Elliott Abrams

Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies


U.S. policy in the Middle East, Israel-Palestinian affairs, democracy promotion, human rights policy, U.S. foreign policy.


Middle Eastern Studies Roundtable Series


Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC. He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor in the administration of President George W. Bush, where he supervised U.S. policy in the Middle East for the White House.

Mr. Abrams was educated at Harvard College, the London School of Economics, and Harvard Law School. After serving on the staffs of Sens. Henry M. Jackson and Daniel P. Moynihan, he was an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration and received the secretary of state's Distinguished Service Award from Secretary George P. Shultz. In 2012, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy gave him its Scholar-Statesman Award.

Mr. Abrams was president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, from 1996 until joining the White House staff. He was a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2001 and chairman of the commission in the latter year, and in 2012 was reappointed to membership for another term. Mr. Abrams is also a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which directs the activities of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He teaches U.S. foreign policy at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

Mr. Abrams joined the Bush administration in June 2001 as special assistant to the president and senior director of the National Security Council for democracy, human rights, and international organizations. From December 2002 to February 2005, he served as special assistant to the president and senior director of the National Security Council for Near East and North African affairs. He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for global democracy strategy from February 2005 to January 2009, and in that capacity supervised both the Near East and North African Affairs and the democracy, human rights, and international organizations directorates of the NSC.

He is the author of four books, Undue Process (1993), Security and Sacrifice (1995), Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America (1997), and Tested by Zion: the Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (2013); and the editor of three more, Close Calls: Intervention, Terrorism, Missile Defense and "Just War" Today; Honor Among Nations: Intangible Interests and Foreign Policy; and The Influence of Faith: Religion and American Foreign Policy.


French (fluent), Spanish (fluent)

Middle East Policy After the "Arab Spring"

When protests swept the Arab world in 2011, the United States hoped that the so-called Arab Spring would bring a wave of liberalization and democratization to the Middle East. Today, with much of the region still contending with instability, sectarian violence, and authoritarianism, the United States faces several foreign policy conundrums. Should Washington resign itself to "Arab exceptionalism"—the long-held belief that Arab societies are immune to global waves of democratization— and give up on its hopes for political progress in the region? Should it seek the closest possible relations with existing governments regardless of their political characteristics? Or should it back the players, in each society, who continue to struggle for liberal values, democratic institutions, and human rights? And if the latter, does the United States know how to act effectively to promote political reform while limiting the damage to its relations with those in power? My work on these issues will result in a book outlining the nature of the challenge and suggesting how U.S. foreign policy should address it. I also convene the Middle Eastern Studies Roundtable Series to discuss these questions.

This project is made possible in part through the support of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

The Future of the Middle East "Peace Process"

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process never ends—nor does it seem to make much progress. In blog entries, op-eds, and magazine articles (and in my most recent book, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict), I analyze the often energetic American efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement and the Israeli and Palestinian reactions to them. There were no serious negotiations during President Obama's first term. In 2013, a dogged effort by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brought the parties back to the table, but the talks collapsed acrimoniously nine months later. Are there any hopes for reviving the negotiations now, after the Gaza war? And would such talks have any real chance of achieving a two-state solution, or do the Israelis and Palestinians participate in them only to calm their publics and satisfy the insistent Americans? I look at the periodic negotiations, the domestic politics of both sides, and the facts on the ground that may be leading toward or away from realistic solutions.

How to Advance Human Rights

Over the last decade, human rights groups have documented a decline in freedom around the world. In some countries, such as Venezuela and Egypt, elected leaders used democracy to get into power and then abused that power; in others, such as Russia, autocrats have simply acted more forcefully against their opponents. The question for the United States is how to weigh the importance of promoting human rights and determine what tools are most effective in doing so. In my experience, firm presidential leadership and pressure work better than the human rights and democracy promotion programs of USAID, the State Department, and other U.S. government bodies in affecting foreign governments' behavior. The nongovernmental and civil society organizations that Washington supports abroad seem to protest more effectively than they build. Strong democratic political parties are essential for advancing political change. How should the United States help democratic activists build them? Can it help protect such people while they work for democracy in dangerous settings? These are issues I address in occasional writings.

