The Tragic Life of the War Criminal Elliott Abrams

Elliott Abrams was once an innocent child. And then he decided to spend the rest of his life covering up brutal atrocities and defending right-wing dictatorships.

Elliott Abrams once said the animating force behind his and Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy was that the world is “an exceedingly dangerous place.” And this is true, largely because men like Elliott Abrams exist in it.Last month, Abrams was tapped by Trump to serve as his special envoy to Venezuela, to essentially help steer the Trump administration’s slow-burn effort to topple that country’s government — or as Mike Pompeo put it, “restore democracy” in the country.

It should go without saying that the idea the Trump administration is pursuing regime change in Venezuela for the sake of democracy and human rights is as laughable as calling Jamal Khashoggi’s murder a surprise party gone wrong. But in case you need to explain this to politically confused friends and relatives, here are eight good reasons why the appointment of Abrams, in particular, makes a mockery of any such high-minded rhetoric.

1. He was knee-deep in human rights atrocities

Let’s start with the most obvious point, which is that Abrams’ chief claim to fame is his role in Ronald Reagan’s blood-soaked foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s, for which he earned the nickname, “contra commander-in-chief.” The contras were the brutal right-wing paramilitary groups in Nicaragua who terrorized civilians throughout the decade, cutting a swath of torture, rape, and murder aimed at everyone from the elderly to children. Their methods were similar to those of right-wing paramilitaries in the other countries of the region, including El Salvador and Guatemala, all of which were supported by the Reagan administration. If you have the stomach to read about them, there’s no shortage of sources that outline their barbarity.

To Abrams, however, they were “freedom fighters,” their work in El Salvador was a “fabulous achievement,” and he mocked critics of Reagan as people forced to “run the risk” of arguing that such groups were “doing something wrong and ought to stop it.” He himself had no illusions about what it is that the contras were doing.The purpose of our aid is to permit people who are fighting on our side to use more violence,” he said in 1985.

This “micromanagement” at one point also involved Abrams secretly delivering military equipment to the contras under the guise of humanitarian aid. As commentators have noted, this is particularly relevant now, when the Trump administration attacks Maduro for refusing to let humanitarian aid from the US into Venezuela.

2. He covered up brutal acts of terror

Key to Abrams’ role under Reagan was playing down and denying the copious human rights abuses being committed by the forces and governments he and the administration supported.

As Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar pointed out in her grilling of Abrams earlier this week, part of the Reagan administration’s “fabulous achievement” in El Salvador was the horrific El Mozote massacre, which took place shortly before Abrams took up his post. In his attempt to convince the Senate to certify that El Salvador’s government was improving its human rights record — a precondition for receiving US aid — Abrams testified that the massacre had been “publicized when the certification comes forward to the committee,” and was “being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.” He claimed he had sent military officers to investigate the reports, and that the massacre couldn’t be confirmed.

Another incident was the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed on the orders of Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, one of the administration’s partners in the country. “Anybody who thinks you’re going to find a cable that says that Roberto d’Aubuisson murdered the archbishop is a fool,” said Abrams. In fact, two such cables existed. Abrams would later insist that any criticism of the Reagan administration’s activities in El Salvador were simply “a post-Cold War effort to rewrite history.”

Meanwhile, as Guatemalan dictator Ríos Montt embarked on a campaign of genocide in the country, Abrams said he had “brought considerable progress” on human rights. He defended Reagan’s lifting of a military aid embargo on Montt’s government, claiming the slaughter of civilians was “being reduced step by step” and that it was “progress” that had to be “rewarded and encouraged.”

3. He’s an unrepentant liar

Abrams told Omar that it is “always the position of the United States” to protect human rights, including in Venezuela, and he stressed the US didn’t want to arm anti-Maduro forces. Besides his well-documented record of doing exactly the opposite, Abrams’ words are even less relevant when you consider his history of outright lying.

