Elliott Abrams, who is steering Trump’s Venezuela policy, has a long track record of war crimes. Yet a number of liberal commentators are rushing to his defense.
By Paul Heideman
Practically the entire American political establishment and corporate press are repeating the Trump administration’s claims to have humanitarian motives in Venezuela. As that administration inches closer to full-blown military invasion, whether direct or by proxy, it behooves us to look into the track record of the officials steering this so-called “humanitarian policy.” None other are more deserving of scrutiny than Elliott Abrams, whose crimes have spanned the globe, from El Salvador to Nicaragua to Iraq.
Before this month, Elliott Abrams was likely glad to have been largely forgotten by the U.S. public. When the Trump administration announced Abrams’ appointment as U.S. Special Representative in Venezuela in late January, the news caused some ripples on the Left, but across mainstream media outlets, the reaction was mostly sedate.
Politico described Abrams as “a somewhat controversial figure,” while Bloomberg focused on his criticisms of Trump. In the wild world of Trump appointees, this was hardly exciting stuff. While Abrams has been associated with some of the darkest moments in American foreign policy over the last 40 years—from death squads in Central America to the Iran-Contra affair to the invasion of Iraq—his appointment failed to resonate with the media obsessions of the moment. This history was simply too long ago to generate much controversy today. A relic from another era, Abrams was on the verge of ascending to the coveted position of “elder statesman.”
All of that changed February 13, when Rep. Ilhan Omar subjected Abrams to a withering interrogation. Citing his conviction in 1991 of withholding information from Congress concerning the Iran-Contra affair, Omar declared “I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful.” When Abrams, incensed, replied, “If I could respond to that,” Omar casually informed him “It wasn’t a question.”
She went on to question Abrams about his record, from supporting U.S.-backed military dictatorships in Central America in the 1980s to his recent role in promoting right-wing coup-plotters in Venezuela. Throughout, Abrams protested again and again about the unfairness of her line of questioning. This was simply not how things were done in polite society.
Immediately following this exchange, Abrams and his record began attracting significantly more attention than they had when his appointment was first announced. Prodded by Omar, media outlets across the country suddenly remembered the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, committed by the right-wing military forces that Abrams and the Reagan administration were backing.
Yet even this rude intrusion of history into the public sphere only hinted at the full extent of the blood on Abrams’ hands. In her five minutes of questioning, Omar could merely reference his record in shorthand. Yet Abrams’ full career, and its memory in public life, are worth considering in further detail, as they reveal important truths about how foreign policy is made in America.
Despite his bloody history, in the aftermath of Omar’s interrogation, a number of mainstream liberal commentators such as the Center for American Progress’s Kelly Magsamen and prominent Joe Biden ally Dave Harden jumped to Abrams’ defense. This exculpation by a sector of the liberal intelligentsia also reveals the continuity of U.S. foreign policy across political parties, and the threat posed to this consensus by Omar’s inquiry.
A young counter-revolutionary
Though the famous novelist Thomas Pynchon once made reference to “Schachtmanite [sic] goons like Elliott Abrams,” Abrams, like most neoconservatives, had actually never been on the Left. His career as a counter-revolutionary began in college, when, as an undergraduate at Harvard, he openly opposed Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and other campus leftists, whom he despised as spoiled children of the elite. When SDS members shut down Harvard in the student strike of 1969, Abrams helped found (with fellow student Daniel Pipes, son of Harvard reactionary Richard Pipes, and later an Islamophobe of some note in his own right) the Ad Hoc Committee to Keep Harvard Open. On the furthest right flank of cold war liberalism, Abrams backed Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey, who was running on the platform of continuing the Vietnam War, in 1968, and worked closely with AFL-CIO operatives to combat the left-wing insurgency developing in the Democratic primaries.
At Harvard, Abrams received his law degree and in 1975 he briefly worked for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the same committee from which Joseph McCarthy prosecuted his anti-communist crusade in the 1950s. When Abrams got there, the committee was headed by Henry “Scoop” Jackson, also known as “the Senator from Boeing” for his service to the defense industry. Jackson formed a pole in the 1970s around which the most bellicose and bloodthirsty voices in the Democratic Party gathered, figures who were obsessed with not “losing” Vietnam, no matter the price in lives. When Jackson ran for president in 1976, Abrams worked on his campaign.
