Elliott Abrams and Déjà Vu All Over Again

 It has an all too familiar ring to it.  A crisis area — in this case, the Middle East — finds itself in desperate need of a peace process capable of tamping down the forces of violence and destabilisation which the United States itself has played a central role in unleashing.

Regional efforts at diplomacy — in this case, led by Saudi Arabia — gain some momentum but are frustrated by die-hard hawks in a U.S. administration. While increasingly on the defensive both at home and abroad, they are determined to carry through their strategy of isolating and destabilising a hostile target — in this case, Syria — despite its oft-repeated eagerness to engage Washington and its regional allies.
Sensing an increasingly dangerous impasse, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives — in this case, Nancy Pelosi, backed by a growing bipartisan consensus that the administration’s intransigeance will further reduce already-waning U.S. influence in the region — tries to encourage regional peace efforts by engaging the target directly.But, worried that her quest might actually gain momentum, administration hawks — in this case, led by Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams and Vice President Dick Cheney — accuse the speaker of undermining the president and, working through obliging editorial writers at the Washington Post, among other sympathetic media, including, of course, the Wall Street Journal, attack her for “substitut(ing) her own foreign policy for that of a sitting Republican president.”

If that scenario sounds familiar, your foreign policy memory dates back at least to 1987, when, despite intensified regional peace-making efforts for which Costa Rican President Oscar Arias won that year’s Nobel Peace Prize, the Ronald Reagan administration was persisting in its efforts to isolate and overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

It was then-House Speaker Jim Wright who, with the quiet encouragement of Republican realists, notably Reagan’s White House chief of staff, Howard Baker, Secretary of State George Shultz and his special Central America envoy, Philip Habib, sought to promote Arias’ plan.

Like today’s Republican realists on the Iraq Study Group (ISG), who have urged the Bush administration to engage rather than continue to isolate Syria, they understood that popular and Congressional support for a “regime change” policy in Nicaragua was not sustainable and Washington should seek a regional settlement on the most favourable terms available.

But Abrams, then assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, worked assiduously with fellow hard-liners in the White House and the Pentagon — just as he works today with Cheney’s office — to torpedo both the Arias plan and Wright’s efforts to advance it throughout the latter half of 1987.

As Abrams’ assistant at the time, the future neo-conservative heavy thinker, Robert Kagan, put it later, “Arias, more than any other Latin leader single-handedly undid U.S. policy in Nicaragua.” And when he won the Nobel Prize, “all us of who thought it was important to get aid for the contras reacted with disgust, unbridled disgust.”

As part of their strategy, hard-liners led by Abrams rejected appeals by Nicaragua for high-level talks, thus forcing Habib to resign by late summer and insisting — as they now do with Syria — that direct negotiations would serve only to legitimate Sandinistas and demoralise the contras.

In November 1987, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega came to Washington with a proposal for a ceasefire with the contras. After the administration refused to receive him, Wright, seeing an opportunity to jump-start a stalled peace process, attended a meeting at the Vatican Embassy here at which Ortega asked his main domestic foe, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, to mediate between the Sandinista government and the contras.

Wright’s participation in the talks was seized by Abrams as the launching pad for a public — if barely concealed — attack on the speaker. Interviewed by the Post under the guise of an unnamed “senior administration official,” Abrams charged Wright with engaging in “guerrilla theater” and “an unbelievable melodrama” that had dealt a “serious setback” to the administration’s policy.

“This was not forward movement; this was screwing up the process,” the “senior official” complained to the Post which, as in its criticism Friday of Pelosi’s meeting with Assad, obligingly followed up with its own editorial, entitled “What is Jim Wright Doing?”, charging the speaker with having acted “as though the actual conduct of diplomacy in this delicate passage were his responsibility.”

The Journal’s neo-conservative editorial writers swiftly joined in, accusing Wright of a “compulsion for running off-the-shelf foreign-policy operations,” just as last week they charged Pelosi and Democrats of seeking “to conduct their own independent diplomacy”.

Within just a few months of his meeting with Ortega, however, the Democratic-led Congress rejected Reagan’s request to fund the contras, a step which Abrams incorrectly predicted at the time would result in “the dissolution of Central America”.

According to Roy Gutman’s aptly named 1988 book about Reagan’s Central America policy, “Banana Diplomacy”, Washington soon found itself “at the margins of the region’s diplomacy”.

Unlike his high-public profile as assistant secretary 20 years ago, Abrams, who now presides over Middle East policy at the National Security Council, is today far more discreet, no doubt in part because his conviction in 1991 for lying to Congress about his role in the Iran-contra scandal has made him an easy target for Democrats.

“He’s very careful about not leaving fingerprints,” one State Department official told IPS earlier this year.

But there is little doubt among Middle East analysts here that Abrams is playing a lead role in White House efforts to discredit Pelosi for meeting with Assad, just as he did with Wright for meeting Ortega in 1987.

And just as he worked with Reagan hard-liners to undermine the Arias Plan 20 years ago, so he appears to be doing what he can to undermine recent efforts by Saudi King Abdullah to initiate an Arab-Israeli peace process and, for that matter, by Republican realists, and even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to push it forward.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.