The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Elliott Abrams
By Tom Barry February 17, 2005
Elliott Abrams, a figure from the Ronald Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal who describes himself as a “neo-conservative and neo-Reaganite,” is moving to center-stage in U.S. foreign policy as head of President George W. Bush’s Global Democracy Strategy.
In his new position, Abrams will oversee the administration’s promotion of democracy and human rights while continuing to provide oversight to the National Security Council’s directorate of Near East and North African affairs-including involvement in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Although not known as a regional specialist, Abrams has frequently voiced his strong support for Israel’s Likud party positions on the Oslo peace process and “land for peace” negotiations.
After the launch of the al-Aqsa Intifada in late September 2000, Abrams lambasted mainstream Jewish groups for their continued support of peace talks between the Palestinian Authority and for their call to Israel to halt its attacks.
During the first Bush administration, the White House kept Abrams out of the public limelight. When he was appointed to the National Security Council (NSC), first as chief human rights officer and then as the NSC’s senior director of Near East and North Africa Affairs, the White House told the media that Abrams was unavailable for interviews.
There is less reticence this time around. Even before just-departed Secretary of State Colin Powell started clearing his desk in Foggy Bottom, Abrams was hitting the road last November in Europe to promote the Sharon-Bush plan to resolve what he calls the “Israel-Arab” conflict.
Abrams has served as Rice’s point man on Israel. Prior to Rice’s first trip to Israel as secretary of state, Abrams met with Prime Minister Sharon’s top adviser, Dov Weisglass, to establish the parameters of the Rice-Sharon meetings.
Abrams, appointed by NSC Adviser Condoleezza Rice as the council’s director of Middle East affairs in June 2002, kept a low public profile during the first administration. When he joined the first Bush administration, the White House told the media that the controversial Abrams was unavailable for interviews. A young neoconservative who was at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan era, Abrams moved out of the shadows immediately after the November 2004 election.
Since Bush’s reelection, Abrams has moved to center stage-both in the administration’s Middle East policy and in the “freedom and democracy” policy that Bush highlighted during his State of the Union Address. Minutes before Bush’s Inaugural Address, the White House announced that Abrams would serve as his deputy assistant and as the Deputy National Security Adviser for global democracy strategy under NSC Adviser Stephen Hadley, who had been Rice’s deputy at the National Security Council. In his announcement of Abrams’ new position, Hadley said that Abrams is one of the administration’s strongest and most consistent advocates of American strength and the expansion of freedom worldwide.
In his new position, Abrams will oversee the administration’s promotion of democracy and human rights, while also continuing to provide oversight to the NSC’s directorate of Near East and North African affairs. According to the White House, “Working with Secretary Rice and Mr. Hadley, he will maintain his involvement in Israeli/Palestinian affairs.”
Abrams traveled to Europe at least twice in November as the advance man for the second administration’s policy of Middle East restructuring. Also in November Abrams participated in an hour-plus meeting in the Oval Office with the president and Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs. Sharansky, the author of The Case for Freedom, subsequently met with Rice. Both Bush and Rice have repeatedly referred to Sharansky’s book in their pronouncements about the U.S. government’s new commitment to ending tyranny and spreading democracy, frequently using the same phrasing as Sharansky. The Israeli minister’s connection to Abrams and other neoconservatives dates back to the mid-1970s when Sharansky worked closely with Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA), who employed Abrams, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and other neoconservatives. After Jackson’s failure to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Abrams joined the staff of Sen. Patrick Moynihan, and later became his chief-of-staff.
Also in November, Abrams led conference calls with the leaders of the major national Jewish American organizations in advance of formal meetings with Rice. According to reports from one meeting that included representatives from such organizations as American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Rice assured the Jewish American leaders that the more assertive U.S. diplomacy regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the second Bush administration should by no means be interpreted as a sign that the U.S. government would be backing away from its previous commitments to Israeli security.
Rice also explained that the Abrams’ visits with the heads of European governments in November did not signify that President Bush was backtracking in his support for Israel as part of a “price” to improve U.S.-European relations. “I hope that everyone understands by now that you don’t extract a price from this president,” Rice said.1
The Neocon’s Neocon One of the reasons that pundits and analysts have such a difficult time defining neoconservatism is that this closely-knit political camp has multiple faces and historical roots.
These include the Trotskyist roots of many of the leading neoconservatives; their close links to the Cold Warriors of the Democratic Party in the 1970s, especially Henry “Scoop” Jackson; their pivotal role in challenging the moderate threat assessments of the CIA through Team B and the Committee on the Present Danger; their influence in shaping the foreign policy of the Reagan administration; their pivotal role in promoting “democratization” and the formation of the National Endowment of Democracy (NED); their key role in forging backlash coalitions against the counterculture and progressive Democrats; their advocacy of the militarist policies of the Likud Party in Israel; and their creation or reshaping of an array of right-wing policy institutes, front groups, and think tanks that address domestic policy, military policy, and cultural and religious issues.