We’ve already seen how Abrams regularly lied to cover up or play down abuses by the right-wing forces he supported. This practice would ultimately land him in trouble when he misled Congress about the Iran-Contra affair with statements that ranged from outright lies (“we’re not in the fund-raising business”), to lawyerly parsing of the truth (“I said no foreign government was helping the contras, because we had not yet received a dime from Brunei,” he would write later).

Abrams would forever maintain he did nothing wrong, later writing a sanctimonious book that painted himself as the victim of an unjust, vindictive system that had criminalized “political differences.” “This kind of prosecution is something new in America, and it is wrong,” he wrote, before bleating about the “bloodsuckers” and “filthy bastards” who wanted to do him in.

Abrams rained ire upon Lawrence Walsh, the special prosecutor tasked with investigating the Iran-Contra scandal: “You, Walsh, eighty years old, and nothing else to do but stay in this job till the grim reaper gets you. Is this your idea of America?” Abrams insisted the independent counsel law under which Walsh (along with Watergate prosecutor Archibold Cox) served was unconstitutional, despite the fact that the Supreme Court had upheld it 7-1, with even the conservative chief justice Rehnquist affirming (Scalia dissented). It didn’t matter anyway, because the late George H. W. Bush pardoned him.

Abrams managed the trifecta of showing contempt for the truth, the constitution’s separation of powers, and the concept of checks and balances, all in one fell swoop. There’s no reason to believe any of his assurances now.

4. He hates democracy

Abrams has also shown a lifelong contempt for the very thing he’s now meant to be advancing: democracy.

When the Uruguayan military government imprisoned Wilson Ferreira, the country’s most popular politician and a fierce liberal opponent of its rule, Abrams defended the Reagan administration’s meek response, which the New York Times had called “stunning.” Abrams explained that “the transition [to elected government] itself is more important than the immediate situation of any individual politician.” Abrams had earlier insisted there was no evidence the Uruguyan military was stifling political freedom, even as it

  • closed newspapers,
  • arrested its opposition, and
  • continued to ban political leaders, among other things.

Around this same time, Abrams was one of a number of Reagan officials who supported Oliver North’s call to pardon Honduran general Jose Bueso Rosa, despite his having received a relatively lenient sentence. Rosa had been convicted after being caught in Florida plotting to overthrow the Honduran government.

In 2002, Abrams reportedly “gave a nod” to the military coup that attempted, ultimately unsuccessfully, to remove the democratically elected Hugo Chavez from power. The Observer, which broke the story, called Abrams “the crucial figure around the coup.” Abrams has had his eye on toppling Venezuela’s government for some time.

When Hamas defeated Fatah in the 2006 Palestinian election, Abrams, then the point man for George W. Bush’s Middle East policy, helped implement a scheme to nullify the results by fomenting a Palestinian civil war which, they hoped, would remove Hamas from power. When the plan backfired, with Hamas emerging victorious and in full control of Gaza, Abrams accused Hamas of staging a “coup.”

5. His only political principle was anticommunism

Abrams’ disregard for democracy is part and parcel of his general philosophy, which views left-wing governments uniformly as threats to be stamped out.

Abrams, who once told a reporter that he’s “been a counterrevolutionary for a long time,” cut his teeth opposing student protesters at Harvard in the 1960s. He believes the idea that human rights extend past the political and into the economic realm to be “nonsense” and “old Soviet bromides.” As such, he viewed defeating the Soviet Union as the greatest US priority, telling one interviewer that “the greatest threat to human rights is the Soviet Union, not Guatemala or the Philippines.”

In 1984, Abrams quite candidly explained to Policy Review that his human rights policy was one of double standards: fierce opposition to communist rights abusers, and coddling of oppressors friendly to the US.

“Liberalization for purposes of letting out steam always involves line drawing,” he said. “How much steam should you let out? At what point do you risk anarchy and destabilizing the regime?” He went on to explain that “the line drawn varies from country to country,” and that “even a highly imperfect regime may well give a much better prospect of democratization than would the Communist regime that might follow.”