Featured Publications

All Publications


The US Can Still Help Save Syria — and Iraq

Author: Elliott Abrams

After the 20th century's list of events of mass murder — from the Ukraine famine of the early 1930s and the Holocaust in the 1940s, to the Balkans wars and the Rwanda genocide of the 1990s — the cries of "never again" and the assertion of a "responsibility to protect" gave some hope that mass killing would not recur in the 21st century. Then came Darfur in the new century's first decade, and now Syria in the second. Mass killing has very clearly not been eliminated, nor has the "international community" developed a response that will avert it or bring it to a quick end.

See more in Syria; Iraq; Peace, Conflict, and Human Rights


The Man Who Broke the Middle East

Author: Elliott Abrams

The Middle East that Obama inherited in 2009 was largely at peace, for the surge in Iraq had beaten down the al Qaeda-linked groups. U.S. relations with traditional allies in the Gulf, Jordan, Israel and Egypt were very good. Iran was contained, its Revolutionary Guard forces at home. Today, terrorism has metastasized in Syria and Iraq, Jordan is at risk, the humanitarian toll is staggering, terrorist groups are growing fast and relations with U.S. allies are strained.

See more in Middle East and North Africa; Peace, Conflict, and Human Rights


Israel Gets No Credit From Obama for a Year of Moderate Settlement Construction

Authors: Elliott Abrams and Uri Sadot
Washington Post

President Obama recently complained about "aggressive" settlement construction by Israel, but the facts are otherwise. The new statistics show that Israel is building energetically in Jerusalem and in the blocs it will obviously keep, and slowing construction in smaller settlements beyond its security barrier in areas that may someday be part of a Palestinian state. Elliott Abrams and Uri Sadot explain.

See more in Israel; Peace, Conflict, and Human Rights

Ask CFR Experts

What is the U.S. position regarding the legality of Israeli settlements?

Asked by James Hurt

The U.S. position has fluctuated over time. In the Reagan years, the United States said the settlements were "not illegal." The Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations avoided the legal arguments but criticized the settlements frequently. President George W. Bush called the larger settlement blocs "new realities on the ground" that would have to be reflected in peace negotiations.

Read full answer

See more in Israel; Peace, Conflict, and Human Rights

Recent Activity from Pressure Points


Middle Eastern Studies Roundtable Series

Staff: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
May 2009—Present

Conflict in the Middle East has been near the top of the American foreign policy agenda for a half century. Through discussions with academic experts and especially with current and former government officials, this roundtable series aims to inform the debate surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as other challenges facing the region. These roundtables discuss developments in the region and the goals and impact of U.S. actions, with an eye to deepening understanding of the Middle East and analyzing how to make U.S. foreign policy more effective.

CFR Events

Roundtable Meeting ⁄ Washington

Regional Challenges and Opportunities: The View from Saudi Arabia and Israel

This meeting is on the record.

Read Listen Watch

General Meeting ⁄ New York

NY Town Hall: Middle East Update

This meeting is on the record.


General Meeting ⁄ Washington

Iran: The Nuclear Challenge

This meeting is on the record.

Read ListenWatch


Session One: Prospects for Democracy

This meeting is on the record.

Read ListenWatch

Roundtable Meeting

Tunisia's Challenge: A Conversation with Rashed Ghannouchi

This meeting is on the record.


General Meeting

U.S. Policy Toward Cuba: Is It Time for a Change?

This meeting is not for attribution.




Two more Iran alarm bells

In Jennifer Rubin’s blog Right Turn, Elliott Abrams is quoted as saying that a nuclear deal with Iran will likely result in Tehran acquiring a nuclear weapon with Washington’s approval.


Delay raises suspicions about annual human rights report

In an article in Politico on the unprecedented four month delay of the State Department’s annual human rights report, Elliott Abrams’s blog Pressure Points is quoted as linking the delay to administration desires not to issue a critical report on Iran while the nuclear deal is being negotiated. 


Obama Admin ‘Cheered’ Private Scolding of Israeli Ambassador

In response to Michael Oren’s claims that Obama administration officials had secretly cheered when Assistant Secretary of State Jim Steinberg scolded him in a meeting he did not know was being broadcast to them, Elliott Abrams is quoted as saying that such practices were unheard of during his time in the Bush and Reagan administrations.


Jeb's gaffe-free European tour

Elliott Abrams is quoted in an article in Politico on Jeb Bush’s foreign policy experience and his most recent visit to Europe.


The ISIS Creation Myth

In an article in Newsweek, Elliott Abrams is quoted as saying that while he cannot know for certain that Iraq would not have fragmented if 10,000 troops would have remained, it certainly was more likely to prevent that from happening than a complete military withdrawal.


