Elliott Abrams II Transcript
Table of Contents
KRISTOL: Hi, I’m Bill Kristol. Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m very pleased to be joined today once again, for a second time, by Elliott Abrams, who’s had a distinguished career in government in both the State Department and the White House, and has written important books when you weren’t in government. But I thought we could talk today about the next administration, the challenges they face in foreign policy, which you’re uniquely qualified to discuss.
Maybe first, about how they’re going to put themselves together to conduct a foreign policy. You’ve been through this. You came into the Regan Administration in 1981, right at the beginning, and then the Bush Administration very close to the beginning in 2001. So you’ve really seen this transition, and this year whether Hillary Clinton wins or Donald Trump wins, we’ll have a pretty thorough government transition, right?
ABRAMS: This ought to be a better transition in one way. After 2000, we changed the law so that the transition is supposed to begin when you’re nominated, not when you’re elected. So you get that extra month of September/October – two months, 10 weeks, close to. So you have more time. I’m not involved in the transitions this year so I’m not sure what’s going on.
The critical thing is probably personnel. It’s the drawing up of lists of candidates for, you know, thousands of positions. Particularly if you’re in the Trump transition, I would think this is a difficult task actually. You’re new. You’ve never done this before, some of the people working for you have never really done this before because – frankly, because so many Republican veterans have checked out. Have signed letters saying, “We’re not going to support Trump,” and therefore, obviously, are not involved.
KRISTOL: Let’s say either one wins and calls you in as a veteran. This is not really political advice or even substantive advice – it’s sort of how do we have a competent team functioning on January 20th when we take over? What do you tell President Clinton or President Trump? What’s the next two and a half months? Can they get a competent team together that fast? Could you have a new administration – How understaffed will they be on January 21st?
ABRAMS: They will be understaffed. The top positions are filled. The Senate, as a matter for courtesy, confirms Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense. White House staff, of course, does not need confirmation. So if you have found your people, they can start coming in.
The problem is that – so you’re elected, okay, it takes a while for people to make decisions. You have to kind of trickle down here. That is, people want to hire their own number two, number three, number four. A Secretary – you can’t hire Assistant Secretaries of State until you have a Secretary of State. Your first choice may say no. Your second choice may say no. For people who have to get confirmed, you know April is considered a speedy confirmation. It starts after January 20th so you really don’t have everybody in place throughout the bureaucracy really until the summer.
Even the White House staff does not get fully filled up, I would say for a few months. My advice to the President-Elect – and I imagine Secretary Clinton knows this – would be to worry a lot about the White House staff.
KRISTOL: I’m curious about this because you served in both the State Department and the White House, and if they called and asked, “What should I do really first?” You’ve got to have a Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, obviously, but –
ABRAMS: The old line – where you stand depends on where you sit – is right. Meaning your Cabinet Members are your key assistants, and they are your natural enemies. The minute they sit down in their departments, they will take on a different coloration.
It’s not that they’re disloyal, it’s not that they’re hostile, but, you know, some of them want to have careers after you’re gone. They’re the younger ones. Or they want to go out and make money after you’re gone. They have a building to manage, which means they’re concerned about the morale in their building. They want people in their building and in the relevant groups outside the building, whether it’s business or foreign governments, whatever it is –
It’s very different. Think of Condi Rice, National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State. When you’re National Security Advisor, you’re in the White House. The first thing you do in the morning, you go to the staff meeting with all the other people who work directly for the President. When you’re Secretary of State, you’re in a different building, you see the President sometimes, you travel a lot, your constituents are, in a way, other foreign ministers.
KRISTOL: And the staff meeting you have in the morning is of your Assistant Secretaries of State so you’re looking down to your building and not worrying first and foremost about the President.
ABRAMS: Right. I mean, one piece of advice I would give them about the White House staff is don’t allow holdovers.
I know everybody – continuity – but you want people who are loyal to you, just to you. So I’d worry about holdovers, and I’d worry about people coming out of the bureaucracy, too. At least at the senior level. Say, for the NSC, we’re talking about the number one and two and three people. But also the senior directors, who have divisions, departments in the NSC, like Asia, Latin America, Middle East, narcotics.
Don’t take people out of the bureaucracy. Don’t take people who are seconded from State, DOD, CIA. Take loyalists who believe in you, who believe in what you’re saying. Because there’s a gigantic bureaucracy out there, and particularly if you’re Donald Trump, they didn’t vote for you.
How do you control that bureaucracy? How do you get them to do what you want? How do you even know what they’re doing? White House staff is critical.