In other words, no matter how brutal or outright fascist a government, it was by default preferable to a communist one, a philosophy he applied in obvious ways to his work in the Americas. It was also evident in his treatment of Cuba, whose prisons he denounced in 1984 as “barbaric” and whose leader, Fidel Castro, he labeled “oppressive” and accused of “betrayal.” He attacked human rights groups, politicians, reporters, and church groups who praised Cuba as “apologists” who “will never take off their rose-colored glasses” and had spent “years defending tyrants” and “years obfuscating the truth.”

At literally the same time he was doing this, Abrams publicly defended Turkey, a key regional ally, from criticism of its human rights record. Abrams praised Turkey, which had recently been pilloried in an Amnesty International report for widespread torture of its people, for “extraordinary progress,” charging that “some who criticize Turkey’s human rights situation have no interest in human rights in Turkey or anywhere else,” but “simply use this issue as a weapon with which to attack a vital member of the Western alliance.” He dismissed Amnesty’s claims as “false history,” criticized human rights groups for “an appalling shallowness of analysis” that ignored social, political, and historical context, and charged that the Turkish people “resent the activists’ shrill and uninformed criticisms of their country.”

As Abrams had earlier said, “the line drawn varies from country to country.” If you played nice with the Reagan administration, your human rights record was tempered by nuance and context, and it was getting better anyway. And if you didn’t, you were beyond redemption.

6. He dislikes journalists and accountability

Abrams no doubt sympathized with Turkey’s rulers because he himself had first-hand experience dealing with pesky journalists and human rights groups.

He said critics of Reagan’s support of the contras would have “blood on their hands,” and accused human rights groups of having communist sympathies. He hopped aboard the Reagan administration’s McCarthyite attempt to shame congressional critics into giving him a blank check in Latin America, claiming that there was an “elaborate and skillful” campaign by Nicaragua’s Sandinista government to “manipulate Congress and the press.” When the GAO released a report alleging contra corruption that was inconvenient for the administration’s attempts to secure aid, Abrams dismissed it as a “smear campaign” cooked up by Democrats.

While Abrams didn’t have a police state at his disposal, that didn’t prevent him from lobbing heavy-handed broadsides against reporters he didn’t like. He refused to be questioned by or debate certain journalists he perceived as critical. Most infamously, from 1986 to 1987, Abrams accused left-wing Colombian journalist Patricia Lara of being a “Cuban agent” and “an active liaison” between Colombian terrorist organization M-19 and “the Cuban secret police.” In October 1986, Lara was stopped by New York immigration officials and imprisoned, before being sent back home, without explanation.

Abrams claimed to have “concrete evidence” that Lara was “heavily engaged” with M-19, but when challenged to reveal evidence, claimed it was based on “intelligence information” that he couldn’t reveal. The Colombian Defense Ministry, then battling M-19, categorically denied they had any such information, and assigned her a bodyguard because Abrams’ accusation had put her in danger. The country’s foreign minister said “we don’t know where the US government obtained” such information.

Abrams also granted a “meritorious honor” award on the Office of Public Diplomacy, a government body responsible for waging an illegal domestic propaganda campaign, in which Iran-Contra architect Oliver North was closely involved, that disseminated Abrams’ preferred narrative about the region. Abrams praised it for “setting out the parameters and defining the terms of the public discussion on Central America policy” and countering the “formidable and well established Soviet/Cuban/Nicaraguan propaganda apparatus.”

7. He’s a fan of regime change

Like any neoconservative worth his salt, Abrams has an abiding faith in the US government’s ability to simply remove world leaders it dislikes at will. (He’s also continued the neocon tradition of never personally fighting in any war, avoiding Vietnam thanks to a hurt back that happened to clear up once the war was over.)

When Abrams wanted to remove former ally Manuel Noriega from power in Panama, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Reagan wrote, he threatened sanctions, then actually imposed sanctions, then established a Panamanian government-in-exile on a US military base. Abrams finally called outright for the US military to topple Noriega, in an op-ed titled “Noriega Respects Power. Use It,” which is what George H. W. Bush ultimately did. It was a chilling preview of where US policy on Venezuela may now be heading if Maduro stays in power.

