The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anatomy of a questioning

Adjudicating the Omar-Abrams clash

U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams testifies as demonstrators protest during a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on Feb. 13. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

For the past hour, I have been staring at my computer screen, trying to figure out what to say about this:

For some people, this is a very easy call. The Washington Free Beacon’s headline is “Anti-Semitic Congresswoman Defames Jewish-American Hero,” so you can guess where its sympathies lie. Vox’s Zack Beauchamp leans in the opposite direction, arguing that, “Establishment figures like Abrams aren’t used to being held accountable for their sins. That’s just not how things are done in Washington.”

I confess to finding the exchange a bit more complicated. To push back on Beauchamp’s claim, for example, I know from firsthand experience that folks routinely try to hold Abrams accountable. The only time I ever met him was when we were both on an American Enterprise Institute panel in 2001 about international law and domestic sovereignty. The reason I remember this so clearly is that once the panel went to a Q&A, Abrams was asked point-blank about Iran-contra. I suspect that is hardly the only time this has happened to Abrams over the past few decades. I raise this point not to suggest it exonerates Abrams’s prior misdeeds but merely to fact-check Beauchamp.

Furthermore, 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.