I would also say when it comes to the Assistant Secretaries – There are different theories here. Condi Rice’s theory was you take the best people from the Foreign Service. George Shultz’s theory, when he was Secretary of State for Reagan, was you don’t take career Foreign Service Officers, you take political appointees who are Republicans, who are going to be loyal to the President. I think that’s a better model, and that’s the model that I would advise for both of them. Take political appointees who you think will be loyal to you and your views. I know it sounds like a bad rap on the bureaucracy, but I think it makes the government work better.
KRISTOL: Say a word more about why – I think for outsiders, that’s not really how businesses – a CEO brings in his one or two favorites and all that – but I’d say normal people listening to this might think, “Gee, shouldn’t competence and qualifications count more than loyalty? That sounds like an awfully inside, personalizing way of thinking about it.” Why is loyalty so important in these jobs? Especially the White House staff. What does it guard against? What does it accomplish?
ABRAMS: It’s good to think there are normal people watching this.
KRISTOL: I came to Washington a little after you, in ’85, and I was at first bewildered by this a little bit. I kind of slightly rebelled. I remember I worked for Bill Bennet, and you know, this guy’s good, he was with us – Bill’s previous job at NEA – and I think he’ll be good. But I don’t know, maybe, there may be better people out in the country – and this is education – who know more about education policy, shouldn’t we get them?
It took me a while to realize this wasn’t just my boss, you know, a Cabinet Secretary, being clannish or just liking people who liked him. That there was a reason why you want loyalists, but I think it’s worth explaining.
ABRAMS: I think they are two things critical here. You need to get the job done. So you need people who can actually do it and work effectively in a bureaucracy.
We’re talking about a bureaucracy here. A huge, vast, bureaucracy. You can be highly intelligent; you can be, for example, maybe a fantastically brilliant academic, but unable to function in government. That’s one thing you need to do. You need to get people who can – now, some people come out of the academy, Henry Kissinger, who can instantly master the bureaucracy. But some people can’t.
Some people from business can’t. George Shultz, when he became Secretary of State, hired a dear friend who was a really successful businessman as Undersecretary State of Management, and he quit after three weeks and said to Shultz, “Government is hopeless. Nothing happens here, I’m out.” That’s first. Getting people who can function in the government setting.
The loyalty question is critical because the President’s team is actually quite small. If you think of roughly 10,000 people at the State Department, a million in the Defense Department, many, many in the tens of thousands in the CIA. Then, there is the domestic department. Your White House staff is a few hundred people. The NSC, I think, was under Bush was roughly 200; it’s now more than doubled. That’s too big.
You have, let’s say, 1,000 people, but the bureaucracy is millions of people. The President issues an instruction or guidance and goes over to HUD and goes over to HHS, goes over to DOD, it can be ignored. It can be given lip service. What’s the follow up? How do you know if maybe they’re trying and failing? Maybe they’re trying in good faith but it isn’t working? They will tell you. But they will tell you what they want you to hear.
How do you dig down a level deeper? In every administration, there’s an organization chart. You can look it up online, it’s in textbooks. The Secretary, the Assistant Secretary, the Deputy. That exists, and it’s important. But I think every administration has a kind of nervous system of loyalists that are in each department, that you know you can reach out to. Sometimes, people know each other from the campaign, other times, they get to know each other where you know they really want to do what the President wants to do. That the government can’t function unless that nervous system is also working.
KRISTOL: It does seem to me – to wrap up this section – it’s an asymmetric situation. Hillary Clinton knows, she’s been in the White House and has been in the State Department. She probably knows what she wants at this point, and probably thinks she knows at least how to make the system work. Trump really would be the most outsiderish person to come in modern times, maybe ever.
Maybe Reagan is the closest comparison. He’d never worked in Washington, and he presumably had never done foreign policy as the Governor of California and was an outsider in his own party to some degree. Not in a Trumpy way. You were there as part of the transition team, and then became Assistant Secretary of State once you got confirmed pretty quickly, right? So what, I mean, particularly for Trump, I guess you can say loyalists, but how many foreign policy loyalists, does he have? There’s a tiny team, I suppose, helping him on the campaign, but it’s an interesting question, if Trump calls you in.
ABRAMS: You need a few people, and they may not exist whom you trust, who know Washington. Now, Reagan, for example, I remember after we won, I was on the transition team, but I wanted a job. Who did I talk to?
KRISTOL: You were on the State Department transition team?
ABRAMS: I actually was, actually AID transition team with Ed Feulner, the longtime President and then President of the Heritage Foundation.
