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Elliott Abrams
Elliott Abrams, a key advisor on Mideast policy at the National Security Council (NSC) during the George W. Bush presidency, is a well-known neoconservative ideologue who was convicted (and later pardoned) on charges related to the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s; after the 9/11 attacks he served as a leading proponent within the Bush administration of an interventionist “war on terror.” Abrams, who became a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations at the end of the Bush presidency, is the son-in-law of former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz and writer Midge Decter, the trailblazing couple who helped shape neoconservatism in the 1970s and 1980s.1
Abrams has a reputation as a behind-the-scenes political operative who has pushed for a militarist U.S. security posture, in particular vis-à-vis perceived enemies of the United States and Israel. An example of his style of work came after the United States agreed in early 2007 to a deal with North Korea aimed at shutting down Kim Jong Il's nuclear weapons program, part of which included taking Pyongyang off Washington's list of state sponsors of terrorism. Abrams responded to the deal by sending a series of emails to administration officials deriding the agreement. According to the Washington Post, Abrams expressed "bewilderment over the agreement and [demanded] to know why North Korea would not have to first prove it had stopped sponsoring terrorism before being rewarded with removal from the list."2
For observers of Abrams, the emails were a typical maneuver in which Abrams works internal channels while trying to keep his name out of public discussion. It is a tactic that Abrams, described by the Washington Post as "a legendary bureaucratic infighter and outspoken neoconservative," has used since his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair, during which he fought a rearguard effort within the Reagan administration to block peace initiatives in Nicaragua that were supported by some Reagan officials.3
The NSC Neocon Abrams was widely regarded as being a key champion within the George W. Bush administration of the neoconservative line on foreign affairs, shunning negotiations in favor of confrontational U.S. policies and promoting views in line with those of hardliners in Israel, who have rejected land-for-peace proposals like those negotiated as part of the Oslo peace talks, which Abrams opposed.4
Abrams served as a point person for policies related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pushed a hardline stance on Iran, Syria, and Iraq. Abrams also appeared to use his perch in the NSC to fight efforts by some administration officials and members of Congress to push diplomatic approaches to crises. The Inter Press Service reported in early April 2007, "Just as [Abrams] worked with Reagan hardliners to undermine the Arias Plan [for Central America] 20 years ago, so he appears to be doing what he can to undermine recent efforts by Saudi King Abdullah to initiate an Arab-Israeli peace process and, for that matter, by Republican realists, and even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to push it forward."5
After Bush took office in 2001, Abrams was appointed to serve as the NSC’s chief human rights officer and later as senior director of Near East and North African Affairs. In January 2005, after Bush’s second inauguration, the White House announced that Abrams would serve as Bush's deputy assistant and as the deputy national security advisor for global democracy strategy under national security advisor Stephen Hadley, who had been Condoleezza Rice's deputy at the NSC when she was advisor.
Abrams often appeared alongside Hadley during trips to the Middle East and elsewhere. During a May 2008 trip to Jerusalem aboard Air Force One, Hadley and Abrams discussed the Bush administration’s involvement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over Bush’s tenure as president. Hadley said, “What [Bush] did was really launch—what the parties did was launch a three-pronged effort. One was the formal negotiation of the contours of the Palestinian state—borders, refugees, security, Jerusalem. Second was to accelerate the building of the institutions of a Palestinian state so the Palestinians would be able to govern democratically the state that they would get as a result of the negotiations. And finally, at the same time, he negotiated a third element, which was the broader outreach to the Arab world, to get the Arabs involved in this process—so as I say, Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation to be in the context of a broader Arab-Israeli reconciliation.”6
Hadley then turned to Abrams, asking, “Elliott, do you want to add anything to that?” Abrams shifted the discussion to groups opposed to Israel, saying, “I would add one thing, which is that as we move forward there are those who would like to slow us down and stop us. It's interesting, as I was listening to you recite the progress of the last seven years, one other thing that's happened in these years is a very significant increase in the amount of assistance that Iran is giving to Hamas. Seven years ago there really wasn't much at all. Now there is a lot. So you see the enemies of a peaceful settlement stepping up their activities in an effort to stop us.”7
Abrams participated in a November 2004 meeting in the Oval Office between Bush and Natan Sharansky, a hardline Likud Party figure. The meeting was arranged by the president after he read galleys of Sharansky's book, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror, which reportedly helped inspire Bush’s democracy agenda.8 Sharansky’s connection to the neoconservatives dates to the mid-1970s, when he worked closely with Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-WA), who employed Abrams, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and other nascent neoconservatives. After Jackson's failure to win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Abrams joined the staff of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) and later became his chief of staff. Abrams later switched to the Republican Party and went to work for the Reagan administration.
