Politics & Policy

Memories of W., &c.

Tested by Zion, by Elliott Abrams (Cambridge University Press, 352 pp.)

In a column earlier this week, I mentioned a piece I have in the current National Review: a dual book review, if you will. The main object of attention is Elliott Abrams’s new memoir, Tested by Zion. I also have some paragraphs on a book that is about him, in part: Little Red: Three Passionate Lives through the Sixties and Beyond, by Dina Hampton.

You are familiar with Elliott. For one thing, he has been a contributor to NR and National Review Online. What could be more important? But he has also been a prominent foreign-policy player for 30 years. He was an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration: for international organizations, human rights, and Latin America. (That is not one job. Those are three different jobs, which he held consecutively.) He was caught up in the Iran-contra scandal. He wrote a book about it, whose title gives the crux of the matter: Undue Process.

So, he served all eight years of Reagan — and all eight years of George W. Bush. That service was in the White House. Essentially, he was “the White House Middle East guy,” as he writes. He dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in particular. That is what his new memoir is about.

Sometimes, here in Impromptus, I give you a “dividend.” Tell you what I mean. I used to say, “A milkshake comes in a parfait glass, often, and then there is this wonderful spillover in a silver canister. Well, the parfait glass is my piece in the magazine [whatever the piece was]. I will now give you the spillover, here in Impromptus.”

Readers wrote me — bartenders, in particular, I think — to say, “That ‘spillover’ is called a ‘dividend.’”

Anyway, a dividend — some notes on Abrams’s memoir, dribs and drabs that did not make their way into the magazine review. Cool?

‐Toward the beginning of his administration, Bush (George W.) met with Ariel Sharon, the prime minister of Israel. Sharon was trying to impress on the new president the Israeli situation. He said (this is a paraphrase), “What would happen if you were governor of Texas and Texas got hit with missiles coming from Mexico? In an hour, there wouldn’t be a Mexico, right?”

Bush said, “No — 15 minutes.”

‐Bush once said, “You know, when I hear the Europeans talk about Israel, they just sound anti-Semitic.”

He must have heard the same Europeans I have!

‐This is interesting — it’s all interesting, of course. Bush said, “I do believe Ariel Sharon is a man of peace” (which he was). (“Is,” I should say.) As Abrams relates,

This comment infuriated the Palestinian leadership, but they were not alone in reacting negatively: According to White House scuttlebutt, the president’s father, George H. W. Bush, who seldom called him on policy matters, telephoned to complain vociferously about the president’s choice of words.

‐Abrams tells us something about Bush’s style of speaking: He talked the same way to “everyone who came through the Oval.” Most of us talk differently to foreigners whose English may be uncertain: We slow down, we simplify. Bush charged ahead, saying things like “You ready to saddle up? That other guy: He’s just lyin’ in the weeds.” Someone else would be “all hat and no cattle.”

When his interlocutor was confused, the president would smile and translate his words into more standard English.

‐I quote this in my review — it is part of the parfait glass — but I can’t resist repeating it here, in the dividend.

An Israeli was explaining to Bush that his countrymen were nervous about a Palestinian “right of return.” Bush, totally comprehending, said, “No sh**: ‘Here come three million people.’”

‐I say this, too, in my review: Bush was pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. He was pro-Palestinian because he wanted them to live in decent, non-tyrannical conditions — not in yet another dictatorship and terror state. He was pro-Palestinian enough to want them to have their human rights.

One could go on, and on . . .

‐Colin Powell is not a hero of this book, or of yours truly (as regular readers know). But I got a kick out of something he did at the U.N. in 2002: Powell “served as defensive tackle, literally pushing Arafat back when he tried to get into a photo with Bush as the president moved down a General Assembly corridor.”

(Arafat was the most frequent foreign visitor to the White House during the eight years of Clinton. It was much different under W. When Mahmoud Abbas became leader of the PLO, W. laid out the red carpet for him, hoping a new day would break.)

