GIVING AN INTERVIEW in his office on a slow afternoon, Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, is a straight-minded analyst. On certain subjects. On others -- the ones dear to his ideological heart -- he is a veering get-out-of-my-way conservative. In recent weeks, Abrams has been a model of selective outrage.
On June 27, he appeared before a congressional subcommittee to speak of human rights in Cuba. "Conditions in Cuban political prisons are barbaric," Abrams said, "and include the use of torture." Prisoners "are subject to particularly harsh penalties, including the denial of clothing, medical attention, and communication with friends and relatives outside prison."
Abrams spoke of the "oppressive" Fidel Castro and the "repression" he inflicts in his "betrayal" of the Cuban people. Specific examples and the names of victims were cited.
Exactly two weeks later, on July 11, Abrams was in the American ambassador's residence in Ankara, Turkey. This is a country whose government by its own figures held 12,000 political prisoners in June 1982.
In June 1984, Amnesty International, in its first bulletin on a new campaign to abolish torture, stated that "the Turkish government has permitted widespread and systematic torture of its citizens throughout the 1980s." Abrams, with a blind eye and a deaf ear, praised the Turkish government for the "extraordinary progress" it has made since 1980 in "replacing chaos with democratic development." His speech mentioned no specific cases, as did his Cuba testimony. What criticisms he had were vague. No new ground was broken.
If those kisses on the cheek weren't loving enough to the torturers of the Turkish government, Abrams had another: "Candor compels us to state that some who criticize Turkey's human rights situation have no interest in human rights in Turkey or anywhere else: They simply use this issue as a weapon with which to attack a vital member of the western alliance."
In his office the other day, Abrams dismissed Amnesty's assertions about the Turkish government's widespead and systematic torture. That's "a misleading phrase," he charged. Amnesty is engaging in "false history." There was torture before 1980, he said, and a large amount of civil turmoil. Abrams was reminded that Amnesty, unlike himself, is not new to the human rights scene and in fact has been consistently pressuring Turkish regimes for two decades. It criticizes torture regardless of ideology, which is how it has won respect.
Though he does not hesitate to speak forcefully against the Cuban government, Abrams thinks the delicate approach with a government like Turkey's is more effective. He offers no proof of his effectiveness. It is on the level of a personal hunch that if you get too pushy or noisy -- the way, he says, his predecessor Patricia Derian was -- you may only offend the torturers, not change them.
Jacobo Timerman, tortured by the Argentine junta, spoke to this once. Cry out loudly, he insisted. "Sometimes," Timerman said, "the politicians and the conservatives in the United States, they want to present a case saying that if we are outspoken we are not going to influence the generals in Argentina. That is not the point. The point is that you're going to scare them, you are going to save lives."
If Abrams has little regard for Amnesty, he has less for Timerman: "I refuse to accept Timerman as an expert, I'm sorry. I accept him as a victim, not an expert." Not content with that, Abrams repeated the standard put-downs: "Timerman played footsie with governments in Argentina for years and years as a newspaper publisher. He came late to the cause. Let's put it that way."
Abrams has other favorite ways of putting things. He says that the Maryknoll order, which has been sending missionaries for decades to Central America, has been "snookered" by the Sandinistas. He believes that his denunciatory ways against Cuba are justified, because Castro doesn't deserve a civil tone. Friendly torturers, however, do.
In certain parts of the diplomatic circuit, Abrams is well-liked. A country like Turkey can have 12,000 political prisoners -- a conservative count -- and be hailed for "extraordinary progress." Other torturers, not only Turkey's generals, must now be asking themselves, if we can get praise like that, why release anyone?