In 2006, Abrams played a role in shaping the U.S. response to the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah. The New York Times noted that Secretary of State Rice was accompanied on her mediating trips in the Middle East "by two men with very different outlooks on the conflict"—namely, Abrams and the State Department's C. David Welch. According to the Times, "Abrams, a neoconservative with strong ties to [Vice President Dick] Cheney , has pushed the administration to throw its support behind Israel. During Ms. Rice's travels, he kept in direct contact with Mr. Cheney's office.”9
According to an unnamed U.S. government consultant "with close ties to Israel" interviewed by Seymour Hersh, Israel had put together bombing plans long before Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, which set off the conflict. As they developed their plans, according to the consultant, Israeli officials went to Washington "to get a green light for the bombing operation and to find out how much the United States would bear.... Israel began with Cheney. It wanted to be sure that it had his support and the support of his office and the Middle East desk of the National Security Council.”10
Although an NSC spokesman who talked with Hersh denied that Abrams had any role in supporting Israel's plan, a second unnamed U.S. official, a former intelligence officer, claimed, "We told Israel, 'Look, if you guys have to go, we're behind you all the way. But we think it should be sooner rather than later—the longer you wait, the less time we have to evaluate and plan for Iran before Bush gets out of office.'"11
While many of Bush's neoconservative supporters were generally pleased with the administration's strong backing of Israel, some criticized the State Department and Rice for softening the stance of many Bush policies. Abrams reportedly worked to intervene on Rice’s behalf. A 2006 New York Times article reported that State Department officials said Abrams served “as a buffer for Ms. Rice with some neoconservatives who are critical of her policies. 'The genius of Elliott Abrams is that he's Elliott Abrams,' one senior administration official said. 'How can he be accused of not sufficiently supporting Israel?’”12
When she still served as Bush's national security advisor, Rice apparently relied on Abrams for his unambiguous views. A friend of Rice told the New Yorker that she saw Abrams "not just as a good manager but a good strategist. As an NSC administrator, you want someone who can think several moves ahead, who has a peripheral vision and an instinct to get where you want to go—someone who can really play the high-stakes game.”13
Richard John Neuhaus, a longtime Abrams acquaintance and fellow neoconservative, told the New Yorker: "What runs through Elliott's thinking is a deep, almost quasi-religious devotion to democracy. He thinks real democratic change can happen in the Middle East. It's breathtaking, in a way.”14
History and Trajectory Throughout his career, Abrams has moved back and forth between government and a web of right-wing think tanks and policy institutes, holding positions as a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), advisory council member of the American Jewish Committee, and charter member of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC).
Abrams's family ties have also placed him at the center of neoconservatism. His 1980 marriage to Rachel Decter brought him into the Podhoretz clan, a key family associated with neoconservatism.15 Abrams became a frequent contributor to the American Jewish Committee's Commentary magazine when it was edited by his father-in-law Norman Podhoretz. While in the Reagan administration, Abrams also frequently made appearances at the forums organized by mother-in-law Decter's Committee for the Free World in the 1980s, a rightist foreign policy pressure group that was co-led by Donald Rumsfeld.
As an aide to Senator Jackson in the 1970s, Abrams began his political career mixing the soft and hard sides of the neoconservative agenda as both a proponent of Jackson's strategically driven human rights policies and as an advocate of his proposals to boost the military-industrial complex. Through Jackson, Abrams became involved with a group of Cold Warriors called the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, which was led by Democratic Party-affiliated neoconservatives like Penn Kemble.
Former members of Jackson's staff who later received posts in the Reagan administration foreign policy team included such neoconservative operatives as Feith, Perle, Frank Gaffney, Charles Horner, and Ben Wattenberg. Another up-and-coming neoconservative who was close to Jackson and later joined the Reagan administration was Paul Wolfowitz, who together with his mentor, Albert Wohlstetter, advised the senator on arms issues. Other Jackson Democrats who secured appointments in the Reagan administration included Jeane Kirkpatrick, as UN ambassador, and neoconservatives on her staff, such as Joshua Muravchik, Steven Munson, Carl Gershman, and Kenneth Adelman.