The Reagan years
Abrams first came to major prominence in the Reagan administration, where, in late 1981, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. However, Abrams was not the administration’s first choice. Reagan had previously nominated the conservative political thinker Ernest W. Lefever, but his nomination had not gone smoothly. In 1979, Lefever had testified before the House that all human rights standards should be repealed. Questioned about this statement in 1981, he admitted that he had “goofed.” His nomination was finally sunk, however, when two of his brothers claimed that Lefever believed black people to be genetically inferior. This was too big a goof even for the Reagan administration, and in October, Abrams’ nomination was announced.
Abrams started his career at the State Department with a lot to do. The day before he came on board, U.S.-trained forces had committed a massacre in the town of El Mozote, El Salvador, torturing, raping and slaughtering over 800 civilians. The killing was performed by the Altacatl Battalion, assembled and trained at Fort Bragg, and later described by the New York Times as having been “the pride of the United States military team in San Salvador.”
The El Mozote massacre was but one moment in the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, when in country after country, poor peasants confronted their countries’ traditional military and economic elites, who responded with savage, American-backed violence. Abrams played a key role in directing American support for these regimes as well as running interference when evidence of their atrocities became too obvious for the corporate media to ignore. The main sites of action were as follows:
In 1979, amid mounting protests against an undemocratic government, El Salvador’s military leaders dispensed with the fig leaf of civilian rule and installed a military junta to crush the rising left-wing insurgency. The result was a civil war in which some 80,000 people died in a country with a population of less than 5 million. Later, a United Nations investigation estimated that 85 percent of civilian killings in the war were perpetrated by the military and its death squads. Atrocities such as El Mozote were commonplace. Less than a year later, the military killed over 200 civilians at El Calabozo.
One of Elliott Abrams’ main jobs was to deny, distract from, or excuse these atrocities. When news of El Mozote reached the United States, Abrams testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there was reason for doubt, claiming “We find … that it is an event that happened in mid-December [but it] is then publicized when the certification comes forward to the committee.” Even a decade later, after irrefutable evidence had accumulated about the scale of the horror in El Mozote, Abrams still tried to obfuscate the truth, protesting, “If it had really been a massacre and not a firefight, why didn’t we hear about it right off from the F.M.L.N.? I mean, we didn’t start hearing about it until a month later.”
When questioned by Rep. Omar last week, Abrams defended his record in El Salvador, proclaiming, “From the day that President Duarte was elected in a free election to this day, El Salvador has been a democracy. That’s a fabulous achievement.” Indeed, in 1984, José Napoleón Duarte became president after elections in which parties of the left could not campaign for fear of assassination. He defeated death squad leader Roberto d’Aubuisson. Though Washington supported Duarte in that election, Abrams had previously defended D’Aubuisson, contending that he was not an extremist and claiming that “anybody who thinks you’re going to find a cable that says Roberto d’Aubuisson murdered the archbishop [Oscar Romero] is a fool,” when in fact, cables showing precisely that had arrived in Washington from the U.S. embassy almost immediately after the assassination.
Nonetheless, d’Aubuisson was indeed an embarrassment to the United States as it attempted to defend Salvadoran oligarchs. Along with his extravagant brutality in El Salvador, he was also far too undisciplined in talking to the press, telling some European reporters, “You Germans were very intelligent. You realized that the Jews were responsible for the spread of communism, and you began to kill them.” This kind of language was an embarrassment, and so Washington judged that Duarte would be a more effective point man for coordinating the war on the Salvadoran peasantry. Duarte’s verbal promises to restrain the excesses of the military, for Abrams and company, counted as a win for human rights, even as his “moderation” provided a fig leaf that would allow the U.S. government to continue backing the Salvadoran military until the Left had been sufficiently exterminated that “normal” politics could resume.
Despite Abrams’ theatrics, the truth of the American intervention in El Salvador was told in rather plainer terms by the liberal New Republic in 1984, which explained that “there are higher American priorities than Salvadoran human rights,” and that “military aid must go forth regardless of how many are murdered, lest the Marxist-Leninist guerrillas win.”
