Adjudicating the Omar-Abrams clashFurthermore, colleagues whom I know and respect have praised Abrams as a devoted public servant who has mentored many in the foreign policy community. This backs up my own research, which shows that 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. This was far from a certain thing when the Carter administration created the bureau.
The foreign policy community is a small village in which people cross paths all the time, so it means something to me when people I know and respect defend Abrams. And it is distasteful to see Internet elites smugly attack other elites for defending a colleague while others agonize over it.
All of that said, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Omar’s line of questioning was spot-on. As Steve Saideman notes, if you are going to appoint someone who has a history of lying to Congress about human rights abuses to be the special envoy for a brewing humanitarian crisis, it is entirely fair to question him about prior acts of bad faith. And it was certainly striking to see someone so “firmly contemptuous of congressional pressure” become the object of it.
I wish Omar had given Abrams a chance to respond to her first accusation, but she was fully within her rights to bring up the unsavory and criminal portions of Abrams’s backstory. Other members of Congress *cough* Don Young *cough* have treated witnesses with far less decorum than Omar treated Abrams.
The other uncomfortable truth, however, is that while Omar might be right to interrogate Abrams, she is mostly in the wrong about Venezuela.
The Trump administration has hopefully stumbled into an appropriate posture toward Venezuela, particularly after it corrected its initial fumbles and withdrew all U.S. Embassy personnel. Trump has managed to garner significant amounts of international cooperation on this issue, despite being stymied on every other foreign policy front and having zero credibility when it comes to human rights concerns. Stopped clock and all that.
For quite some time, astute foreign policy observers have wanted Congress to take a more active role in foreign affairs oversight. The process is messy and prone to grandstanding and overreach. It is still far better than the alternative, which is the quiescence that has been inculcated for decades. Omar’s critique is also consistent with the growth of more confident progressive voices on foreign policy, which is a useful corrective for a marketplace of foreign policy ideas that has skewed hawkish for way too long.
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.
In a tense exchange at a hearing on Wednesday, one of the newest members of Congress, Representative Ilhan Omar, confronted Elliott Abrams, a Trump administration official, over his role in foreign policy scandals decades ago, including the Iran-contra affair and the United States’ support of brutal leaders abroad.
Mr. Abrams, who served in top State Department positions under President Ronald Reagan and has remained part of the Washington foreign policy establishment, was appointed last month to be the Trump administration’s envoy to Venezuela, where a dispute is raging over control of the nation’s presidency. Last month, the United States weighed in, recognizing the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as part of a campaign by the Trump administration to oust President Nicolás Maduro.
What happened at Wednesday’s hearing?
Mr. Abrams was one of three people asked to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee for a hearing on Venezuela, an area of the world he knows well. Under Reagan, Mr. Abrams was an assistant secretary of state who fiercely advocated interventionism, including the covert arming of Nicaraguan rebels in the mid-1980s, a scandal that became known as the Iran-contra affair.
In the hearing on Wednesday, Ms. Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, confronted Mr. Abrams over his role in that scandal and his support for brutal Central American governments. In one tense exchange, Ms. Omar recalled testimony from Mr. Abrams about a massacre in which units of El Salvador’s military, trained and equipped by the United States, killed nearly 1,000 civilians in 1981 in the village of El Mozote.In 1982, Mr. Abrams dismissed news reports about the massacre as not credible and as leftist propaganda, and he later described the Reagan administration’s record in El Salvador as a “fabulous achievement.”
“Do you think that massacre was a ‘fabulous achievement’ that happened under our watch?” Ms. Omar asked him at Wednesday’s hearing.
“That is a ridiculous question, and I will not respond to it,” Mr. Abrams said. “I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question.”
What is the Iran-contra affair?
The Iran-contra affair was a political scandal that dogged the second half of the Reagan presidency.It centered on two controversial, and linked, actions undertaken by his administration. One was the sale of weapons to Iran, despite an embargo, purportedly to secure the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. The second was the use of proceeds from those weapon sales to support the right-wing contra rebels in Nicaragua in their fight against the leftist Sandinista government.When first revealed publicly by a Lebanese magazine in 1986, the weapons sales were criticized for violating both the embargo and the United States’ refusal to negotiate with terrorists. The use of money from the sales to support the rebels in Nicaragua was also controversial because it violated a congressional ban restricting military aid to the group.
Reagan emerged largely unscathed by the scandal, leaving office with the highest approval rating of any president in decades. But more than a dozen others were charged with criminal offenses, primarily for withholding information from Congress. They included some who remain active in American politics to this day, such as Oliver L. North, now the president of the National Rifle Association, and Mr. Abrams.
While serving in the State Department under Reagan, Mr. Abrams was a fierce advocate of arming the rebels and, in 1991, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress about those secret efforts. He was pardoned the next year by President George Bush.
What were Ms. Omar’s criticisms?
Ms. Omar devoted most of her time during the hearing to detailing Mr. Abrams’s role in events abroad during the Reagan administration, often cutting off his responses by telling him she had not asked a question.
She did, however, ask one question: whether Mr. Abrams would “support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide if you believed they were serving U.S. interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua?”
The United States’ involvement in Guatemala is not as well known as the Iran-contra affair, but the country was crucial to the Reagan administration’s strategy in Central America, with Washington often looking the other way when presented with evidence of atrocities. In 1982, the Reagan administration started to cultivate Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who seized power that year in Guatemala, as an ally in the region in its fight against the Sandinista government and Salvadoran guerrillas.
Reagan praised General Ríos Montt even though American officials privately knew the Guatemalan military had killed its own people. The general was convicted of genocide in 2013.
El Salvador officially apologized for the El Mozote massacre in 2011.
What has Mr. Abrams been doing since the Reagan years?
Despite his role in the Iran-contra affair, Mr. Abrams has remained active in politics.
In the 1990s, he led a think tank dedicated to applying Judeo-Christian values to public policy. He later joined the administration of President George W. Bush as an adviser on Middle East affairs.
In 2017, President Trump blocked Mr. Abrams from serving as a deputy to Rex W. Tillerson, then the secretary of state. But last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was able to appoint Mr. Abrams as a special envoy to lead the department’s efforts on Venezuela.