It revealed the real divides in American foreign policy.
The standoff over the Venezuelan presidency has not yet devolved into armed conflict, but the situation is incredibly tense, and the very real possibility for violence or even civil war to break out hangs over the entire dispute. And the Trump administration has repeatedly said that US military intervention to support Guaidó is not off the table.
So Omar wanted to know, if the situation in Venezuela were to deteriorate, whether Abrams would follow the same playbook there that he did in those other Latin American conflicts year ago.
.. “Would you support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide if you believed they were serving US interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua?” she asked him.
“I am not going to respond to that question,” Abrams replied. “I don’t think this entire line of questioning is meant to be real questions, and so I will not reply.”
The entire exchange, front start to finish, was riveting — a rarity, given that it occurred at the kind of hearing that even foreign policy wonks like me typically find to be snoozers. And the ideological stakes were so high — a Trump official hated by the progressive left being challenged over his involvement in past US support for monstrous human rights abuses by a left-wing Muslim Congress member hated by the right — that it was destined to set off a much larger debate.
Which, of course, it did.
Was Omar unfair to Abrams — and Washington?
People on the further left of the political spectrum, socialists and progressives alike, found Omar’s questioning exhilarating. It’s extremely rare to see an American official held accountable for past wrongdoing so publicly, to witness them being forced to face their own records head-on, without pretenses.
A longstanding left-wing critique of American foreign policy is that it is incredibly insular and notoriously slanted in favor of US military intervention abroad, regardless of which party is in the White House. The Washington foreign policy debate is typically between centrists and neoconservatives over how heavily to intervene in foreign conflicts, rather than whether the United States should intervene at all.
A key reason this situation persists, critics (including me) argue, is that there’s a culture of elite impunity in Washington in which those responsible for previous policy disasters not only face virtually zero professional consequences (let alone legal ones) for their actions but in fact are welcomed back into cushy academic, think tank, and government positions.
None of the architects of George W. Bush’s torture policy were arrested or faced serious professional sanction. None the people responsible for distorting the intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were punished (although people who tried to blow the whistle about said distortion certainly were). Henry Kissinger, who was complicit in war crimes in a shockingly large number of countries, remains a Washington celebrity and a highly respected elder statesman whose views on foreign policy continue to be given substantial weight.
Elliott Abrams is a man who epitomizes this culture of elite impunity. Not only does he now have a high-profile job in the Trump administration, he is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and was even a member of the US Holocaust Memorial Council, which directs the activities of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, for six years. To see Omar hold him accountable, to reduce him to angry sputters, was for many on the left a sign of how important a voice she is going to be on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
It was a sign that the new, more diverse voices into Congress might actually be able to succeed in opening up the foreign policy conversation and forcing people to reconsider fundamental premises — like whether America has the moral standing to involve itself in Latin American internal conflicts — that typically aren’t questioned in major US foreign policy debates.
But many on the right, and even some in the center, in the US foreign policy community had the polar opposite reaction. They saw Abrams as the wounded party here: a longtime public servant who has either always been a strong and moral advocate for human rights or at the very least has moved beyond his checkered past.
Max Boot, who is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations as well as a Washington Post columnist, blasted Omar’s “disgraceful ad hominem attacks” on Abrams, arguing that “he is a leading advocate of human rights and democracy — not a promoter of genocide.”
For neoconservatives and their allies, an attack on Abrams is an attack on everything they stand for. In the neoconservative imagination, the Reagan administration is the embodiment of everything good in American foreign policy: a morally righteous crusade against an evil, communism, that threatened the survival of democracy itself.
Abrams was a general in this war, a living monument to the good an active American foreign policy can do in terms of making the world a freer place. The Washington Free Beacon, a neoconservative tabloid website, referred to Abrams as a “hero” in its write-up of the Omar spat.
How can you square this hazy general account with the damning specifics of Abrams’s actual history in Latin America? The best case I’ve seen comes from Dan Drezner, a professor of international relations at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
His argument is that, based on his own research, “in the early 1980s, Abrams played a vital and constructive role in ensuring that the State Department’s human rights bureau was treated seriously by the rest of the State Department” — a dynamic that Drezner says “was far from a certain thing when the Carter administration created the bureau.”
The argument here is that Abrams played a major role in making the State Department focus more on human rights, making US foreign policy as a whole more attentive to human rights abuses in perpetuity.
The problem, as two Cold War historians pointed out on Twitter, is that the State Department’s human rights bureau under Abrams’s leadership wasn’t actually all that useful for protecting human rights. The research on the topic, they say, suggests that Abrams’s vision was so clouded by the Cold War imperatives to fight communism that he twisted the language of human rights to justify some pretty terrible behavior. The historical record shows Abrams repeatedly dismissing independent evidence on the abuses by regimes he supported as communist propaganda, while having the State Department issue human rights reports that highlighted abuses by left-wing governments while downplaying or ignoring offenses by anti-communist forces Abrams supported.