Abrams is best known for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. He was indicted by a special prosecutor for intentionally deceiving Congress about the Reagan administration's role in supporting the Contras—including his own central role in the Iran-Contra arms deal. In this deal, national security staff led by Oliver North brokered the sale of weapons from Israel to Iran in exchange for Iran helping broker the release of six Americans held hostage by Hezbollah. Some of the money made from the sale was channeled to the U.S.-backed and -organized Contras, who were spearheading a counterrevolution against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Congress had prohibited U.S. government assistance to the Contras because of their pattern of human rights abuses. At the time of his involvement, Abrams was the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, working under George Shultz. Abrams pleaded guilty to two lesser offenses (including withholding information from Congress) to avoid a trial and a possible jail term. Throughout the proceedings, Abrams denied knowledge of the NSC and CIA programs to support the Contras. He blamed Congress for the deaths of two U.S. military members shot down by the Sandinistas in an illegal, clandestine arms supply operation over Nicaragua. He described the legal proceedings against him as "Kafkaesque" and called his prosecutors "filthy bastards" and "vipers.”16
Abrams and five other Iran-Contra figures were pardoned on Christmas Eve 1992 by President George H.W. Bush, shortly before he left office.17
In his book Reagan, Bush, and Right-Wing Politics, Philip Burch underscores Abrams' unapologetic attitude regarding the excesses of the war in Nicaragua: "A few years after he stepped down as assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, Abrams, once the State Department's top human rights official, wrote an article on El Salvador in the National Review titled 'An American Victory'; at the end of this piece he proudly proclaimed that 'El Salvador's decade of guerilla war cost thousands of Salvadoran lives, and those of eight Americans. The violence is ending now in part because of the collapse of Communism throughout the world, but more because Communist efforts to take power by force were resisted and defeated. In this small corner of the Cold War, American policy was right, and it was successful.' Perhaps Mr. Abrams should read Mark Danner's The Massacre at El Mozote (which contains an appendix giving name, age, and gender for almost every one of the 784 people killed in this grizzly episode),” which was perpetrated by the Salvadoran Army's Atacatl Battalion, a U.S.-trained counterinsurgency force.18
Abrams, like a number of other prominent neoconservatives, was not invited to serve in the George H.W. Bush administration. In 1992 he helped form the Committee for U.S. Interests in the Middle East, which was regarded by many as an advocacy campaign to ensure that U.S. policy was aligned with the Likud Party in Israel.19 Other members included Perle, Feith, Gaffney, and John Lehman. The committee spoke out against what it perceived as a dangerous distancing between the George H.W. Bush administration and Israel seen in the administration's pressure for Israel to pull out of some occupied territories and halt its campaign to expand settlements in those zones.20
In 1996 Abrams became president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. At EPPC, he wrote widely on foreign policy issues, especially Mideast policy, and on cultural issues, including what he saw as the threats posed by U.S. secular society to Jewish identity. Directed by Abrams from 1996 to 2001, EPPC has counted among its board members well-connected figures in the neocon matrix including Neuhaus, Bill Kristol, and Mary Ann Glendon. (For more on EPPC, see Right Web Profile: Ethics and Public Policy Center.)
Publications In his writings, Abrams has consistently voiced strong support for Likud positions on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and "land for peace" negotiations. After the launch of the Al Aqsa Intifada in late September 2000, Abrams lambasted mainstream Jewish groups for their continued support for peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and for their call to Israel to halt its attacks.21
Abrams has also established strong Likudnik positions in articles for Commentary and in various books. Abrams authored the chapter on the Middle East in the 2000 blueprint for U.S. foreign policy by the Project for the New American Century. Edited by PNAC founders Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan, Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy is a playbook on how to deal with U.S. adversaries. In his chapter, Abrams laid out the "peace through strength" credo that became the operating principle of the George W. Bush administration. "Our military strength and willingness to use it will remain a key factor in our ability to promote peace," wrote Abrams. "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." Presaging the Mideast policy of the Bush administration, Abrams wrote: U.S. interests "do not lie in strengthening Palestinians at the expense of Israelis, abandoning our overall policy of supporting the expansion of democracy and human rights, or subordinating all other political and security goals to the 'success' of the Arab-Israel 'peace process'." Like other right-wing Zionists, Abrams refers to the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis not for what it is—a conflict over occupied Palestinian land—but rather as an "Arab-Israel" conflict, implying that U.S. support of Israel necessitates a foreign policy that confronts all the Arab countries.22
In his book Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America, Abrams takes care to insist that his positions imply no "disloyalty" to the United States, but at the same times insists that Jews must be loyal to Israel because they "are in a permanent covenant with God and with the land of Israel and its people. Their commitment will not weaken if the Israeli government pursues unpopular policies."23
Abrams' other books include The Influence of Faith (2001), Security and Sacrifice (1995), Undue Process (1993). He has also contributed articles to Commentary, Weekly Standard, National Interest, Public Interest, and National Review. In 1998 he and Donald Kagan edited the EPPC volume Honor Among Nations: Intangible Interests and Foreign Policy.

