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15 February 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:54pm

What does arch-neocon Elliott Abrams have in common with Paul Manafort? Lots, actually

In a committee hearing, congresswoman Ilhan Omar grilled Abrams, now US envoy to Venezuela, over his role in the Iran-Contra affair.

By Wilson Dizard

Representative Ilhan Omar demonstrated on Wednesday that she is willing to use her position in congress to humiliate someone testifying before a congressional committee. This is one of the privileges of an American lawmaker, and in this case the person she humiliated deserved it.

The grilling came during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Thursday. Omar’s target was the US special representative to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams. Abrams is a neoconservative luminary and former deputy secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, most famously known for his involvement in the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s.

In exchange for his cooperation with the investigation into Iran-Contra, Abrams never faced the felony charges that had been prepared against him; instead, he was convicted on two misdemeanour charges of withholding information from congress, and was later pardoned by George HW Bush in 1992.

In the hearing, Omar asked Abrams to answer for his role in covering up a massacre of 800 El Salvadoran villagers, including children and babies, by right-wing death squads secretly backed by the US. (All told, human rights groups say as many as 75,000 people died in the war in El Salvador.)

“Yes or no, do you think that massacre was a ‘fabulous achievement’ that happened under our watch?” the Minnesota congresswoman asked. Abrams’ response wasn’t so much an answer as it was a flustered eruption of denials and assertions of his commitment to human rights. He called Omar’s line of questioning an “attack” after she questioned whether, having misled congress before, he could be believed.

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Abrams is now a US special representative to Venezuela, a country collapsing under corruption, where the Trump White House is pushing to replace embattled leader Nicolas Maduro with an opposition politician, Juan Guaido.

There’s something surreal about watching Omar make Abrams squirm in front of a national audience, asking questions about the 1980s that most of Washington seems to have agreed to not think about too hard anymore. After all, Abrams has redeemed himself enough in the eyes of his peers, if they ever thought he was guilty of any wrongdoing in the first place, and these days strolls freely through the top echelons of foreign policy think tanks and glad-handing conferences.

Following the fantastical exchange in the committee-room, bizarre reactions followed online. One that stood out came from Max Boot, a neoconservative cheerleader who has abandoned the Republican Party since President Donald Trump took office, and who has been rewarded with plenty of attention on cable channels for his decision.

“Disgraceful ad hominem attacks by @IlhanMN on my @CFR_org colleague Elliott Abrams. She doesn’t seem to realize he is a leading advocate of human rights and democracy – not a promoter of genocide! More evidence of the loony left I caution Democrats about,” Boot wrote, retweeting a video of Abrams looking extremely uncomfortable at being asked to remember something his colleagues at the Council on Foreign Relations probably don’t often bring up.

“He pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors…and was pardoned by George HW Bush. He later served honorably in the George W Bush NSC. He is not Paul Manafort,” Boot added, unwittingly offering up unprompted a comparison – with the convicted felon who served as Trump’s campaign CEO – that Abrams probably would rather he hadn’t.

No, Abrams is not Paul Manafort: the two men are two distinct collections of molecules. But there are similarities. The main difference is that Abrams isn’t as sloppy as Manafort, who got greedy while working in the private sector part of the “public-private partnership” that is the Washington foreign policy establishment. Abrams was in the public part.

What do I mean? Well, as a partner in what later became known as “The Torturer’s Lobby”, Manafort built his career as an advocate in Washington for dictatorships during the Cold War, and he collected a significant sum of money for his trouble, The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer reports.

Foer’s article covers a lot of ground, but one anecdote stands out. Manafort’s lobbying firm, Manafort, Stone, Black and Kelly – the Stone in there would be Roger Stone, another Trump associate, who was arrested in January and charged with witness-tampering and lying to congress – helped secure support in Washington support for Jonas Savimbi, the Angolan warlord who waged a brutal war against civilians, including women and children, during a Apartheid South-African-backed campaign against the country’s Soviet-backed government. As the Cold War ended, it would have seemed unnecessary for that country to be besieged by geopolitical strife. Manafort and company, however, had other plans, Foer writes.

“As the country stood on the brink of peace talks in the late 80s, after nearly 15 years of bloody civil war, the firm helped secure fresh batches of arms for its client, emboldening Savimbi to push forward with his military campaign. Former senator Bill Bradley wrote in his memoir, ‘When Gorbachev pulled the plug on Soviet aid to the Angolan government, we had absolutely no reason to persist in aiding Savimbi. But by then he had hired an effective Washington lobbying firm.’ The war continued for more than a decade, killing hundreds of thousands of Angolans.”

Boot can’t see a similarity between what Assistant Secretary of State Abrams was up to in the 1980s in Foggy Bottom (the DC neighborhood where the State Department is located), and what Manafort was doing just a short walk away on K-Street, the lobbying firm neighborhood north of the White House. Both men were strident anti-Communists, one would assume, but Manafort was not content with earning a government salary or the psychic wages of academia, as Abrams was.

“There’s money, and there’s really big money. Paul became aware of the difference between making $300,000 and $5m. He discovered the south of France,” a friend of Manafort told Foer.

Abrams has no such appetites. But both Manafort and Abrams were working in different parts of the Washington DC lie-factory. Indeed, Abrams’ crime was lying to congress about how much he knew about the Iran-Contra affair, the clandestine and illegal Reagan effort to fund Central American rebels with money from arms sales to Iran – weapons given to Iranian child soldiers fighting Iraq in the 1980s. The money went to armed groups in Central America who killed babies with hammers and raped leftist nuns.

The difference in Boot’s mind is probably that Abrams did what he thought was right, for ideological reasons Boot considers sound: defeating the Soviet Union. Manafort, however, only did what he thought would make him fabulously rich, a lifetime of avarice that has lead to a mugshot and the confiscation of millions of his blood soaked millions. Abrams never accumulated any millions, blood-soaked or otherwise.

Or, maybe, to Boot, it’s a question of scale and loyalty. Manafort operated with a sociopathic lust for wealth that eventually led him to cross a real red line for Washington foreign affairs brains, in abetting the territorial and propagandistic ambitions of Moscow. That’s something Boot and his neoconservative brethren can’t stand even a little bit. And when he ran the presidential campaign for a man who questioned the legitimacy of Nato and other US alliances, that was a final, unforgivable sacrilege.

Abrams, on the other hand, was only convicted of a “misdemeanor,” that he was not fully forthright in his congressional testimony, a lesser charge he received in return for cooperation with federal investigators. Maybe he learned his lesson, and youthful hubris has passed, and all should be forgiven. Thus, to Boot, these “ad hominem” attacks from the “loony left” on Abrams record are totally unfair.

We live in a world where a New York City teenager, Kalief Browder, can spend three years on Rikers Island after being accused of stealing a backpack, then emerge cleared of the petty theft but so psychologically scared he hanged himself. When such deep injustice exists, someone like Abrams having to answer Omar’s question about his confessed involvement in war crimes seems only fair.

Wilson Dizard is a freelance journalist. He tweets @willdizard

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