In other words, he may have institutionalized the State Department’s human rights bureau, but he also corrupted it.
Regardless of where you come down on this dispute — I’m quite obviously sympathetic to the Abrams-critical side — you can see why this exchange got so much attention.
For the left, it was a story of a young congresswoman bravely taking on the foreign policy establishment and forcing it to account for its grievous past sins. For the right, it was a far-left upstart — whom they also see as an anti-Semite — unfairly and ignorantly attacking the integrity of a living symbol of their foreign policy vision (who happens to be Jewish).
In short, the five-minute C-SPAN clip of their exchange cut to the core of one of America’s biggest foreign policy disputes: how to evaluate the United States’ proper role in the world.
You can credit social movements for that.
Representative Ayanna Pressley broke with traditional diversity politics last month when she said at a conference in Philadelphia, “we don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.” Instead, “we need you to represent that voice.”
The members of the so-called squad who were also on the panel nodded in agreement. They are the defiant and unapologetic voices of the communities that produced them. Since being elected last fall, these four progressive Democratic congresswomen have pushed the limits of what most liberals mean by the contested term “diversity. ”
Some of their colleagues may have preferred that they simply come in and add color to the room — but in every other way behave as their long-established white predecessors have.
But they have a different agenda. They have a transformative notion of diversity that comes with a different set of expectations and metrics. They insist on bringing the concerns of historically marginalized communities into the rooms where decisions are made, even when that is seen as impolite or inappropriate.
This is evident through their politics, priorities and style — not only their presence. Consider Rashida Tlaib’s “Lift + Act” bill, which comes as close as any to advancing the radical economic principle of universal guaranteed income that Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently advocated some 50 years ago.
They’re exposing the false belief that American foreign policy is infallible. This is exemplified by their critique of Washington’s unconditional support for Israel. And recall the memorable hearing in February when Ilhan Omar challenged Elliott Abrams, a Trump administration official, over his role in supporting Central American death squads in the 1980s.
All of them, along with some other Democrats, have called for the outright abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement because of its widely publicized mistreatment of migrant families and children.
The squad understands that “diversity” is meaningless if the measure of success is “sameness.” The congresswomen are choosing to do politics a different way because they recognize that Congress has never worked for their communities.
From the start, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was urged to stay in her place when she insisted upon committee appointments deemed out of reach for a freshman representative. It was those committees that would have the most impact on the values she was elected to advance, and so she persisted, violating protocol in the process.
She was doing something unprecedented when, as a political neophyte, she introduced the Green New Deal resolution without support from the party leadership. Similarly, Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar have called for President Trump’s impeachment and passionately advocated the rights of Palestinians, breaking with the more tactically conservative approach of the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, on both matters. However, as the scholar-activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote in Jacobin, they don’t just represent different personalities vis-à-vis Ms. Pelosi but different worldviews.
Over the past nine months, the squad’s members have made good on their promises to be agents of change, not just fresh faces. Radical inclusivity means that people from different communities, backgrounds and ideological traditions will do their jobs differently and will bring new sensibilities, commitments and understanding with them when they sit at the tables of power. If they are doing their jobs, they will be accountable to people who sent them there, not maintaining the status quo. Anything less is merely cosmetic.
One outcome of exclusion and white privilege is that people of color don’t see ourselves reflected in positions of power often enough. That is the least of it. A more consequential outcome is that our communities are underserved, our children racially profiled by the police, unfairly pushed out of schools or locked up in disproportionate numbers. “We expect elected officials to fight hard for a progressive agenda, and we are not cutting anyone slack simply because they look like us,” argues Chinyere Tutashinda, a leader in the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 150 black-led organizations across the country.
Ms. Tlaib cares deeply about accountability. She often tells her audiences that she proudly represents Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, one of the poorest in the country, with one of the largest black populations of any district. She is committed to serving its interests and speaking with its voice. When, soon after she was sworn into office in January, she proclaimed that “we are going to impeach” the president, that is the constituency she was speaking for: a population that feels assaulted by Republican policies and abandoned by mainstream Democrats.
The squad has tilled new ground in reanimating a fighting spirit within the Democratic Party and revived its left flank. A more timid approach would have been to go to Washington and blend in. The women’s approach is admirably and courageously to stand out.
This is threatening and offensive to many of their conservative and, dare I say, racist colleagues. In his typical meanspirited manner, the president has hurled numerous insults at them; others have piled on too. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was all but foaming at the mouth on Fox News in July. They are “a bunch of communists,” he said, “who hate our own country.” And “they stand for all the things most Americans disagree with.”
