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.