To El Salvador’s southeast, Nicaragua was also going through a political transformation in the early 1980s. In 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew the notoriously corrupt U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. The coalition government the Sandinistas created immediately undertook vigorous campaigns in the areas of literacy and healthcare, expanding social service access to the Nicaraguan poor to an unprecedented degree. The government also provided aid to the peasant revolutionaries in El Salvador, and quickly established a close alliance with the Soviet Union and Cuba.
This the Reagan administration could not abide. Shortly after coming into office, Reagan officials invited anti-Sandinista exiles to a meeting in Honduras, where the administration forced anti-Somoza opponents of the government to submit to the leadership of elements of the dictator’s hated National Guard. Troops were immediately assembled across the border in Honduras, with U.S. aid helping to put everything in motion. The anti-Sandinista army, popularly known as the Contras, soon accosted government targets, with special attention reserved for government social service locations, like schools and hospitals. Soon, evidence of Contra atrocities began to accumulate.
In 1982, this evidence was so abundant that the U.S. Congress become convinced that funding for the Contras needed to be cut off. Abrams, fulminating over the tying of the United States’ hands in its battle against communism, immediately began looking for ways to overcome the ban on funding. One avenue came through soliciting funds from the Sultan of Brunei, whom Abrams convinced to donate $10 million to stopping communism in Nicaragua. But Oliver North’s secretary at the time fudged the transaction by copying the wrong numbers for the Swiss bank account to which the funds would be transferred, and the money ended up in the hands of an unusually virtuous Swiss businessman, who returned it, with interest.
For the rest of the 1980s, Abrams essentially ran interference for Oliver North and the other Iran-Contra spooks. For this role, he was eventually indicted, and plead guilty to withholding information from Congress in 1991. At a time when the drug war was in full swing, and draconian sentences were all the rage, Abrams was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. President George H.W. Bush then pardoned him, completing Abrams’ official redemption.
After the fall
By the time Abrams was pardoned, the world had changed considerably from the one in which he had been a leading cold warrior. The Soviet Union was no more, and Bill Clinton’s election had ended 12 years of Republican rule. Abrams needed a home in this new wilderness, and found one, ironically, in Ernest Lefever’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, which provided him with a comfortable sinecure. If Lefever’s views on racial fitness ever troubled Abrams, he didn’t comment on it.
As the locus of American geopolitics shifted from Central America to the Middle East, Abrams reoriented his concerns accordingly. He was a signatory (along with assorted neocons from Paul Wolfowitz to Francis Fukuyama) to the Project for the New American Century’s infamous 1998 letter to Bill Clinton urging regime change in Iraq. The letter helped inspire the Iraq Liberation Act, which Clinton signed that same year and helped initiate the bipartisan consensus for the eventual war on Iraq.
When George W. Bush was elevated to the presidency, Abrams found himself back on the inside. He was appointed to the National Security Council, and helped shape the administration’s Middle East strategy. He reportedly “lost” an Iranian peace proposal in 2003, and in 2006, helped shape the Fatah putsch against the democratically elected Hamas government in Palestine that helped lead to the current division between Gaza and the West Bank.
During Trump’s rise, in 2015 and 2016, Abrams was a reliable “never-Trumper,” backing Marco Rubio’s doomed candidacy. In early 2017, Abrams was under consideration to be number two in the State Department under Rex Tillerson. However, the Trump team, under Steve Bannon, reportedly got Elliott Abrams confused with Eliot Cohen, a different hardcore neoconservative, and blocked his appointment.
Now, thanks to Mike Pompeo’s appointment of Abrams as point person for the U.S. intervention in Venezuela, he’s back.
As Rep. Omar dragged Abrams’ ugly past into the spotlight, millions of Americans were alerted to the country’s bloody footprints in Latin America. The El Mozote massacre in particular received renewed attention. Yet even as Americans heard about this record for the first time, a number of voices spoke up to defend Abrams’ honor.
Some of these, like the neocon-turned-“resistance” member Max Boot, or the radical-turned-neocon Ronald Radosh, were predictable and uninspiring. Boot warned that Omar showcased the dangers of the “uber-progressive wing” of the Democratic Party, while Radosh compared her to white supremacist Rep. Steve King. National Review’s Jay Nordlinger put a bit more effort in, tweeting that “I’ve come back to my phone to find about 5,000 tweets libeling the great Elliott Abrams as a war criminal….I feel like I’m back in the dorm, listening to stoned undergrads repeat what they recently read in In These Times.” (Any stoned undergraduates reading this are invited to subscribe here).