Council on Foreign Relations: Senior Fellow
Project for the New American Century: Founding Member
Council on Foreign Relations: Former Member
Beliefnet: Former Columnist
American Committee for Peace in Chechnya: Former Member
Ethics and Public Policy Center: President, 1996-2002
Middle East Forum: Signatory (2000)
American Jewish Committee: Former Member, National Advisory Council
Hudson Institute: Senior Fellow, 1990-1996
Center for Security Policy: Former Member, National Security Advisory Council
Committee for U.S. Interests in the Middle East: Former Member
Committee for Peace and Security in the Gulf: Former Member (1998)
Francisco Marroquin Foundation: Former Chairman
Nicaraguan Resistance Foundation: Former Chairman
Social Democrats, USA: Former Member
Committee for the Free World: Member of 1985 Conference on Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in Geneva
Heritage Foundation: Alumnus of Heritage Foundation Resource Bank
National Review: Former Contributing Editor
Government Service
National Security Council: Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Near East and North African Affairs, 2002-2009; Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and International Operations, 2001-2002
U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom: Chairman, 2000-2001; Commissioner, 1999-2001
State Department: Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, 1985-1989; Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, 1981-1985; Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, 1981
U.S. Senate: Chief of Staff/Special Counsel for Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan, 1977-1979; Office of Sen. Henry M. Jackson, Staffer/Special Counsel, 1975-1976
Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations: Assistant Counsel, 1975
Private Sector
Verner, Lipfert, Bernhard, & McPherson: Associate, 1979-1981
Breed, Abbott, & Morgan: Attorney, 1973-1975
Harvard University: B.A., 1969
London School of Economics: M.Sc., 1970
Harvard Law School: J.D., 1973
Date of Birth
January 24, 1948

1. Jim Lobe, "Elliott Abrams to Parachute to Council on Foreign Relations," Lobelog, Inter Press Service, January 26, 2009; Jim Lobe, “All in the Neocon Family,” Alternet, March 27, 2003.
2. Glenn Kessler, "Conservatives Assail North Korea Accord," Washington Post, February 15, 2007.
3. Glenn Kessler, "Conservatives Assail North Korea Accord," Washington Post, February 15, 2007.
4. Steven Weisman, “Abrams Back in Capital Fray at Center of Mideast Battle,” New York Times, December 7, 2002.
5. Quoted in Jim Lobe, "Elliott Abrams' Repeat Performance," Right Web, April 17, 2007.
6. White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Press Gaggle by Dana Perino and National Security Advisor Steve Hadley and Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Elliott Abrams,” May 14, 2008,
7. White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Press Gaggle by Dana Perino and National Security Advisor Steve Hadley and Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Elliott Abrams,” May 14, 2008,
8. Tom Barry, “The Foreign Policy Diaspora,” Right Web, February 8, 2005,
9. Helene Cooper, “Rice’s Hurdles on Middle East Begin at Home,” New York Times, August 10, 2006.
10. Seymour Hersh, “Watching Lebanon,” New Yorker, August 21, 2006.
11. Seymour Hersh, “Watching Lebanon,” New Yorker, August 21, 2006.
12. Helene Cooper, “Rice’s Hurdles on Middle East Begin at Home,” New York Times, August 10, 2006.
13. Connie Bruck, "Back Roads: How Serious Is the Bush Administration about Creating a Palestinian State?" New Yorker, December 15, 2003.
14. Connie Bruck, "Back Roads: How Serious Is the Bush Administration about Creating a Palestinian State?" New Yorker, December 15, 2003.
15. Jim Lobe, “All in the Neocon Family,” Alternet, March 27, 2003.
16. David Corn, "Elliott Abrams: It's Back!" The Nation, July 2, 2001.
17. For an account of Abrams’s role in Iran-Contra, see National Security Archive, “The Iran-Contra Affair 20 Years On: Documents Spotlight Role of Reagan, Top Aides,” November 24, 2006,
18. Philip H. Burch REAGAN, BUSH AND RIGHT-WING POLITICS: ELITES, THINK TANKS, POWER AND POLICY. PART A: The American Right Wing Takes Command: Key Executive Appointments. PART B: The American Right-Wing, at Court and in Action: Supreme Court Nominations and Major Policy Making, Paul Zarembka, pp. 442 (Part A), 305 (Part B), 1997.
19. Tom Barry, “Hunting Monsters in Jerusalem,” Asia Times, August 26, 2006.
20. Connie Bruck, “Back Roads,” New Yorker, December 15, 2003.
21. Jim Lobe, "Neoconservatives Consolidate Control Over Middle East Policy," Foreign Policy In Focus, December 6, 2002.
22. Elliott Abrams in William Kristol and Robert Kagan, eds., Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy (PNAC, 2000).
23. Elliott Abrams, Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America (Free Press, 1997).
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