I went to talk to Bill Casey who had been campaign manager, and Bill Timmons, famous Washington lobbyist of that period who had been one of the campaign’s top people. Reagan was using them after the campaign was over to help with a variety of political and personnel tasks. And that was smart because they had been around Washington, Timmons permanently, Casey obviously in and out. But they knew how these things worked.
He will need – Trump would need to find people like that. Maybe Gingrich is one for him. You do find people whom you trust. It can take a year though. If you think of the first year of the Reagan administration, he hires out Alexander Haig, but a year and half later, Haig is out. Really after the first six or nine months, White House and State Department relations were terrible. So that can happen.
You have to be able and willing and able to correct mistakes, I guess the way Trump does on TV – “You’re fired.” But I think he’s going to have a problem because I’m not sure that most of the people we think of as his loyalists have ever had this experience of putting an administration together or even working in an administration to really know how to do it.
KRISTOL: I suppose Gingrich, I mean, Christie and Giuliani at least at the state and local level have put together governments. Washington is a little different, but he’ll find people, I suppose.
ABRAMS: If he wins, he will find people.
KRISTOL: Everyone will suddenly decide they’ll be happy to help, and they should probably since it’s the President of the United States.
ABRAMS: I’m not sure that it’s right. That is, I think a lot of people won’t or have already in a sense from Trump’s point of view cast themselves out. It is probably true that he ought to say, “Let’s let bygones be bygones, and we’ll forget about all those letters that said I’m the worst person on Earth.” Most politicians don’t work that way.
KRISTOL: And Trump doesn’t seem to have, to me, to be erring on the side of forgiving and so forth. That will be interesting.
KRISTOL: Let’s assume they get this administration together, the beginnings of it together, but let’s assume the next President calls you in and they’ve got the Secretaries of State and Defense and the National Security Advisor and the key deputies there are appointed, and now he or she wants a private discussion of what about – so what is the situation in the world? What do I need to know, what should I focus on? What in the headlines really is important? What can I sort of ignore that everyone else is telling me – what do you say on January 19th?
ABRAMS: I think you’ve got two separate issues here, though obviously, they come together. One of them is the set of problems that we need to face – North Korea, Syria. Where do you need to make decisions? That is a critical thing that needs to be done during the transition. Is there anything you need to make a decision on on January 20th? Or in January. Or in February. What are the things that are going to come and hit you? So there are the issues.
But the separate set of things that I would say is, look, after eight years of Obama, the American position in the world is not good. Neither our enemies, nor our allies, feel that we are a rising power.
Our allies do not feel they can rely on us. They don’t know where the United States is now. If you are facing Iran – Saudis, Emiratis, Jordanians, Israelis – if you were facing Russia – Poles, Czechs, Estonians – if you were facing China – Australians, Japanese, South Koreans, Taiwanese – you don’t really know. You need to do something real or symbolic that begins to reassure them that the period of drift under Obama is over.
A part of this may be working with Congress on the military budget, I think that would be quite reassuring, but in one day, it doesn’t change anything. It shows a trend. I think it’s worthwhile looking for more dramatic ways to show that America is back. Reagan did it, oddly, you know, with firing the air traffic controllers, which had nothing to do with foreign policy, but it was demonstration of willpower.
There are things one could do. The two that would top my list on foreign policy would be the Persian Gulf and Syria. I think we need to have a different reaction under a new President the next time a ship is swarmed by a bunch of Iranian gunboats that pull up within a few hundred yards in a very dangerous fashion. I think if we sank one of those gunboats, it would be a shot heard round the world. I think in Tehran, of course, but in Beijing and in Moscow, and in all the allied capitals, people would say, “Whoa, they’re back.” And no, it does not lead to World War III.
On Syria – and I think the President would have to get to in the first month – our Syria policy, in my opinion, has been to do nothing that makes Iran angry. So we have no Syria policy. We send Kerry, or he goes on his own to Geneva, and it makes us look weak and foolish.
Do you want to do anything about Syria? Are you prepared? You’re the new President. Are you prepared to see Assad use chemical weapons on your watch? Are you prepared to see these bunker busters hitting more hospitals and killing more civilians on your watch? And looking as feckless as Obama over this? If not, what are the options, military options, if any, that you have?
So I think there’s that overall picture of reassurance of allies, deterrents of enemies and opponents.
KRISTOL: And you think that’s – one would have that conversation with Hillary Clinton who was President Obama’s Secretary of State and is from the same party, almost as much or in a similar way, maybe she’d frame it a little differently, but you think it’s actually as important advice for her as it is for Trump? She needs to think of herself as a fresh start, not as somehow bound to continue?