Today, the neoconservatives are best known for their success in setting and then implementing the national security agenda of the Bush presidency.
Elliott Abrams embodies neoconservatism. Perhaps more than any other neoconservative, Abrams has integrated the various influences that have shaped today’s neoconservative agenda. A creature of the neoconservative incubator, Abrams is a political intellectual and operative who has consistently advanced the neoconservative agenda with chutzpah and considerable success.
As a government representative, Abrams organized front groups to provide private and clandestine official support for the Contras; served as the president of an ethics institute despite his own record of lying to Congress and managing illegal operations; rose to high positions in the National Security Council to oversee U.S. foreign policy in regi
ons where he had no professional experience, only ideological positions; proved himself as a political intellectual in books and essays that explore the interface between orthodox Judaism, American culture, and political philosophy; and demonstrated his considerable talents in public diplomacy as a political art in the use of misinformation and propaganda to ensure public and policy support for foreign relations agendas that would otherwise be soundly rejected.
Abrams has moved back and forth between government and the right’s web of think tanks and policy institutes, holding positions as a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), advisory council member of the American Jewish Committee, and charter member of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Abrams has maintained close ties with the Social Democrats/USA, the network of right-wing social democrats and former Trotskyists who became the most vocal of the self-described “democratic globalists” within the neocon camp in the 1990s.
His family ties have helped propel Abrams into the center of neoconservatism’s inner circles over the past few decades. In 1980 he joined one of the two reigning families of neoconservatism through his marriage to Rachel Decter, one of Midge Decter‘s two daughters from her first marriage. As a member of the Podhoretz-Decter clan, Abrams became a frequent contributor to Commentary and Norman Podhoretz‘s choice to direct the magazine’s symposiums on foreign policy. As one of the leading neocons in the Reagan administration, Abrams also served as a liaison between government and the right wing’s network, as exemplified by his appearances at the forums organized by Midge Decter’s Committee for the Free World in the 1980s.
Emblematic of Abrams’ visceral right-wing politics was his statement following the murder of John Lennon in December 1980. Setting the tone for the cultural and political backlash that would soon dominate U.S. politics, Abrams complained publicly about all the media attention given the famous singer: “I’m sorry, but John Lennon was not that important a figure in our times.Why is his death getting more attention than Elvis Presley’s? Because Lennon is perceived as a left-wing figure politically, anti-establishment, a man of social conscience with concern for the poor. And, therefore, he is being made into a great figure. Too much has been made of his life. It does not deserve a full day’s television and radio coverage. I’m sick of it.”2
Abrams the Anti-Communist Gladiator As an aide to Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson in the 1970s, Abrams began his political career mixing the soft and hard sides of the neoconservative agenda-as both a proponent of Jackson’s strategically driven human rights policies and as an advocate of his proposals to boost the military-industrial complex. Through Jackson, Abrams became involved in a group of Cold Warriors called the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, which was associated with the Democratic Party and led by the neoconservatives.
Among former members of Jackson’s staff to find positions in the Reagan administration’s foreign policy team were such neoconservative operatives as Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Frank Gaffney, Charles Horner, and Ben Wattenberg. Another up-and-coming neoconservative who was close to Jackson and later joined the Reagan administration was Paul Wolfowitz, who together with his mentor, Albert Wohlstetter, advised the senator on arms issues. Other Jackson Democrats who secured appointments in the Reagan administration included Jeane Kirkpatrick, as UN ambassador, and neoconservatives on her staff, such as Joshua Muravchik, Steven Munson (like Abrams a Podhoretz-Decter son-in-law), Carl Gershman, and Kenneth Adelman.
Abrams joined the neocon exodus from the Democratic Party in the late 1970s led by members of the Committee on the Present Danger and the Coalition for a Democratic Majority. His first position in the Reagan administration was director of the State Department’s Office for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. But he was appointed only after Reagan’s first choice came under fire in the Senate.
During the Reagan years, the neocon human rights program was a velvet glove tailored for the iron fist side of foreign and military policy. Reagan’s first nominee was Ernest Lefever, a founding member of the second Committee on the Present Danger who was known as a fierce critic of Carter’s human rights policy. Lefever’s dubious credentials as a human rights advocate came in part from the white paper “The Trivialization of Human Rights,” published in 1978 by the neoconservative Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC)-with which Abrams was also associated and became its president in 1996.
