The Honor of Elliott Abrams

People take part in a rally to commemorate the Day of the Youth and to protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Urena, Venezuela, February 12, 2019. (Carlos Eduardo Ramirez/REUTERS)

Three weeks ago, Elliott Abrams returned to government. This was very good news for U.S. foreign policy. He is the State Department’s special representative for Venezuela. And his presence on the public stage has reignited passions about the Reagan administration’s record in Latin America.

Abrams was the assistant secretary of state for Latin America in Reagan’s second term. During the first, he had been assistant secretary for international organizations, and then for human rights. (Abrams joined the administration when he was in his early 30s.)

Like many others he was caught up in the Iran-Contra affair, and he pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress. (Two misdemeanor counts.) He was pardoned by the first President Bush. There is a story to be told about all this, which we will not get into here. Abrams told it in a book, Undue Process: A Story of How Political Differences Are Turned into Crimes.

The second President Bush made Abrams part of his national-security team, first in the area of democracy and human rights. Then he gave Abrams a Middle East portfolio. Later, Abrams wrote a memoir, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. In recent years, he has been a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In short, Elliott Abrams is one of the wisest, most experienced foreign-policy heads in this country. He is also a steadfast advocate of freedom, democracy, and human rights, or American values, if you like.

Yesterday he appeared on Capitol Hill and encountered Ilhan Omar. She is a freshman House member — a Democrat from Minnesota — who has had a lively first month. We editorialized about her and anti-Semitism on Monday (here).

She called Mr. Abrams “Mr. Adams.” (Congratulations, Elliott, you’re a Gentile!) She got a lot else wrong too. She swiped at Abrams for the Iran-Contra affair — and refused to let him defend himself. She went on to accuse him of being complicit in the rape, murder, and mayhem of Central America — El Salvador, in particular.

To see this performance on C-SPAN, go here.

A great many hailed this performance, certainly on the old anti-Reagan left. It was as though the Christic Institute and CISPES had come back to life. Social media rang out with the old charges, the old smears, the old libels. Not all of Abrams’s enemies are on the left, of course. David Duke, of Klan fame, or infamy, chimed in with “Rep. Omar clashes with Zionist war criminal.”

Look: When Reagan and his people took office in 1981, dictatorship was the rule in Latin America (as in the world at large). A rare exception was . . . Venezuela. Funny to think of at present, in a dark way. El Salvador was in the grip of its civil war. In 1980, Archbishop Romero had been murdered as he was celebrating mass. Groups on left and right, throughout Latin America, murdered with abandon. These were “dirty wars,” in the phrase of the day.

Remember, too, that the 1980s were Cold War times. The Soviets and their Cuban proxy were doing everything they could to Castroize the region.

Reagan, with Vice President Bush, George Shultz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Elliott Abrams, and stalwart others, worked energetically for democratic transitions — in Latin America, yes, but in other parts of the world too (e.g., South Korea). In El Salvador, the administration backed José Napoleón Duarte, the Christian Democrat. He was opposed by the FMLN on the left and ARENA on the right. Reagan’s policy was controversial on our own right. Many conservatives backed ARENA, chief among them Jesse Helms.

In 1984, Salvadorans went to the polls, braving terrorism, and, in a free election, chose Duarte. El Salvador, for all its problems, has been democratic ever since. This is a “fabulous achievement,” as Abrams tried to explain to the congresswoman.

Duarte made a state visit to Washington in 1987. Reagan said, “President Duarte, having fought the brutality and repression of Left and Right, has come to symbolize the struggle for democracy in this hemisphere.” He also said, “If peace is to prevail, so must democracy.”

The Salvadoran president, for his part, did something startling and memorable. He said, “I’ve seen through my life many times when people with hate in their heart put fire to the American flag. This time, permit me to go to your flag and, in the name of my people, give it a kiss.” And so he did.

Before the Reaganites left office, the countries of Latin America had democratized or were well on their way. Speaking at Moscow State University in 1988, Reagan said, “The growth of democracy has become one of the most powerful political movements of our age. In Latin America in the 1970s, only a third of the population lived under democratic government; today over 90 percent does.”

In 2012, there was a Chilean film, No, about the 1988 plebiscite. This was the vote that saw the dictator Pinochet out of office. Elliott Abrams wrote about the movie, here. He describes a scene: Two men are talking about the upcoming plebiscite. They are on either side of the question. The Pinochet man says that America is supporting his guy, the “incumbent,” the dictator. The other man says no: “Los gringos están con nosotros” (“The gringos are with us”).

Yes, they were. Yes, we were. There were some rotten choices to be made in Latin America, from the point of view of the U.S. government, and there were often not many democrats on offer. But the Reaganites’ record is honorable, even laudatory, and this silly, ignorant House freshman, though she did not intend so, has given us the happy opportunity of lauding them again.

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