Do you think that would be – it’s hard if you’re from the same party, right, to make that quick a turn or maybe not? I don’t know.
ABRAMS: You know it depends what’s really, what’s her thinking. And maybe this is the wish being father to the thought, for me, but look, Syria – Petraeus, Panetta, and Clinton in 2012 actually urged Obama to take a harder line. When she was Senator, she was on the Armed Services Committee. She has some knowledge of the declining American military power.
Suppose, for example, that for the sake of continuity, she decides to keep on Ash Carter as Secretary of Defense for one year, not impossible. Obama did it. He kept on Bob Gates. I think the advice she would be getting from DOD, from him – civilian appointee, but from the uniformed military – is that things are bad, and there are options. Here they are. Obama rejected all of them.
You know, Bush – the last time this happened, if it is going to be Clinton, was, of course, George H. W. Bush following Ronald Reagan. It didn’t go day/night, night/day, but he certainly changed the policy. He certainly changed the whole look of American foreign policy, I think, in an unfortunately way in some cases. But the fact that it’s the same party, in a way, I think if you’re Hillary Clinton, you very much want to differentiate yourself from Obama because you’re you. You do not want to be seen as Obama’s third term.
KRISTOL: You think as an analytical matter – leaving aside in some respects all the critiques you’ve made and I’ve made over the years – it really would be important for the next President to act pretty quickly in terms of the allies and enemies because the dynamic, I guess, if he or she didn’t, would be if you’re sitting in Japan or Saudi, or anywhere, or Iran, you sort of think, “Okay, I guess it’s more of the same.”
Obama wasn’t very strong, and this next person – Trump, with the rhetoric notwithstanding, is on both sides of this since he’s sort of an isolationist. Hillary Clinton, the fact that she was Obama’s Secretary of State notwithstanding, would be more of the same. Your main advice would be it can’t look like more of the same? As a policy matter, you do not want foreign capitals to think Obama was – four more years of the same direction, same path.
ABRAMS: I think that’s critical, and I think if it doesn’t happen, then let’s say after a period of months, the summer perhaps, you will have people changing their policies to reflect what they expect to be a four more years of what I would call weakness or drift. If you’re the Saudis and you’re looking at Iraq or Yemen, or if you’re in East Asia worrying about what we need to do to hold back China or worrying about Putin, you’re going to change your policy.
What makes me a bit hopeful about this is the new President is going to sit down over relatively brief period, I would think, with the leaders of some of these countries – if you visit these countries, this is what they think. They’re very worried about –
KRISTOL: Talk about that. You were being Asia recently, and of course, a Middle East expert, and you go there a lot. You were in Japan, which you hadn’t been in years.
ABRAMS: And I talk to people as they come through Washington, and what’s remarkable is if you talk to people from Australia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Poland, the Czech Republic, Israel, Saudi Arabia, you hear the same line basically. Which is – I mean, they don’t say this, but “Where are you guys? What’s happening?” They’re very worried about whether, in fact, this is isolationism.
Is the United States saying a version actually of Trump’s statements about NATO: “We’re carrying too a big burden, and we’re not going to do it anymore”? You’re on your own. They’re very much worried about this. And they see a decay of the American-Western position over the last few years. Rising China, rising Russia, rising Iran. He or she is going to hear that politely put.
I think that push is, obviously, in the right direction.
KRISTOL: I suppose for our allies having the Republican candidate, in particular, be the more isolationist must be a little bit jarring because I think they’ve always thought Democrats maybe reacted against Bush and whatever, Obama. But the Republican Party is actually pretty strong, and then the Republican candidate is criticizing NATO and more anti-the Iraq war than Hillary Clinton, and so forth. Just curious, doe this get raised a lot when you meet with foreign ambassadors?
ABRAMS: It gets raised, and the lack of understanding of Trump gets raised a lot. I mean, if you think of the last not only Presidents but defeated candidates for President – pretty, people they knew. John Kerry, John McCain, Al Gore. These were familiar figures to most foreigners. Reagan, an exception.
So the questions are – there is a question or two about Clinton, and “Do you think so-and-so will be Secretary of State or will it be so-and-so?” With Trump, we don’t know him. “Do you know anybody we could talk to? Who might be Secretary of this or that?” They’re just lost. These are very hard questions to answer because he has not put forward, you know, a 30-page position paper, and he doesn’t have a long track record of, you know, of going to these various meetings that people go to in Aspen or in Sedona or in all these places, going to the security conferences in Europe and giving long speeches on these questions. So they’re nervous.
