Elliott Abrams, who is steering Trump’s Venezuela policy, has a long track record of war crimes. Yet a number of liberal commentators are rushing to his defense.
by Paul Heideman
Practically the entire American political establishment and corporate press are repeating the Trump administration’s claims to have humanitarian motives in Venezuela. As that administration inches closer to full-blown military invasion, whether direct or by proxy, it behooves us to look into the track record of the officials steering this so-called “humanitarian policy.” None other are more deserving of scrutiny than Elliott Abrams, whose crimes have spanned the globe, from El Salvador to Nicaragua to Iraq.
Before this month, Elliott Abrams was likely glad to have been largely forgotten by the U.S. public. When the Trump administration announced Abrams’ appointment as U.S. Special Representative in Venezuela in late January, the news caused some ripples on the Left, but across mainstream media outlets, the reaction was mostly sedate.
Politico described Abrams as “a somewhat controversial figure,” while Bloomberg focused on his criticisms of Trump. In the wild world of Trump appointees, this was hardly exciting stuff. While Abrams has been associated with some of the darkest moments in American foreign policy over the last 40 years—from death squads in Central America to the Iran-Contra affair to the invasion of Iraq—his appointment failed to resonate with the media obsessions of the moment. This history was simply too long ago to generate much controversy today. A relic from another era, Abrams was on the verge of ascending to the coveted position of “elder statesman.”
All of that changed February 13, when Rep. Ilhan Omar subjected Abrams to a withering interrogation. Citing his conviction in 1991 of withholding information from Congress concerning the Iran-Contra affair, Omar declared “I fail to understand why members of this committee or the American people should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful.” When Abrams, incensed, replied, “If I could respond to that,” Omar casually informed him “It wasn’t a question.”
She went on to question Abrams about his record, from supporting U.S.-backed military dictatorships in Central America in the 1980s to his recent role in promoting right-wing coup-plotters in Venezuela. Throughout, Abrams protested again and again about the unfairness of her line of questioning. This was simply not how things were done in polite society.
Immediately following this exchange, Abrams and his record began attracting significantly more attention than they had when his appointment was first announced. Prodded by Omar, media outlets across the country suddenly remembered the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, committed by the right-wing military forces that Abrams and the Reagan administration were backing.
Yet even this rude intrusion of history into the public sphere only hinted at the full extent of the blood on Abrams’ hands. In her five minutes of questioning, Omar could merely reference his record in shorthand. Yet Abrams’ full career, and its memory in public life, are worth considering in further detail, as they reveal important truths about how foreign policy is made in America.
Despite his bloody history, in the aftermath of Omar’s interrogation, a number of mainstream liberal commentators such as the Center for American Progress’s Kelly Magsamen and prominent Joe Biden ally Dave Harden jumped to Abrams’ defense. This exculpation by a sector of the liberal intelligentsia also reveals the continuity of U.S. foreign policy across political parties, and the threat posed to this consensus by Omar’s inquiry.