Really? A new poll by The Economist and YouGov indicates that each of the four women has a higher approval rating than Mr. Trump himself. And among independent voters, Mr. Trump still loses by more than 6 percentage points to each squad member. Speaker Pelosi, for her part, has alternated among a mild-mannered defense of her junior colleagues, dismissive comments and an outright reprimand in one instance.A similar dynamic is playing out in politics around the country, as the noted political strategist Jessica Byrd told me. Her electoral firm, Three Point Strategies, has been helping black activists win elections over the last five years. “Without fail, these women are discounted until the voices of the people they represent become too loud to ignore,” she said. “These elections are an incredible symbol that movement can win and is winning. They are a symbol that accountability is possible.”
Many young activists feel protective of the congresswomen, seeing their vulnerabilities as linked. Thenjiwe McHarris was one of 100 black women who hosted a rally in April to protest the attacks and threats against Ms. Omar. “What’s happening to the squad is deeply connected to what’s happening to our communities and our progressive movements,” she told me.
But the squad, and so many other women of color in politics, are not the sit-down-and-shut-up types. And that has earned them widespread adoration. Thousands have signed petitions in their support. The congresswomen collectively enjoy millions of followers on Twitter. And they earn high praise from the millennial activists who have played a monumental but largely unknown role in pushing the party left.
Maurice Mitchell, who now runs the Working Families Party, sees them as central to a seismic shift in electoral politics post-2016. “This moment has radicalized liberals and electoralized radicals,” he told me. Meaning there are new political actors with new agendas and expectations.
I am reminded of another “diversity” moment when the establishment felt threatened. It was when Sonia Sotomayor was being considered for the Supreme Court in 2009. Her opponents had dredged up a speech from eight years earlier in which she said: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
She opined that the experience of racial and gender oppression, learned survival strategies and cultural practices could and should be brought to bear when representatives of marginalized communities assume decision-making roles. This caused quite a stir.
But what she rightly seemed to suggest was that, if who we are doesn’t matter, we are aiming for tokenism more than transformation of elite institutions. She was also intimating that, if I come in, my family, my community, my elders, my people, will in some form, come with me.These women — Justice Sotomayor and the squad — have all insisted upon bringing their whole selves into these insider spaces where women and people of color have been historically told to either “go back” to where they came from, or “listen and learn” in terms of how things are done if they want to succeed. The former message comes from the right, the latter from liberal insiders.
A key demand of this new generation of activists of color has been accountability. They have seen historic numbers of women and black and brown people elected to office, including the nation’s first black president. That alone is insufficient, they have decided. They have seen the limits of representational politics. They want leaders who are immersed in communities who remember where they came from when they attain positions of power. Or better yet, politicians who never leave in all the ways that matter.
Well, the squad members, all with varying activist backgrounds, are a part of that generation. They are products of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Occupy Wall Street and an increasingly militant immigrant rights movement — bold, game-changing social movements that are not afraid to speak truth to power and upset business as usual.
If the millennial social movements are not “your grandmother’s” social movements, then the squad members are certainly not your typical “minority” politicians. They are wisely acting as if they represent the demographic majority that their generation will become. It is significant that a majority of millennials polled by Harvard researchers in 2016 rejected capitalism and leaned toward the left politics that these four congresswomen represent. They are the future of the Democratic Party. So are their ideals. And we need more politicians like them.
We need an uprising of decency.
If only …
If only Donald Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over whether private health insurance should be illegal. If only Trump were not president, we could have an interesting debate over who was softest on crime in the 1990s. If only Trump were not president, we could have a nice argument about the pros and cons of NAFTA.
But Trump is president, and this election is not about those things. This election is about who we are as a people, our national character. This election is about the moral atmosphere in which we raise our children.
Trump is a cultural revolutionary, not a policy revolutionary. He operates and is subtly changing America at a much deeper level. He’s operating at the level of dominance and submission, at the level of the person where fear stalks and contempt emerges.
He’s redefining what you can say and how a leader can act. He’s reasserting an old version of what sort of masculinity deserves to be followed and obeyed. In Freudian terms, he’s operating on the level of the id. In Thomistic terms, he is instigating a degradation of America’s soul.
The change, which affects about 47 million accounts, including those for Chase’s popular Sapphire cards, reflects a broader effort by Wall Street firms to prevent customers and employees from engaging in class-action lawsuits that can result in large settlements and bad publicity. Unlike court cases, arbitration cases do not leave a trail of public documents and they cannot be brought by groups of aggrieved customers.
JPMorgan — the country’s largest bank — is far from alone in increasing the use of arbitration clauses. Seventy-two percent of banks used such clauses in 2016, up from 59 percent in 2013, according to a report from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
The notifications said the arbitration agreement would apply not just to the customers’ current accounts but “all claims or disputes between you and us,” including “any prior account.”
The policy change turns back the clock in another way by bringing back the kind of arbitration clauses the bank and others agreed to temporarily drop in 2009 as part of a class-action lawsuit. The bank agreed to remove such provisions for three and a half years, starting in 2010, to settle a lawsuit that alleged large banks were working together to push customers into arbitration.