KRISTOL: On the trade issue on particular, we’re speaking about the same week of the first presidential debate where Donald Trump was attacking what had been bipartisan positions. Both presidential candidates of both parties, to my knowledge, have always supported NAFTA. Gore must have, of course, and then Kerry. Certainly, the Republicans did.
And other trade agreements. And the TPP, the Asian agreement, has had, I believe, Obama certainly supports it and negotiated it, and Bush certainly supported it when he was President, and I believe McCain and Romney supported it when there were challengers. It must be a little unnerving to suddenly see both candidates – well, one candidate just attacking NAFTA as the worst thing that ever happened, and Hillary Clinton being fairly quiet about what was a pretty big accomplishment of her husband’s administration.
Then, on the Asian agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, both of them saying, no. I wonder how much that’s got them under – how much damage has got to be undone just from that?
ABRAMS: It’s a good question. I think they’re hopeful that Hillary is lying. I mean, they’re hopeful that it’s campaign rhetoric, and it will be fixed if she’s President. In my conversations, people don’t, they’re less concerned with the trade treaties narrowly defined as, “Gee, we really wanted provision five,” and more concerned about what it means about American politics.
Is the United States in some deep way, are the American people, in a way that’s going to be reflected in Congress as well, changing our minds about the role we have played since World War II? Are we really saying we’re tired of it and we’re not going to do that anymore and take care of yourselves? That, I think, is the much deeper worry, that is, to say the trade agreements are seen as the product of this – potentially, the product of this deeper question that they have.
KRISTOL: It sounds like actually the advice that you have for the President would be pretty deep or thoroughgoing in the sense that you just don’t have to deal with this particular problem here or change this whatever policy, tweak it there around Israel, Palestine, or a million things. But you really need to send a major message really around the world. I suppose at home, too, right? In a way you have to send a message to the American people? To Congress.
ABRAMS: In a way, it’s harder. The best comparison is probably Reagan, and it’s harder than it was for Reagan because that was the message of Reagan’s campaign. Reagan said it a thousand times; therefore, it was to be assumed that okay, now he’s won and he will do this. Neither candidate –
KRISTOL: Just on the 1980 comparison, Jimmy Carter – you and I weren’t big fans of his administration, and I’m not even in retrospect – but he did pivot in 1980 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis. He increased defense spending, said it was a new moment. It probably was even, I’m sure – I agree with a lot of criticism he made of Carter and the damage that was done under his watch, but you could say the Democratic Party was coming back –
ABRAMS: At least he was. And presumably as President, he could have brought the party with him. But the message of Reagan’s victory was this was a turn. Neither candidate this year is saying that.
KRISTOL: What you’re saying really is what the world needs to hear is we’re going to have a major turn back to American leadership, and we’re having a campaign in which neither candidate is saying that.
ABRAMS: They’re saying, “I get it, we don’t want to spend all this money, and we don’t want to be on the hook, and we don’t want to send a hundred thousand troops anywhere.” It would require saying and doing some things early on.
The inaugural address is very important. First meeting with members of Congress and doing something that would suggest – even if your inaugural address says, “Sequestration has been terrible and there is a bipartisan agreement now that the defense budget needs to start rising. We need to rebuild – blah, blah.”
That’s a big deal. It’s just words, but it’s very, I think, would be significant to say that in the inaugural address. And really significant not to say it.
KRISTOL: And if the inaugural address has a lot of stuff about how people are hurting at home, that’s got to be our focus, and very little about the world, I suppose?
ABRAMS: Nation-building at home, or as George McGovern said, “Come home America,” I think would be devastating.
KRISTOL: That’s really interesting. That’s really a big-picture challenge to the new President, whether it’s Trump or Clinton, for a pretty big pivot in American foreign policy. And important that it happen pretty quickly.
ABRAMS: I think so.
KRISTOL: You can’t go six – I’m thinking about everything in six months, and that’s not really –
ABRAMS: You can say this and then say, you know, “Now, this affects all of our key allies all over the world with whom we’re going to be consulting. As a matter of fact, my new Secretary of State X sets out on Monday and will visit the following ten capitals, and the Secretary of Defense will visit these others.”
So you can, in a sense, delay doing anything, and consulting will sound great also. You don’t have to make all these decisions on January 20th. January 20th, you have a lot of parades, and you don’t make any decisions. I think you have to show something very quickly, or people will against will hedging additional bets.
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