‐In that review, I say of Bush,

He has been out of office for the blink of an eye, historically, but, frankly, I had sort of forgotten about him: how impressive he was. How talented, how smart, how individualistic, how well-informed. (John Negroponte, the veteran diplomat who served as director of national intelligence, once told me, “It was kind of hard to tell Mr. Bush much that he didn’t know.”) Most impressive, I think, was Bush’s moral sense. At any rate, I doubt there has ever been a greater gap between the popular image of a public figure and the reality.

Remember this about Bush: He had Elliott Abrams in the White House when it was thought that Elliott was too damaged, by Iran-contra, to work in government again. John Bolton, too, was a controversial figure. Bush nominated him to be U.N. ambassador. The Senate refused to confirm him. Bush gave him a recess appointment — which was ballsy.

Abrams writes, “Bush never bought into the idea — promoted by Tony Blair and virtually the entire State Department, including, in the second term, Secretary of State Rice — that progress toward democracy in the Middle East was closely related to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his view, that was an excuse dictators used and behind which they hid.”

Yes. Yes.

‐Before Sharon withdrew from Gaza (unilaterally), American officials asked the Egyptians what would happen if Hamas took over — took over in the “Strip,” as we used to call it. Don’t worry, said the Egyptians. We’ll never allow it to happen.

Life is funny, huh?

‐Bush had it exactly right, as usual: If Israel had withdrawn from Gaza with someone other than Sharon as PM, and someone other than Bush as U.S. president, the world would have shouted, “Hallelujah.” But the world had to be crabbed and sniffy . . .

‐In my recent history of the Nobel Peace Prize, I say that Blair uttered “one of the most stinging criticisms” of the Norwegian Nobel Committee ever recorded. As he embarked on a round of Middle East diplomacy, he said to Bush, “If I win the Nobel Peace Prize, you will know I have failed.”

In Abrams’s book, we learn that Bush said something similar to Jordan’s king, Abdullah. He very, very much wanted a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Bush did. But he would not try to force a deal just to get a Nobel Peace Prize.

Good thing, too.

‐Here is Abrams on the State Department — one of his many true-ringing statements: “If Rice had any inclination to a big international conference on the Middle East, she was certainly going to get nothing but reinforcement from the career service. They remembered the Madrid Conference of 1991 and the Camp David negotiations of 2000 as highlights of American diplomacy, not as failed efforts at Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

‐I love this about Bush: Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, writes Abrams, “began his account of the Annapolis conference by saying he admired the efforts of Dr. Rice. No you don’t, she pisses you off, the president replied.” Abrams reports that there was no squirming among the U.S. and Israeli delegations. Rather, “jaws seemed to hang open.”

Wish I had been there — but one can see it.

‐According to Abrams, there was a pattern in the final years of the second term: The secretary of state never had a bad meeting with the Palestinians and never had a good one with the Israelis. This was in part because she expected nothing from the Palestinians, Abrams muses. Any concession, any movement, would have to come from the Israelis. Abrams says he thought of an expression of Bush’s, concerning education: “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

‐When Israel discovered in 2007 that Syria was building a nuclear reactor, Bush did not want to take military action: He wanted to go through the IAEA in Vienna, and the Security Council in New York, and so on. But the Israelis, led by Olmert, thought they had to bomb — so they did. Bush did nothing to hinder them. He remarked that Olmert had “guts.” And he made it clear that his administration was not to leak anything in advance of the raid.

In my NR review, I say that Bush was “unbothered” by the Israeli action as Reagan had been “unbothered” by the Israeli action in 1981 — when that nation took out Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor.

You may be interested in a piece by Reagan’s then-national security adviser, Richard V. Allen — a piece that is jovial and authoritative, like Allen himself. He informed Reagan what the Israelis had done, and the possible consequences of that action. Reagan absorbed all of this — then commented, “Well, you know what? Boys will be boys.”

All of Allen’s piece on that episode in 1981 is worth reading. And all of Elliott Abrams’s memoir is worth reading. Middle East policy is so very important. One can wish it weren’t — but it is. And the characters in Elliott’s book are so interesting! Bush, Ariel Sharon, Condi, the author himself . . .

You recall what I was saying at the top of this column, about the nature of this particular column? Consider it a piece dividend. And with that abominable groaner, I wish you a good weekend. Catch you soon.


To order Jay Nordlinger’s book Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.


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