Reflecting on the mistakes of Reagan’s Latin American policy in 1989, Abrams’ regret was that it hadn’t been more forceful. “You can make a very good argument that after the successful rescue mission in Grenada the president should simply have said, ‘Look, we have to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, we cannot have a Communist government in Nicaragua,’ and done whatever we needed to do to get rid of it, including a naval blockade or possibly even an invasion,” he said.

In 2007, Abrams blessed Bush’s plan to launch a covert operation to destabilize Iran’s government. Two years later, he mused about what should happen if Iran develops a nuclear weapon. “Responsible leadership cannot allow this to happen,” he said. “Preventing it through military action perhaps is the second worst decision we could make. The only worse one being to say it’s all right now, it’s acceptable, we will not act.” But this wouldn’t involve regime change or the killing of civilians, he stressed; just a strike on nuclear facilities. Iran, Abrams warned, was one to three years away from developing a nuclear weapon.

In 2013, Abrams told a House Armed Services Committee hearing that the US had to get militarily involved in Syria. Why? Because “a display of American lack of will power in Syria will persuade many Iranian officials that while we may say ‘all options are on the table,’ in reality they are not — so Iran can proceed happily and safely toward a nuclear weapon.” Two years later, he said at a Council of Foreign Relations event that Netanyahu had two options: either strike Iran right then, or wait two years and see if an administration willing to take a tougher line, or sanction an Israeli strike, would be elected. Abrams, it seems, got his wish.

8. He’s beloved by the Right

In case anyone still believes the fiction that “anti-Trump” conservatives actually oppose Trump, Abrams is a living reminder that there’s no daylight between Trump and the establishment Right that pretends to dislike him.

Abrams was once an “anti-Trump” Republican who signed a letter opposing his candidacy in 2016. He tutored Paul Ryan in foreign policy when he was Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, and served on Marco Rubio’s so-called National Security Advisory Council in 2016. It’s no surprise the Florida senator, long viewed as an establishment-friendly, “sensible” conservative alternative to Trump, is now all but directing Trump’s Latin American policy, sounding virtually indistinguishable from Abrams.

Abrams has now served in every Republican administration since he first entered government bar one. In between, he’s worked at the Heritage Foundation (whose head of Latin American policy just called him “a patriot and dedicated voice for repressed communities”), helped found “anti-Trump” Bill Kristol’s Project for the New American Century, was a fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations, and was a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the US government’s arm for foreign political meddling.

Meanwhile, just look at who came to Abrams’ defense after his grilling by Rep. Omar. The National Review — which not long ago put out a much-celebrated “Against Trump” issue whose purpose, according to its editor, was to say, “He’s not one of us. He’s not a conservative, and he’s not what conservatism is” — just published an editorial calling Abrams “one of the wisest, most experienced foreign-policy heads in this country,” and “a steadfast advocate of freedom, democracy, and human rights.”

A former Bush administration official and current Harvard professor defended Abrams as “a devoted public servant who has contributed much of his professional life to our country.” The newly rebranded neocon Max Boot, who very publicly proclaims he’s seen the error of his ways and broken with the ugliness he now sees in the GOP, deemed him “a leading advocate of human rights and democracy.” Unfortunately, it’s not just the Right; the Center for American Progress’ vice president of National Security and International Policy called him “a fierce advocate for human rights and democracy” who simply “made serious professional mistakes.”

That someone like Abrams, who’s now leading Trump’s regime change efforts in Venezuela, is warmly embraced by the coterie of establishment and “never-Trump” conservatives should tell you everything you need to know about these groups.

The Dubious Management Fad Sweeping Corporate America

 

NPS—or net promoter score—is a measure of customer satisfaction that has developed a cultlike following among CEOs. It also may be misleading.

