I should be grateful to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) for making my point for me. On Wednesday, I posted a column warning Democrats to be wary of the “uber-progressive wing” of their party. That very day, Omar demonstrated the dangers I was warning of by badgering and berating Elliott Abrams, the new Trump administration envoy for Venezuela. She had been forced just two days earlier to apologize for her latest anti-Semitic outburst — she had insinuated that Congress was controlled by wealthy Jewish supporters of Israel — but her sense of moral superiority emerged unshaken. Her tendentious “questioning” of Abrams, a colleague of mine at the Council on Foreign Relations, has to be seen to be believed.
Reading haltingly from a sheet of paper, Omar seemed confused initially by the identity of the witness, referring to him as “Mr. Adams.” She accurately noted that, in 1991, Abrams had pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of deceiving Congress about the Iran-contra affair. “I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful,” she said. When Abrams tried to defend himself, she cut him off, saying with a smirk, “That’s not a question.” You can think Abrams was wrong to do what he did — and I do — but her bullying was nevertheless unsavory. As Abrams said, “It is not right that members of this committee can attack a witness who is not permitted to reply.”
Omar then proceeded to raise the El Mozote massacre committed by the El Salvadoran army in 1981, while Abrams was serving as assistant secretary of state for labor, democracy and human rights. In common with other Reagan administration officials, Abrams had wrongly cast doubt on the reporting about the massacre. Years later, he called U.S. policy toward El Salvador a “fabulous achievement.” Arguably it was: The Reagan administration backed the election in 1984 of moderate president José Napoleon Duarte, who reduced human-rights abuses by the army and right-wing “death squads,” and beat back the Communist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) insurgency. This made possible the negotiated end of the conflict in 1992.
But Omar disingenuously made it sound as though Abrams had characterized the El Mozote massacre as a “fabulous achievement.” “Yes or no,” she demanded. “Do you think that massacre was a fabulous achievement that happened under our watch?” “That is a ridiculous question, and — no!," Abrams replied. “I will take that as a yes," Omar said.
Omar plowed ahead: “Yes or no. Would you support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, if you believe they were serving U.S. interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua?” That is another ridiculous question. Abrams is working with U.S. allies to restore democracy in Venezuela and to overthrow a dictator with the worst human-rights record in the Western Hemisphere. By opposing international intervention — which she wrongly describes as a “U.S.-backed coup” — Omar is the one who is enabling human-rights abuses.
Omar’s interrogation — which seems to have been pulled largely off Wikipedia — showed a fundamental confusion about who Abrams is. Going back to his days in the 1970s as an aide to Democratic senators Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, he has been one of the foremost advocates of democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy. In 1981, he wrote a seminal memorandum for the Reagan administration which said that “Human rights is at the core of our foreign policy, because it is central to America’s conception of itself.” Abrams became one of the foremost advocates of abandoning pro-American dictators when democratic alternatives were available. The Reagan administration helped to topple Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, and Chun Doo-hwan in South Korea. But the administration also supported the El Salvadoran regime, because it judged that a victory for the FMLN would be a defeat for human rights and for the United States. Likewise in Nicaragua, the administration supported the contras because it believed the rebels, while imperfect, were superior on both moral and strategic grounds to the Sandinistas.
This did not go far enough for leftists, who argued that President Ronald Reagan should simply cut off right-wing regimes in places such as El Salvador and Guatemala — while they advocated outreach to China and the Soviet Union despite those countries’ dismal records on human rights. Reagan officials refused to follow this advice, because they did not want to repeat the mistakes made by President Jimmy Carter: By abandoning pro-U.S. dictators in Iran and Nicaragua, he had helped bring to power anti-U.S. dictators.
But even the Carter administration balanced human rights against security interests. As Abrams notes in his book, “Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring,” “In December 1980 when four American Catholic missionary women were raped and murdered in El Salvador by National Guardsmen, Carter nevertheless went forward with $6.9 million in military aid to the military regime there.” Yet the Carter officials who made that difficult decision were not pilloried as “war criminals.” Abrams is — as I discovered when I dared to defend him on Twitter.
These attacks are unjust. Abrams badly erred during the Iran-contra affair, but he went on to serve honorably for eight years on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council. He is, as former undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns wrote, “a devoted public servant who has contributed much of his professional life to our country.” He is not the advocate for genocide that Omar and others on the far left are making him out to be.
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