Another Bush heads to Europe

In an article in Politico, Elliott Abrams is quoted on the potential ramifications of Obama’s “reset” with Russia for Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president.


Israeli think tank ponders bilateral relations

Elliott Abrams is quoted in a Jewish Journal  article about the Israeli think tank BESA’s discussion of U.S.-Israel relations.  He notes that while fundamentalist Christian support for Israel is steadfast, Israel’s support among the general population could erode if it no longer appears interested in pursuing a two-state solution. 


Marco Rubio: I'd Oppose Iraq War If I Knew What We Know Now

Elliott Abrams is interviewed by Bloomberg News regarding Jeb Bush’s foreign policy, the George W. Bush administration, and the Iraq War.  Abrams explains that if administration officials had known that Saddam Hussein did not have WMDs, most would have opposed the invasion or Iraq.


Iran's bullying on the high seas

Elliott Abrams is interviewed for an article in the Washington Post’s blog Right Turn on Iran’s menacing behavior and the U.S.’s hesitancy to respond in order to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive.

Video Interview

Is the MidEast on the verge of all-out war?

As a panelist on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS, Elliott Abrams weighs in on the growing instability in the Middle East. He explains how Iran’s aggressive actions and subversive activities have created chaos in the region, and how Sunni states are reacting.



Obama's Iran fantasies

Elliott Abrams is quoted in a New York Post editorial that discusses potential threats to Israeli security that could arise out of the Iran nuclear deal.

Radio Interview

Media Call on Israeli Elections

CFR senior fellows Robert M. Danin and Elliott Abrams discuss the ramifications of the Israeli election. Foreign Affairs's Justin Vogt from presides over the call.



Right Turn: Benjamin Netanyahu triumphs

In the Washington Post’s blog Right Turn, Elliott Abrams is interviewed about the recent Israeli elections.  He explains that despite the Obama administration’s best efforts, Prime Minister Netanyahu was re-elected.  The question now is whether Obama and Netanyahu will make an effort to repair relations between the two governments.


Frayed Obama-Netanyahu relationship 'could get worse'

In an article in USA Today, Elliott Abrams was interviewed on the results of the recent Israeli elections.  He explains the that the rift between the U.S. and Israeli administrations is growing and why it seems like the Obama administration doesn’t care to patch things up.

Video Interview

Israel's election focusing more on personalities than issues

In an interview with Fox News, Elliott Abrams discusses the upcoming Israeli elections. Abrams explains that many Israelis are focusing on domestic affairs like the cost of living more than security questions like Iran. This benefits the opposition coalition led by Isaac Herzog.



Right Turn: Who are you going to trust on Iran?

In the Washington Post blog Right Turn, Elliott Abrams is quoted as saying that although John Kerry questions Netanyahu’s credibility because he was in favor of the Iraq war, Kerry himself was in favor of the war before he was against it.


Right Turn: Morning Bits

In Jennifer Rubin’s Right Turn, Elliott Abrams is quoted on the behavior of Iranian diplomats toward their American counterparts and the American acquiescence to such behavior. 


A weak America means human rights disasters

According to the 2015 Freedom House report, “Freedom in the World” is on the decline for the ninth consecutive year. Elliott Abrams points to America's perceived decline in power and diminished interest in advancing human rights under President Obama as factors contributing to this trend.


Jews, Europe and Western civilization

In the wake of rising anti-Semitism in France and the terrorist attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, Elliott Abrams discusses the precarious situation of Jews living in Europe and what needs to be done to restore a sense of security to those communities.


The Palestinian Authority's latest charade

In the wake of the Palestinian Authority's failed attempt to receive recognition as a state from the United Nations Security Council and its upcoming appeal to the ICC, Elliott Abrams explains that Fatah's bold steps on the international stage are the product of its fears to face Hamas and its own population. 


Are Nicaragua canal plans driven by geopolitics?

Elliott Abrams weighs in on the proposed Nicaragua canal.  He questions the economic benefits of such a project and cites security concerns due to the nature of Nicaraguan regime.


Elliott Abrams: Not Fighting ISIL In Syria Is 'Crazy'

With the rise of the Islamic State and the obliteration of the Iraq-Syria border, Elliott Abrams explains why striking the Islamic State exclusively in Iraq would turn Syria into a safe haven for its forces.