More surprisingly, Abrams also found a number of liberal defenders. Kelly Magsamen, Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, called Abrams “a fierce advocate for human rights and democracy” who had made “serious professional mistakes.” Dave Harden, a former USAID administrator (and Biden 2020 supporter), agreed, describing Abrams as “a kind, thoughtful, non partisan mentor” and exhorting his followers to “see the best—rather than the worst—in people.” R. Nicholas Burns, a diplomat and Trump critic, also chimed in, declaring “It’s time to build bridges in America and not tear people down.” Edward Luce, the British liberal journalist and author of The Retreat of Western Liberalism, offered his support for poor beleaguered Abrams as well.
Abrams’ liberal defenders were, thankfully, met with a tidal wave of condemnation on Twitter, as hundreds of thousands of tweets denouncing Abrams filled their mentions. Harden petulantly told “the 170k twitter responders who pillared [sic] me as a war criminal in the last 24 hrs” that he’s “doubling down.” The impact Omar’s questioning had in galvanizing opposition to the bloody track record of American imperialism could hardly be clearer.
But why were there liberals defending Abrams in the first place? And not merely any liberals, but highly-credentialed figures in the liberal foreign policy establishment. The answer to this question reveals no small amount about the American foreign policy intelligentsia.
As several of Abrams’ defenders stated, they had worked directly with him. Whether at the State Department or the National Security Council, they had been part of the same body making and carrying out American foreign policy. But even outside of government, Abrams rubbed shoulders with establishment liberals in plenty of capacities. At the Council on Foreign Relations, a premier centrist foreign policy think tank, Abrams is an accredited CFR “expert” along with Clinton Administration officials Martin Indyk and Robert Rubin. On the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, he serves with liberal academics like Deborah Lipstadt and Timothy Snyder (as well as Nicholas Burns).
This latter appointment is particularly ironic, given Abrams’ lies on behalf of an outright fascist like d’Aubuisson. But Abrams made a habit of associating with truly despicable racists. As mentioned above, he worked for Ernest Lefever after his Iran-Contra disgrace. Abrams even married a particularly unhinged racist, the stepdaughter of neocon Norman Podhoretz. Rachel Abrams, who died in 2013, maintained a blog, “Bad Rachel,” where she offered reflections on the War on Terror such as the following:
[T]his is where I have begun to wonder whether it is possible to help these benighted forgeries of humanity save themselves from themselves—for after all, isn’t that the point, once we’ve beaten our enemy, of continuing the fight?—and, more to the point…whether the attempting to do so has been worth the lives…of all those great, valiant, heroic, wonderful, Americans who’ve given them for that cause.
Abrams’ links to disreputable characters like these, however, weren’t enough to disqualify him from association in the eyes of elite liberals. Once he made it inside the clubhouse gates, he established himself as a Serious Person, deserving of respect from the plebs. Foreign policy has always been the most mandarin wing of the U.S. state, and when elite liberals saw a properly credentialed and accomplished fellow of theirs under attack from the plebeians, they reacted quickly.
Analysts like Noam Chomsky have long insisted that there is more continuity than discontinuity when it comes to foreign policy in the United States. The bonhomie liberal elites exhibit towards Abrams is what this continuity means on the level of personnel. It’s the same people, working together, who carry out American foreign policy. This placid continuity, the disruption of which by Trump is a chief reason for the enmity he has earned from this camp, helps ensure that the ship of state remains on a steady course.
But Ilhan Omar’s refusal to let Abrams’ bloody past rest threatened that continuity. It suggested that the new generation of progressives and socialists will not be content to let their revolution stop at the nation’s borders. Much like Bernie Sanders’ declaration in a 2016 presidential debate that he was proud Henry Kissinger was not his friend, Omar’s questioning of Abrams signaled a radical break with the traditional etiquette of deference in foreign policy.
If this is the type of direct challenge to U.S. foreign policy that left-wing elected officials like Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders have planned, establishment liberals are right to be nervous.
Paul Heideman holds a PhD in American studies from Rutgers University–Newark.