Having brought chaos to all of the Middle East, a bipartisan effort to topple the Venezuelan government adds a war criminal and ex-con with a fondness for violence to the team
The U.S. empire can’t persist indefinitely without the guidance, supervision, and intervention of dedicated true believers in the enterprise, so perhaps I should not have been surprised that President Donald J. Trump would resuscitate war criminal and neoconservative propagandist Elliott Abrams to manage the United States’ latest effort to produce regime change in Venezuela. Perhaps it wasn’t surprise but horror I was experiencing. Abrams is a true believer.
Though he’s not in the same league as a Henry Kissinger or Richard Nixon, to pick a modern-era pair of war criminals, responsible as they were for the deaths of millions of civilians in Indochina, Elliott Abrams nonetheless completed his 1980s Central America tour for the State Department bearing considerable responsibility for covering up the role of the U.S. and its allies in the region in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in deliberate campaigns of terror.
Another factor which elevates Abrams’ likely criminality and moral culpability to a level comparable to our most respected war criminals: his unique role in the birth of the right-wing neoconservative movement in U.S. foreign policy circles. The neoconservatives, for those who need a brief refresher, are the folks who moved on from promoting disastrous counterinsurgency wars in Central America (which led directly to the political and economic instability the region is experiencing today), to take advantage of the 9/11 attack and launch a long-desired reorganization of the Middle Eastern map by force, beginning with Afghanistan, followed by Iraq, and on. According to General Wesley Clark (retired), a senior general informed him at the Pentagon less than two weeks after 9/11 that the decision to attack Iraq had already been made, and a list compiled of seven regimes the U.S. planned to topple.
Today, as we continue to deal with the multitude of problems created by the unending wars we’ve been fighting ever since, and as NBC journalist William Arkin recently pointed out in a parting shot at his corporate employers, there is not one country in the Middle East that is better off thanks to our interventions.
Apparently we must always be prepared for surprises in the age of Trump TV, as the Abrams’ appointment was a big one, and signifies an alarming growth in the influence of the administration’s foreign policy crazies in the form of National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, with an assist from Senator Marco Rubio (D-FL) and Vice President Mike Pence. The latter apparently participated because he knew a solitary word of Spanish that he put to good use in his message to the Venezuelan people, before continuing in his native tongue, and also perhaps because the geniuses behind this bold move thought yet another white male evangelical Christian would appeal to Venezuelans.
We were led to believe that Elliott Abrams nixed his previous chance for a Trump administration position in 2017, when Trump himself apparently discovered Abrams held a rather low opinion of the GOP’s 2016 nominee, having published a how-to-adapt-to-our-fate piece in the neoconservative Weekly Standard titled When You Can’t Stand Your Candidate, once it became clear Trump would become the nominee.
Abrams began that article, “the party has nominated someone who cannot win and should not be president of the United States. We anticipate a landslide defeat, and then a struggle to take the party back from his team and his supporters and win the following presidential election. Meanwhile, we need to figure out how to conduct ourselves.”
I suspect to many of us it appears that Republicans have done a fine job of falling in line behind whatever path President Trump is pursuing today, and overcome any reticence over “how to conduct” themselves.
“The purpose of our aid is to permit people
who are fighting on our side to use more violence”
In reacquainting oneself with Elliott Abrams, it’s worth revisiting one of those rare moments in U.S. television history when a U.S. official (Abrams) was actually confronted on-air by a journalist armed with facts that contradict the official U.S. narrative, from the perspective of the victims of U.S. foreign policy, in this case in Guatemala. Such confrontations are rarely permitted on U.S. television news, which generally supports the use of violence by the United States abroad regardless of whom is residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It was March of 1995 and Charlie Rose was interviewing Allan Nairn, Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ), and Elliott Abrams. Bill Clinton was in the White House, Warren Christopher was secretary of state and the historic connections between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Guatemalan military were in the news. Torricelli and others were alarmed that Christopher was unable to answer the question of whether or not the CIA continued to keep Guatemalan military commanders (and known human rights abusers) on the company payroll.
As Torricelli, Rose, and Abrams toyed with peripheral questions related to what U.S. officials knew and when, Nairn eventually managed to cut straight to the most important point: under international law, the U.S. officials who lied to Congress and the American people about the conduct of the Guatemalan military, which was conducting a genocidal war on a number of its indigenous and rural peoples, should be on trial for human rights violations themselves for covering up the genocide. It could not have occurred without U.S. military aid, military advisors, and a succession of lies by Abrams and other U.S. officials.
