There was no real dispute, factually, about the exchange yesterday between Representative Ilhan Omar and Elliott Abrams, the Trump Administration official in charge of Venezuela policy, as Abrams testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee. Omar greeted Abrams by noting that he had previously been convicted of untruthful testimony to Congress, covering up his illegal work with the Reagan Administration in the Iran-Contra affair. She then brought up the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, committed by the forces Abrams backed there, and about which he had lied to the Senate.
Abrams, she said, had hailed the Reagan Administration’s El Salvador policy as a “fabulous achievement.” Did that include El Mozote?
Abrams jabbed the witness table with his finger and replied that the successful promotion of democracy in El Salvador had been a fabulous achievement. Omar pressed him about El Mozote: “Do you think that massacre was a fabulous achievement, that happened under our watch?”
“That is a ridiculous question and I will not respond to it,” Abrams said.
“Yes or no?” Omar asked.
“No!” Abrams said. “I’m sorry…I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question.”
Cynical and smarmy appeals to the private sphere are an everyday feature of the discourse now, but it was remarkable to see Elliott Abrams claim that boundaries of his personal life extend throughout the Western Hemisphere. He was testifying before Congress about his plan to promote democracy in Latin America, and he was asked about the war crimes he had previously overseen and covered up in Latin America as part of his previous plans to promote democracy in the region.
But in the realm of foreign affairs—the realm where Elliott Abrams, a liar and an ex-convict who has spread brutality and misery around the globe for decades, is a respected elder statesman—his complaint was picked up and amplified. “Elliott Abrams is a devoted public servant who has contributed much of his professional life to our country,” tweeted Nicholas Burns, a retired diplomat who is now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “It’s time to build bridges in America and not tear people down.”
“I was a career FSO and later Obama appointee, Elliott Abrams was a kind, thoughtful, non partisan mentor,” tweeted Dave Harden of the Georgetown Strategy Group. “Let’s try to see the best—rather than the worst—in people.”
If it’s ad hominem to point out that Elliott Abrams has lied to Congress and promoted atrocities in Latin America, then it’s ad hominem for a preschool to check if a job applicant is a registered sex offender.
Is there a name for the logical fallacy by which people on the Internet have convinced themselves that saying the name of a logical fallacy is an incantation that ends an argument? If it’s ad hominem to point out that Elliott Abrams has lied to Congress and promoted atrocities in Latin America, then it’s ad hominem for a preschool to check if a job applicant is a registered sex offender.
The other relevant magic words Boot tweeted were “my” and “colleague.” Abrams is a fully employed member of the American foreign policy community, for whom American foreign policy consists of people in offices making statements about goals and national interests, not soldiers in Guatemala smashing babies’ skulls and throwing the bodies down a well. The soldiers who smashed the babies’ skulls were following the orders of a leader under whom, according to Abrams at the time, “killing of innocent civilians is being reduced step by step.” The killings were not reduced enough to keep Abrams’ man from being convicted of genocide, afterward, but the point is, the intentions were good.
The intentions are always good. At the time the babies were being thrown down the well—as part of a chain of events that was meant to promote American interests in the region—Elliott Abrams had a job with “Human Rights” in the job title.
Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics writing in the Washington Post, disagreed with the other professionals who thought it was wrong for Omar to ask Abrams about his record. Abrams’ past work was worth challenging, Drezner wrote, but that doesn’t mean that his present work is wrong. “The other uncomfortable truth, however, is that while Omar might be right to interrogate Abrams, she is mostly in the wrong about Venezuela,” he wrote.
He then embedded a tweet from Omar:
A US backed coup in Venezuela is not a solution to the dire issues they face. Trump’s efforts to install a far right opposition will only incite violence and further destabilize the region. We must support Mexico, Uruguay & the Vatican’s efforts to facilitate a peaceful dialogue.
What does it mean for Omar to be “mostly in the wrong” about this? That a United States–backed coup in Venezuela would, in fact, solve the country’s problems? That our intervention to overthrow the existing government would not incite violence and not destabilize the region?
This is the state of establishment debate about United States policy in the Western Hemisphere: some people believe Elliott Abrams is a good person, whose history of spreading brutality and misery is a model of good policy; other people believe Abrams is not a good person, but his history of spreading brutality and misery is a model of good policy regardless.
If we can’t tell a sovereign country who ought to be in charge of it, and enforce that opinion by force, then what exactly can we do, as a member of the community of nations?
If Abrams’ past work is wrong, then the whole idea of a kinetic foreign policy might be wrong. If we can’t tell a sovereign country who ought to be in charge of it, and enforce that opinion by force, then what exactly can we do, as a member of the community of nations?
“Rep Omar is de facto defending the Maduro regime, which is a notorious human-rights violator and despoiler of democracy,” Boot tweeted, “while Elliott Abrams is attempting to restore democracy in Venezuela.”
Omar was not defending the Maduro regime. She was asking questions about the plans and intentions of our own regime, a regime for which she is partly responsible.
Her questioning could only have been unfair or unreasonable if there were any discontinuity between past and present policy. Abrams—by the fact of his appointment as Special Representative for Venezuela, and through what he said in the hearing—sat before Congress as proof that there is not. Given the atrocities he’d previously overseen in Latin America in the name of promoting democracy, Omar asked, would he tolerate more of the same in Venezuela?
“I am not going to respond to that question, I’m sorry” Abrams said. “I don’t think this entire line of questioning is meant to be real questions, and so I will not reply.”
Then under further questioning, he went ahead and answered it: “The entire thrust of American policy in Venezuela is to support the Venezuelan people’s effort to restore democracy to their country.
Omar continued: “Does the interests of the United States include protecting human rights and include protecting people against genocide?”
The official who spent the ’80s backing regional massacres and the installation of a genocidal dictator through a coup was ready to answer.
“That is always the position of the United States,” Abrams said.