Ilhan Omar vs. Elliott Abrams, explained

First-term Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) is making headlines again.

On the heels of a controversy surrounding a tweet of hers that struck many observers (including me) as anti-Semitic, Omar has again garnered national attention over her tough questioning of Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, during a House hearing on Wednesday.

Abrams, a veteran diplomat who served in the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, is a controversial figure: In 1991, he pleaded guilty to withholding crucial information about the Iran-Contra affair from Congress. President George H.W. Bush later pardoned him for his crimes, and Abrams went on to serve in prominent foreign policy positions both in and out of government.

That he didn’t seem to have suffered any serious professional consequences for his actions and, even more stunning, was now testifying before Congress as if he hadn’t ever been convicted of not being truthful to Congress, did not sit well with Rep. Omar.

During Wednesday’s House hearing on Venezuela, Omar did not hide her incredulity.

“Mr. Abrams, in 1991 you pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress regarding the Iran-Contra affair, for which you were later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush,” Omar began. “I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony you give today to be truthful.”

“If I could respond to that —” Abrams replied, but Omar cut him off: “It wasn’t a question,” she replied.

The exchange only got testier from there, as Omar grilled Abrams on his record and its relevance to his current post in the Trump administration. The frankness of the exchange, and Abrams’s visible anger at Omar’s questioning, made the C-SPAN clip of the moment go viral:

The reaction to the tense exchange was interestingly divided.

Many observers on the left — including me — celebrated Omar’s interrogation of Abrams as a rare example of a US foreign policy official being held accountable for past sins. Conservatives, on the other hand, lined up to defend Abrams’s record, arguing that he was actually an advocate for human rights and democracy who’s well suited to handle the current crisis in Venezuela.

But this was more than just standard partisan uproar. It was a revelatory incident, one that showed how the insurgent left flank of the Democratic Party is raising questions about premises that the Washington establishment has long taken for granted.

These questions have significance not only for the issue of how America sees its past role on the world stage — as an imperialist power, a beneficent liberator, or something in between — but also for how it behaves in future crises like the one in Venezuela.

It was, in short, one of the most interesting little moments in American foreign policy I’ve seen in quite some time.

Omar’s case against Abrams

During the Cold War, America frequently intervened in Latin American affairs to check political movements that Washington deemed to be overly friendly to or outright supported by the Soviet Union. This manifested in different ways, ranging from relatively benign policies like foreign aid to deeply controversial ones like CIA support for military coups against elected leaders.

The results were a mixed bag at best — and in some cases were horrific. The US got into bed with some truly nasty people and became implicated in a number of atrocities and arguably even war crimes.

In the 1980s, when Elliott Abrams held a series of important positions in the State Department, the US got deeply involved in several crises in Central America. Omar’s questions for Abrams focused on his role in events involving three countries in particular: Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

Nicaragua

Elliott Abrams.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Nicaragua was the epicenter of the Iran-Contra scandal with which Omar began her questioning. That affair involved a scheme in which the Reagan administration covertly sold arms to Iran, violating a US arms embargo on the country, and funneled the money from the sale to Nicaragua’s right-wing Contra rebels, who were fighting the left-wing government led by Daniel Ortega.

The reason Reagan decided to do all of this covertly, instead of just funding the Contras openly, is that Congress had passed a series of acts, collectively known as the Boland Amendment, explicitly intended to prevent the Reagan administration from further interfering in Nicaragua. So rather than abide by the law, Reagan simply figured out a way to go around Congress and fund the Contras anyway, just in secret.

Abrams supported the policy, and participated in covering up the arrangement from Congress. In the investigation that was launched after the whole affair was exposed, Abrams pleaded guilty to criminal charges for his role in misleading Congress, for which he was later pardoned.

That he’d previously misled Congress, in Omar’s view, fatally undermines his credibility in congressional testimony even today.

El Salvador

Her next question for Abrams centered on US policy toward El Salvador.

