Democracy & Government

An Actual American War Criminal May Become Our Second-Ranking Diplomat

Elliott Abrams spent the Reagan years abetting genocide — now he has been floated as Trump’s deputy secretary of state.

A US War Criminal May Become Our Second-Ranking Diplomat

Elliott Abrams speaking at the 2012 CPAC in Washington, DC. (Photo by Gage Skidmore/ flickr CC 2.0)

This post originally appeared at The Nation.

It may seem small in the saga of President Trump’s first two weeks, but according to The Washington Post, there’s a good chance he’ll appoint an actual war criminal to be the second-ranking US diplomat.

I don’t mean someone that we on the left like to call a “war criminal,” such as Henry Kissinger or Dick Cheney. These people might actually qualify, but the cases are at best arguable, and no one in authority has ever been asked to rule on them. Not so for Trump’s potential pick, the onetime neocon golden boy (and son-in-law to Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter) Elliott Abrams.

The course of Abrams’ failing-upward career reveals the moral rot at the heart of our political establishment.

Like Trump himself, Abrams has behaved so badly in so many different arenas, it actually works in his favor: No one can keep up. The Post piece — which notes that the Trump administration has decided not to appoint a deputy secretary of state for management, giving the sole remaining deputy an enormous amount of influence over both policy and management issues — observes that Abrams was forced to plead guilty to deliberately misleading Congress regarding his nefarious role in the Iran-Contra scandal. (He was also disbarred in the District of Columbia.)

However, this is just the tip of a colossal iceberg. As a member of George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff, Abrams encouraged, according to credible reports, a (briefly successful) military coup against the democratically elected government of Venezuela in 2002, poisoning the US relationship with that government once it returned to power. He also worked to subvert the results of the 2006 elections in the Palestinian territories, a move that ended up strengthening the most radical elements of Hamas and undermining — perhaps forever — the possibility of a democratic peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

But these are still relative misdemeanors in the Abrams dossier, paling in comparison with the role he played in the Reagan administration. As assistant secretary of state for human rights, Abrams sought to ensure that Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s then-dictator, could carry out “acts of genocide” — those are the legally binding words of Guatemala’s United Nations–backed Commission for Historical Clarification — against the indigenous people in the Ixil region of the department of Quiché, without any pesky interference from human-rights organizations, much less the US government.

As the mass killings were taking place, Abrams fought in Congress for military aid to Ríos Montt’s bloody regime. He credited the murderous dictator with having “brought considerable progress” on human-rights issues. Abrams even went so far as to insist that “the amount of killing of innocent civilians is being reduced step by step” before demanding that Congress provide the regime with advanced arms because its alleged “progress need[ed] to be rewarded and encouraged.”

I don’t know about you, but intentionally helping the US government to aid and abet the commission of genocide, while attacking the character and reputation of those trying to expose it, strikes me as securely within the definition of war criminal.’

Promoted to assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Abrams repeatedly denounced the continued protests by organizations seeking to call attention to the mass murders of both Ríos Montt and the no less bloodthirsty President Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, who came to power fewer than three years later. In one village during the latter’s reign, “the army herded the entire population into the courthouse, raped the women, beheaded the men and took the children outside to smash them to death against rocks,” according to Inevitable Revolutions, Walter LaFeber’s classic history of the United States in Central America. At the time, a leader of the Guatemalan Mutual Support Group (an organization of mothers of the disappeared), her brother and her 3-year-old son were found dead in their wrecked car. Abrams not only supported the nonsensical official explanation (there was “no evidence indicating other than that the deaths were due to an accident”), he also denounced a spokeswoman for the group who demanded an investigation, insisting that she had “no right to call herself a human rights worker.” When The New York Times published an op-ed challenging the official State Department count of the mass murders under way — by a woman who had witnessed a death-squad-style assassination in broad daylight in Guatemala City without ever seeing it mentioned in the press — Abrams lied outright in a letter to the editor, even citing an imaginary story in a nonexistent newspaper to insist that the man’s murder had, in fact, been reported.

I don’t know about you, but intentionally helping the US government to aid and abet the commission of genocide, while attacking the character and reputation of those trying to expose it, strikes me as securely within the definition of “war criminal.” But since Abrams’s 1991 conviction for his Iran-Contra lies (and subsequent pardon by George H.W. Bush), the course of his failing-upward career has repeatedly revealed the moral rot at the heart of our political establishment. George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice appointed Abrams to top national-security positions. The Council on Foreign Relations offered him a prestigious, high-profile title (senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies) and distanced itself only when he called President Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, an “anti-Semite.” Abrams is a respected regular on the American synagogue circuit and in the Jewish press, and rarely, if ever, does anyone have the bad manners to mention his pro-genocide past.

I’ve been writing about Abrams and his crimes, here and elsewhere, since 1987. I’ve complained privately to the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, to numerous rabbis who book him to speak in their synagogues and to the editors of Jewish newspapers who publish him. I’ve seen some regret, but never any action.

If Abrams had abetted genocide against Jews instead of Guatemalans, it might not have disqualified him from a top diplomatic position in the Trump administration, but he would at least have been treated as a pariah in the media, the establishment, and, one certainly hopes, the world of professional Jews. These days, however, it’s hard to be certain of anything.

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman [email protected] CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism, Brooklyn College "Liberal Media" Columnist, The Nation, 305 W.98th Street, 2 C-S, New York, New York, 10025, @eric_alterman New book: Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie and Why Trump is Worse