In testimony before a Senate committee in 1979, Lefever set forth the neoconservative position on human rights-one that would soon characterize the policy of the Reagan administration and would two decades later be adopted by the Bush administration. According to Lefever, the United States “should remove from statute books all clauses that establish a human rights standard or condition” for the receipt of U.S. military or economic aid. In accord with the neoconservative’s instrumentalist and Machiavellian approach to foreign policy, Lefever recommended that nations’ human rights records should “not be judged primarily by their internal policies but by their foreign policies.”3
An embarrassing conflict of interest between his EPPC and Nestle Corp., which had contributed $35,000 to this think tank, resulted in such bad publicity that the administration withdrew his nomination. In an article in Fortune magazine, Lefever attacked Nestle’s critics, who charged that the corporation’s aggressive marketing of its infant powdered-milk formula in the third world was causing a new surge in infant death, as “Marxists marching under the banner of Christ.”4
The Senate then confirmed Elliott Abrams, Reagan’s second nominee for the human rights position, who espoused the same instrumentalist position on human rights as Lefever. During the Reagan administration, Abrams was at once a human rights advocate, a manager of clandestine operations, and a bagman for the Nicaraguan contras-calling himself “a gladiator” in the cause of freedom.
Crimes and Misdemeanors Although he entered the Reagan administration scandal-free, he left as a convicted criminal. Abrams, who in 1985 became the administration’s assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, was indicted by the Iran-Contra special prosecutor for intentionally deceiving Congr
ess about the administration’s role in supporting the Contras, including his own central role in the Iran-Contra arms deal. The U.S.-backed and organized Contras were spearheading a counterrevolution against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Congress had prohibited U.S. government military support for the Contras because of their pattern of human rights abuses.
Abrams had been a leading player in arranging the Iran-Contra arms deal, and assuming a false identity-“Mr. Kenilworth”-succeeded in securing a $10 million donation for the Contras from the Sultan of Brunei.
Abrams kept up a stream of denials of his knowledge of the National Security Council and CIA programs to support the Contras. He even had the temerity to blame Congress for the deaths of two U.S. military crew members who were shot down by the Sandinistas in an illegal and clandestine arms supply operation over Nicaragua. He described the legal proceedings against him as “Kafkaesque” and called his prosecutors “filthy bastards” and “vipers.” 5 6 7
In his book Reagan, Bush, and Right-Wing Politics, Philip Burch underscores Abrams’s unapologetic attitude regarding the excesses of the war in Nicaragua. “A few years after he stepped down as assistant secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Abrams, once the State Department’s top human rights official, wrote an article on El Salvador in the National Review titled “An American Victory”; at the end of this piece he proudly proclaimed that ‘El Salvador’s decade of guerilla war cost thousands . of Salvadoran lives, and those of eight Americans. The violence is ending now in part because of the collapse of Communism throughout the world, but more because Communist efforts to take power by force were resisted and defeated. In this small corner of the cold war, American policy was right, and it was successful.’ Perhaps Mr. Abrams should read . Mark Danner’s The Massacre at El Mozote (which contains an appendix giving name, age, and gender for almost every one of the 784 people killed in this grizzly episode [perpetrated by the Salvadoran Army’s Atacatl Battalion, a U.S.-trained counterinsurgency force]).”8
In one typical media interview, Abrams asserted that “it is a tactic of the guerrillas every time there is a battle and a significant number of people are killed to say they’re all victims of human rights abuses.”9
During the Reagan administration, Abrams was the government’s nexus between the militarists in the National Security Council and the public-diplomacy operatives in the State Department, White House, and National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
NED supported the creation of a series of neoconservative-controlled front groups that sought bipartisan and U.S. public support for an interventionist policy in Central America, which was part of the larger rollback, containment policy advocated by groups such as the Committee on the Present Danger and the Coalition for Peace through Strength. One of the most prominent of these NED-financed front groups was the Project for Democracy in Central America (PRODEMCA), which merged the hard (military) and soft (political aid and public diplomacy) side of the neoconservative agenda in Central America. On the one hand, it received clandestine support from the unofficial “Project Democracy” of the National Security Council, operated by Oliver North and supervised by Elliott Abrams. On the other hand, it received USAID and U.S. Information Agency funding through NED for public diplomacy efforts.10
After negotiating with the prosecutors, Abrams pleaded guilty to two lesser offenses (including withholding information from Congress) to avoid a trial and a possible jail term. He and five other Iran-Contra figures were pardoned by President George H.W. Bush on Christmas Eve 1992, shortly before the senior Bush left office. By pardoning Abrams, John Poindexter, and other former Reagan officials, Bush was in effect protecting himself. At that time media and congressional investigations of the Iran-Contra scandal were threatening to expose the role of Bush himself, who was Reagan’s vice president during the executive branch’s program of illegal support to the Nicaraguan Contras.
When George W. Bush nominated Elliott Abrams-the Iran-Contra veteran-for a human rights post in 2001, it sparked an avalanche of criticism. As Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory recalled, “Members of Congress remember Abrams’s snarling appearances at committee hearings, defending death squads and dictators, denying massacres, lying about illegal U.S. activities in support of the Nicaraguan contras. Abrams sneered at his critics for their blindness and naivet