When the civil war broke out there in late 1979, the US sided with the right-wing military government against the left-wing insurgents, and provided it with aid and military assistance, including training. In 1981, government soldiers from the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion slaughtered more than 750 men, women, and children in the village of El Mozote, raping girls as young as 10.

Roughly a month later, credible reports of the horror that the US-backed forces had perpetrated appeared in the US press — just one day before the Reagan administration was required to certify to Congress that the government of El Salvador was continuing to improve its human rights record (a condition required for US aid to the Salvadoran government to continue).

Though declassified cables have since revealed that senior administration officials were aware of the atrocities that the US-backed Salvadoran government forces were committing, they went ahead and certified to Congress that human rights were improving anyway. And they continued to do so in subsequent reports to Congress.

Abrams was assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs during all of this. In a July 1982 certification hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Abrams downplayed the El Mozote massacre, describing it as “an incident which is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the [leftist] guerrillas.”

And when, more than a decade later, a United Nations-backed truth commission issued a report detailing the numerous atrocities committed by the US-backed forces during the Salvadoran civil war — including the El Mozote massacre — Abrams continued to defend the Reagan administration’s decision to back those forces. He told the Washington Post at the time that “the administration’s record in El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement.”

In Wednesday’s hearing, Omar specifically questioned him about this record. “In [a 1982 Senate] hearing, you dismissed as ‘communist propaganda’ [a] report about the massacre of El Mozote,” she said. “You later said that the US policy in El Salvador was a ‘fabulous achievement.’ Yes or no: Do you still think so?”

Abrams responded angrily that the fact that El Salvador “has been a democracy” since 1984 is “a fabulous achievement.” When Omar pushed him to answer, yes or no, whether he thinks the El Mozote massacre was “a fabulous achievement,” he responded that that was “a ridiculous question” and said he refused to answer. She pushed again, yes or no, and he said “no.”

He then addressed the committee chair directly, saying he refused to answer any more questions like this, characterizing them as a “personal attack.”

Omar then upped the stakes, implying that Abrams backed forces that committed “genocide.” Here’s she was referring to Guatemala.

Guatemala

In the early 1980s, the Guatemalan government launched a campaign of mass slaughter against the country’s indigenous Maya population, whom the government believed were supporting anti-government guerrilla fighters. In a years-long operation known as “Operation Sophia,” the Guatemalan military killed tens of thousands of Maya civilians in what is now widely considered to be a genocide.

In 1983, as the genocide was taking place, Abrams went on an American TV news show to defend the Reagan administration’s new policy: ending the arms embargo on sales to the Guatemalan government. “The amount of killing of innocent civilians is being reduced step by step,” he said. “We think that kind of progress needs to be rewarded and encouraged.”

During her questioning Wednesday, Omar directly connected that kind of argument to Abrams’s current job in the Trump administration, overseeing current US policy in Venezuela.

The echoes of the Central American conflicts Abrams was involved in decades ago and the current crisis in Venezuela are eerie: The Trump administration is backing a pro-American politician named Juan Guaidó in his struggle to remove the country’s socialist incumbent president, Nicolás Maduro, and take his place (though Guaidó is a social democrat, not a right-winger).

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 their 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 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 CSPAN 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.

The present-day stakes: What to do about Venezuela?

Opposition Protest In Venezuela
Pro-opposition demonstrators in Venezuela.
Edilzon Gamez/Getty Images

There is no questioning the fact that the United States is the most powerful country in the world, commanding an unprecedentedly mighty military machine and an enormous network of alliances. The real question — and the one at the center of America’s foreign policy debate — is whether that fact is, on balance, harmful to the world or helpful.

People on the neoconservative right like Abrams embrace American power, arguing that it needs to be exercised vigorously to preserve peace and spread democracy. The more centrist foreign policy establishment sees America’s preeminence as a net positive, but acknowledge that it has historically lead to some unfortunate overreaches and abuses. Left-wing critics like Omar tend to see American global intervention as gussied-up imperialism: the United States pursuing its own interests at the expense of innocent people in places like El Salvador.