Best Buy and American Express use it to dole out employee bonuses. Target and Intuitpoint to it to justify investments. Delta Air Lines and UnitedHealth can’t stop talking about it.

Much of Corporate America is obsessed with its net promoter score, or NPS, a measure of customer satisfaction that has developed a cultlike following among CEOs in recent years. Unlike profits or sales, which are measured and audited, NPS is usually calculated from a one-question survey that companies often administer themselves.

Last year, “net promoter” or “NPS” was cited more than 150 times in earnings conference calls by 50 S&P 500 companies, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of transcripts. That’s more than four times as many mentions, and nearly three times as many companies, compared with five years earlier.

Executives pointed to strong or rising NPS as proof that shoppers preferred to pick up orders at Target Corp. stores or that Google’s newest Pixel smartphone was off to a good start. Out of all the mentions the Journal tracked on earnings calls, no executive has ever said the score declined.

.. The score was introduced in 2003 in a Harvard Business Review article titled “The One Number You Need to Grow.” The Bain & Co. consultant who wrote the article called NPS the “simplest, most intuitive and best predictor of customer behavior” and a “useful predictor of growth.”

.. Since then, the metric has taken on a life of its own, so much so that the inventor, Fred Reichheld, said he is astonished companies are using NPS to determine bonuses and as a performance indicator. “That’s completely bogus,” Mr. Reichheld, who still consults for Bain, said in an interview. “I had no idea how people would mess with the score to bend it, to make it serve their selfish objectives.”

The score is typically derived from customer responses to a single question that companies ask at the checkout register of a store or in an email or web pop-up online: On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely are you to recommend the company’s product or service to a friend? The survey usually includes a follow-up question asking customers to explain their ratings.

NPS is based on the premise that every company’s customers can be divided into three groups. People who answer 9 or 10 are “promoters,” or loyal enthusiasts who keep buying. Those who give a score of 0 to 6 are “detractors,” or unhappy customers. Those who answer 7 or 8 are considered “passives,” satisfied but easily wooed by competitors.

.. Management consultants are notorious for pushing ideas to CEOs using jargon and claims of improved business performance. Total quality management, or TQM, which advocated installing quality programs at companies, and business re-engineering process, and BRP, which was a way to restructure companies, gained traction in the 1990s and then faded. NPS has outlived such fads, spawning a cottage industry of consultants and software firms that help businesses implement and boost their score.
Some academics have questioned the whole idea, suggesting that NPS has been oversold. Two 2007 studies analyzing thousands of customer interviews said NPS doesn’t correlate with revenue or predict customer behavior any better than other survey-based metric. A 2015 study examining data on 80,000 customers from hundreds of brands said the score doesn’t explain the way people allocate their money.“The science behind NPS is bad,” said Timothy Keiningham, a marketing professor at St. John’s University in New York, and one of the co-authors of the three studies. He said the creators of NPS haven’t provided peer-reviewed research to support their original claims of a strong correlation to growth. “When people change their net promoter score, that has almost no relationship to how they divide their spending.”

Some data scientists said the way NPS is calculated, in which one survey metric is subtracted from another, increases the margin of error and requires a larger sample size to get useful results.

“It’s common for companies to track NPS data as if it’s gospel—not knowing that it’s super noisy by design,” said Kim Larsen, who has worked as a data scientist at several companies, including Charles Schwab Corp.

Bain, which now refers to NPS as “net promoter system,” said some companies are focusing too heavily on the score, but still defended the approach for some practical benefits. It is simple to communicate to employees, provides an easy way to follow up with customers and can be used to benchmark against rivals. The firm also said third-party analyses, including the 2007 studies, of whether NPS correlates with revenue aren’t as good as the analyses companies conduct internally.

“These are not stupid people. They are running large, successful companies,” said Rob Markey, a Bain partner who helps clients use NPS. “They have demonstrated to their own satisfaction that it’s good.”

