatives are divided over the proper response to the Egyptian people’s demands for a democratic transformation of their nation.

Fox’s Ralph Peters thinks President Barack Obama risks being on the wrong side of history by standing by Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak. Peters criticized President Obama for failing to get behind the revolutionaries with sufficient fervor. “This guy always wants to split the difference,” said Peters. “There is a right side; that’s the winning side.”

Peters is in league with many conservatives, like those at The Wall Street Journal editorial page, who want to give President George W. Bush “credit” for the revolutions. They are also tentatively supportive of the crowds’ demand for an end to Egypt’s dictatorship.

But Dick Morris, writing on Newsmax, thinks it essential that President Obama prop up the dictator: “Unless President Barack Obama reverses field and strongly opposes letting the Muslim Brotherhood take over Egypt, he will be hit with the modern equivalent of the 1952 question: Who Lost Egypt?” (Morris predicts that “the Iranian government is waiting for Egypt to fall into its lap. The Muslim Brotherhood, dominated by Iranian Islamic fundamentalism, will doubtless emerge as the winner should the government of Egypt fall.”)

Glenn Beck, meanwhile, thinks the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and American radicals like Bill Ayers and Code Pink are, I kid you not, working together for the ultimate purpose of "the destruction of the Western world."

The confusion continues. From Israel, Mike Huckabee called Fox News to complain of hisshock and surprise … at how quickly the Obama administration abandoned a 30-year ally and a longstanding friend to peace and stability President Mubarak." Speaking to Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich warned that Egypt "could go the way of Iran." And The Washington Times editors want “action” though they are a mite ambiguous about what direction such action might take—or even on whose side it should take.

One reason for the unusual inability of conservatives—and even neoconservatives—to settle on a “line” and stick to it as they’ve done so effectively in previous efforts to attack and demonize the president is that their own position on democracy is a complete contradiction. They frequently profess to support “democracy” in the abstract and frequently blame its absence in the Arab world for the attractions of violent Islamic extremism and other cultural ills in the Middle East. But they neglect to note the fact that it is the very lack of democracy in these nations that prevents them from adopting far more extreme anti-Western and particularly anti-Israel positions.

Add this to the contempt that so many profess for Islam and the alarmism with which they operate whenever discussing it and you have a formula for hypocrisy at best, and a crack up—see under “Beck, Glenn”—at worst.

Of course another reason that conservatives are divided—to put it generously—about democracy in the Arab world is that for many of them their primary concern is not democracy or even the Arab world, but Israel. A prime specimen of this species can be seen in former Bush National Security official (and Reagan State Department apparatchik) Elliott Abrams. In recent weeks, Abrams, now associated with the Council on Foreign Relations, has taken to the pages of both The New York Times and The Washington Post to score the president for his insufficient attention to democracy around the world in general and Egypt and Tunisia in particular.

The “price” for Obama’s policy of democratic inaction and lack of concern, Abrams insists, “has been paid by men and women from China to Russia to Iran to Egypt to Venezuela, who had expected a louder voice and a firmer helping hand from the United States.”

Not surprisingly, the man of the moment for Abrams is not Obama but George W. Bush, whose “support for the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon and for a democratic Palestinian state showed, he was defending self-government, not the use of force.”

You’ve got to hand it to Abrams. If there were a category of Nobel Prize for “chutzpah” he would win it in a walk.

Abrams is rightly infamous for his role during the Iran Contra scandal in seeking to overthrow various governments of Central America by force and then lying to Congress to hide his misdeeds, thereby undermining democracy at home. (Abrams pled guilty to purposely misleading Congress about his role in raising illegal funds for the contras in Nicaragua and was expelled from the Washington, D.C., bar. George H.W. Bush pardoned him and George W. Bush hired him.)

But it was the very same Elliott Abrams who played a central role in undermining the Palestinian elections and attempting a failed coup when they (predictably, to everyone save the people in the Bush administration) were dominated by anti-Western candidates supported by Hamas.

Under George W. Bush, Abrams was, unironically, put in charge of both "global democracy strategy" and Middle East policy on the National Security Council. He was not coy about his bottom line before taking the job. Democracy was nice and fine when convenient but “strengthening Israel, our major ally in the region, should be the central core of U.S. Middle East policy, and we should not permit the establishment of a Palestinian state that does not explicitly uphold U.S. policy in the region."

This particular rubber hit the road in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s victory over Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian election. Just as the Reagan administration had done with Iran Contra, in the words of Vanity Fair’s David Rose, “the White House cooked up yet another scandalously covert and self-defeating Middle East debacle: part Iran-contra, part Bay of Pigs,” as “President Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Deputy National-Security Adviser Elliott Abrams backed an armed force under Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan, touching off a bloody civil war in Gaza and leaving Hamas stronger than ever.”

The Bush administration had pushed the Palestinian Authority into elections despite repeated warnings that they would not likely go well from America’s standpoint. When they predictably didn’t, the United States instituted “a covert initiative, approved by Bush and implemented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, to provoke a Palestinian civil war,” and allow Fatah to remove, by force of arms, the democratically elected Hamas-led government from power.

The scheme backfired, however, with the net result that Hamas ended up seizing complete control of Gaza. David Wurmser, a deeply neoconservative former Middle Eastern adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, accused his former employees of “engaging in a dirty war in an effort to provide a corrupt dictatorship [led by Abbas] with victory” that gave Hamas a victory it never anticipated.

“There is a stunning disconnect between the president’s call for Middle East democracy and this policy,” he told Rose in 2008. “It directly contradicts it.” A State Department official Rose quoted added, “Those in charge of implementing the policy were saying, ‘Do whatever it takes. We have to be in a position for Fatah to defeat Hamas militarily.’”

Fawzi Barhoum, Hamas’s chief spokesman, told Rose the group became convinced “there was a plan, approved by America, to destroy the political choice,” so “Finally we decided to put an end to it. If we had let them stay loose in Gaza, there would have been more violence.”

Elliott Abrams holds the remarkable position—second only to Henry Kissinger perhaps—of playing a role in the undermining of democracy in three separate continents: Central America, North America, and the Middle East. The fact that he thinks himself qualified to lecture the president on this very topic deserves to put him in the Chutzpah Hall of Fame, as soon as it is founded and built.

In the meantime, one has a right to ask of the editors of The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as the elders of the Council on Foreign Relations, why this convicted liar and admitted plotter against democracy deserves a platform to condemn those who take not only democracy but the relationship between words and deeds so much more seriously than he does.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a columnist for The Nation, Moment, and The Daily Beast. His newest book is Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.

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