These are obviously stylized differences, with individual advocates in these debates taking more nuanced views. But which of these three visions you’re closest too, broadly, shapes the way that you think about and approach various questions in American foreign policy. If you think the United States is typically a force for good in the world, you tend to be more comfortable with American intervention in foreign conflicts. If you think America is a meddling imperialist power, not so much.

The debate between Abrams and Omar is, really, a debate about these visions. But it’s also a debate about a very real policy question currently facing the US: should the US militarily intervene — or intervene at all, in any way, even diplomatically — in Venezuela?

While Venezuela may resemble Cold War-era conflicts in Latin America in the abstract, the details of it are quite different. In this case, the regime led by leftist President Nicolás Maduro is clearly responsible for the destruction of Venezuela’s economy and the collapse of its democracy. His challenger, Juan Guaidó — whom the US is backing — not only seems to have a pretty solid claim to being the actual legitimate president of the country, but could also be the best chance Venezuela has to escape this nightmare in years.

A couple weeks before Wednesday’s hearing, Omar openly questioned America’s growing involvement in Venezuela’s domestic political affairs on Twitter, warning of “a US backed coup in Venezuela” of the Cold War variety and decrying “Trump’s efforts to install a far right opposition.”

But that’s not an accurate representation of what the Trump administration’s policy is, on a number of fronts.

For one thing, Guaidó is not staging a literal coup — in the traditional definition of using military force to overthrow the government. Rather, he’s asserting that Maduro is not the legitimate president because the election he won last May was rigged — an assertion backed up by many citizens and international observers.

As a result, Guaidó says that, based on Venezuela’s constitution, he, as the head of the National Assembly (the country’s legislative body), is now the rightful — albeit temporary — president of the country. And many other democratic countries besides the US agree and support his claim, including Canada, Australia, France, Britain, and Germany.

Which brings me to the final point on which Omar is wrong: Guaidó is far from “a far right opposition” figure, as Omar says in her tweet. He leads a progressive. democratic-socialist political party whose platform calls for “an inclusive society that generates opportunities for all citizens, regardless of wealth, religion, age, race, sexual orientation, gender identity or political tendency.” Supporting the Venezuelan opposition right now is simply not the same thing as backing a Cold War military coup.

This is a case in which the left-wing critics of American foreign policy are mostly wrong, their justifiable historical skepticism of American interventionism leading them to overcorrect and attack a legitimate effort to deal with a crisis created by a truly evil government.

The one thing that gives me pause about this assessment, and the thing that proves the value of having a staunch leftist voice in Congress, is the role of Abrams and people like him in the Trump administration’s Venezuela policy.

It is folly to trust them to respect the appropriate limits of American power in Venezuela, to not go to far as the crisis progresses. It’s important for people like Omar to be in Congress, holding the administration’s feet to the fire to prevent a replay of what happened in the 1980s.

There’s a balance, in short, between “America can do no wrong” and “down with American empire” — and where exactly it falls depends on the specific policy issue in question.

Of all the views out there, I think these comments from Patrick Iber — a left-wing historian of Latin America at the University of Wisconsin — capture the particulars of the Abrams-Venezuela situation best.

“I’m not going to defend Maduro, and for someone on the left I have been publicly critical of not only Maduro but also of autocratic aspects of Chavismo over the years. Nor am I even going say that these connections to the US make Guaidó or his demands illegitimate,” Iber writes.

“But the very legitimate worry is that by having Abrams prominently involved in Venezuela will empower hard-liners in the opposition, who have their own problems with ‘democracy,’” he continues. “I’m not trying to make an equivalence here, but you can’t look at his record and think that this would be a person who will support a negotiation that could lead to a peaceful resolution to the crisis.”

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