Among the first companies to implement NPS were General Electric Co., Intuit Inc. and Charles Schwab Corp., whose leaders were convinced of the benefits after meeting with Mr. Reichheld and other Bain consultants. Now, hundreds of companies are using the score and many have tweaked the methodology, such as making the numerical scale 1 to 5 or including additional survey questions.

International Business Machines Corp. said it switched from a three-question survey to NPS in 2015. Employees in different departments can see the NPS feedback on their phones. “What it’s become here is a shared truth,” said Kathy McGettrick, vice president of market development and insights at IBM.

.. “A big challenge with the methodology is that organizations tend to focus on the metric as the objective instead of gaining the insight to learn and act on to improve the customer experience,” he said. “When organizations manage to the metric, they find ways to game the system.”

The results are easy to manipulate, whether intentionally or unintentionally. On Reddit posts, Best Buy employees share tips and tricks to improve NPS, which the company derives from a random sample of customers. They said they can get better results when they explain to customers how the scoring works, or tell them their compensation is connected to the result. Some said they remind only the happiest customers to take the survey.

“When horrible NPS comments would come in, the management would rail at the employees,” said Alan Sabido, a former Best Buy employee who worked at a Las Vegas store for three years until he quit last year. Mr. Sabido recalled an instance when his store team received a bad score because a customer had a poor experience at a different Best Buy location.NPS took on a greater role after Hubert Joly joined as Best Buy’s chief executive in 2012. The company said it was administering the NPS survey question to customers who bought products as well as those who didn’t. Best Buy also made the metric one of the criteria used to determine bonuses.

.. Delta executives describe NPS as the “true North Star,” she said, though the airline uses other customer metrics as well. “We have been able to statistically correlate our NPS performance with our revenue premium,” she said, referring to how much more Delta is able to charge than a competitor because of its brand.

.. It’s hard for investors to interpret the score because companies don’t typically share response rates, margin of error, or whether results are adjusted for cultural and other biases. Research shows  , and Americans tend to give higher scores than consumers in some countries such as Japan and Korea.

Say Anything, Cain Version

For a $50K household, married couple, two kids, all income from earnings and standard deductions, the current tax burden is $8.3K.  Under 9-9-9, that would grow to $13.5K, an increase of over $5,000 (hat tip: CCH, BS).  The WaPo fact checker came to a similar conclusion.  E Klein too.

(I expect that any minute now the Tax Policy Center will release a slew of data supporting these points with their much more detailed tax model.)

But Lowrie wouldn’t accept that conclusion.  In fact, he asserted that their federal tax would be lower because they’d move from a 15% payroll tax to a 9% income tax.  This, as I said on air, is “patently wrong.”

First of all, assuming they plan to exist, they’ll need to consume stuff, and thus they’ll also face the 9% sales tax.  That already makes their tax rate 18%, higher than the 15%.

But as Michael Linden points out, and this is widely agreed upon by tax economists, the incidence of the 9% tax on business income (which denies businesses a deduction for wages paid) also hits them, which is why former Joint Tax Committee chief of staff Ed Kleinbard described the tax as a 27% payroll tax for families whose incomes derive from earnings (note that Lowrie is perfectly comfortable with the standard assumption assigning the incidence of the employers side of the payroll tax to the family—this one re the business tax is equally standard).

For a family with $500K, same assumptions as above, their tax bill would fall by $44K.

But where this plan really gets regressive is when you get up into the families who derive their income from non-labor sources.  While the details of the plan are fuzzy when it comes to capital gains and dividends, it seems clear that those earning thousands or even millions of dollars in these types of non-labor income would enjoy a massive tax cut.  And that would further widen the disparity between the highly preferential treatment of capital gains and dividends on the one hand, and the taxation of “ordinary” wage and salary income on the other.

We’ve got enough income and wealth inequality coming from the pretax distribution—we don’t need to exacerbate it through the tax code.

Middle class families that depend on earnings will pay more taxes under the Cain tax plan.  High income families will pay a lot less.  His advisors who say otherwise are misleading the electorate and that must not stand.