Allan Nairn: Let’s look at reality here. In reality, we’re not talking about two murders, one colonel. We’re talking about a hun– more than 100,000 murders, an entire army, many of its top officers employees of the U.S. government. We’re talking about crimes, and we’re also talking about criminals, not just people like the Guatemalan colonels, but also the U.S. agents who have been working with them and the higher level U.S. officials. I mean, I think you have to be– you have to apply uniform standards. President Bush one too– once talked about putting Saddam Hussein on trial for crimes against humanity, Nuremberg-style tribunal. I think that’s a good idea. But if you’re serious, you have to be even-handed. If we look at a case like this, I have– think we have to talk– start talking about putting Guatemalan and U.S. officials on trial. I think someone like Mr. Abrams would be a fit subject for such a Nuremberg-style inquiry, but I agree with Mr. Abrams that Democrats would have to be in the dock with him. [emphasis added – RR]
The maniacal laughter Abrams uncorked in response to Nairn remains illuminating. How could one not laugh at the very notion that an official of the United States government be held to the same standard vis-a-vis human rights as an official of another nation? Preposterous! We’re the exceptional nation, you may recall. In the neoconservative belief system, U.S. benevolence is beyond question. As for those who do not share that belief, Abrams et al have traditionally been quite happy to prevent the public from knowing the truth through outright lies and propaganda.
As Eric Alterman pointed out in The Nation magazine in 2017, as assistant secretary of state for human rights, it was Abrams’ job “to ensure that General 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.”
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.
Abrams attacked the spokeswoman of the Guatemalan Mutual Support Group which had called for an investigation, saying “she had no right to call herself a human rights worker.”
Concluded Alterman, “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’.”
Massacre denial was an Abrams specialty. David Corn wrote of one illuminating and infamous episode in El Salvador in 2001.
During a Nightline appearance in 1985, he was asked about reports that the US-funded Salvadoran military had slaughtered civilians at two sites the previous summer. Abrams maintained that no such events had occurred. And had the US Embassy and the State Department conducted an investigation? “My memory,” he said, “is that we did, but I don’t want to swear to it, because I’d have to go back and look at the cables.” But there had been no State Department inquiry; Abrams, in his lawyerly fashion, was being disingenuous. Three years earlier, when two American journalists reported that an elite, US-trained military unit had massacred hundreds of villagers in El Mozote, Abrams told Congress that the story was commie propaganda, as he fought for more US aid to El Salvador’s military.
The massacre was the deadliest in a series of atrocities inflicted upon the Salvadoran people by a military regime supported by the United States with $1 million per day in military aid. This was the aid that several years earlier Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero had begged the United States to stop sending. Nearly 1,000 people were killed in El Mozote, the vast majority of them women, children, and elderly people.
Over a decade later, after the bloody civil war in El Salvador ended, a UN Truth Commission forced the excavation of the church sacristy in El Mozote, where they found the skulls of 143 individuals. 131 were children. This was integral to the military’s counterinsurgency strategy, conducted under the tutelage of, and with the armaments provided by the United States.
In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights described the Salvadoran military campaign thusly:
The Office of the El Salvador Ombudsman established that the “massacres occurred within the framework of military operations, one of the objectives of which was the mass extermination of civilians, including women, children, and the elderly, as part of an aberrant military strategy known as ‘scorched earth’ executed by the State of El Salvador” mainly from 1980 to 1982. The scorched earth strategy consisted of “the indiscriminate annihilation of one or several villages during a single operation,” followed by destroying or setting fire to the crops, homes and possessions of the victims who had previously been executed or who had fled the area, and “its evident objectives were to massacre civilians, cause mass enforced displacements and destroy the people’s means of subsistence, because it sought the ‘dismantling’ of essential social relations in those communities that could provide logistic support to the guerrilla”; in other words, they sought “to take the water away from the fish.” Thus it can be said that “the phenomenon of the massacres occurred deliberately as part of a strategy systematically planned by the Armed Forces of El Salvador; [thus] it cannot be argued that the innumerable mass executions of the civilian population were isolated acts of violence of which the senior authorities of the Armed Forces and the Government in power were unaware; to the contrary, they were inserted in and were a central part of a specific counterinsurgency policy of the State.
Taking exception to the UN Truth Commission report when it was issued in 1993, Elliott Abrams commented at the time that “The Administration’s record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement.”
Nearly a decade prior, at a conference sponsored by the Committee for a Free World, a group of foreign policy hawks who’d come to be known as “neoconservatives” gathered to discuss how to achieve an ideological reformation of the Soviet Union. These were the dangerous, reactionary intellectuals whom President George H.W. Bush would later label “The Crazies.” Defeat of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua was viewed as a necessary step towards that reformation and ultimate victory over the Soviets in the Cold War.
U.S. policy would be a challenge for some, Elliott Abrams told the gathering, “there are going to be a lot of people who are fairly fainthearted” about counterinsurgency methods. “As they see, in some cases, the amount of violence increase – and it will, because the purpose of our aid is to permit people who are fighting on our side to use more violence – a lot of people are going to get scared off.”
Abrams plead guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress in a plea deal with Iran-Contra Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh in 1991, before being pardoned by Bush the Elder on Christmas Eve of 1992. Senator Dave Durenberger famously said of him that “I wouldn’t trust Elliott any further than I could throw Ollie North.”
Given his willingness to participate in the the deaths of thousands in search of a single communist peasant in Central America, and a related willingness to lie about those deaths to Congress and the American people, there seems little doubt of the kind of expertise he will bring to the Trump administration’s effort to topple the Venezuelan government and its attempt to stamp out the socialist menace south of the United States border once and for all.