Elliott Abrams: Ironist Sublime

With neo-conservatives, you never know whether their preaching (especially about issues such as human rights or democracy) shows a complete lack of self-consciousness (given their long support for brutal autocracies firmly allied with Israel and/or the United States), genuine amnesia, or shamelessness (chutzpah) of the highest order.

So it is with Elliott Abrams‘ latest op-ed on the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, entitled “Dictators, Democracies and Wikileaks” in which, among other things, he informs us that “dictators and authoritarians don’t tell their people the truths they tell us” and that “their public speeches are meant to manipulate, not to inform.”

“Their approach is striking: Tell the truth to foreigners but not to your own population,” [he goes on].

“So in Yemen, for example, we see President Ali Abdullah Saleh discussing action against al Qaeda and insisting, ‘We’ll continue to say the bombs are ours and not yours.”

This quotation, of course, is taken from the cable describing a meeting between Saleh and Gen. David Petraeus during which one of Saleh’s aides jokes that he had just lied to parliament about U.S. airstrikes against alleged al Qaeda targets in Yemeni territory. Abrams, now Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, goes on to contrast this kind of mendacity on the part of “dictators and authoritarians” with the honesty of democratic governments:

“Cables reporting on U.S.-German, U.S.-French, or U.S.-Canadian consultations are different — those governments say to their parliaments what they say to us.”

So, then, how would Abrams himself judge the Reagan administration — and, specifically, his own performance in it — when he applies this standard to the Iran-Contra affair?

Abrams, of course, was indicted by the special prosecutor for intentionally deceiving [i.e. lying to] Congress about the Reagan administration’s and his personal role in supporting the Nicaraguan Contras in violation of U.S. law. He eventually pleaded guilty to two lesser offenses (including withholding information from Congress) in order to avoid a trial and a possible prison term. As the prosecutor’s report makes clear, Abrams, who was assistant secretary of Inter-American Affairs at the time, lied throughout the hearings, insisting that he had no knowledge of the NSC and CIA programs to support the Contras when, in fact, he was one of the three principal members (with Oliver North and Alan Fiers) of the so-called Restricted Inter-Agency Group (RIG) that oversaw Central America policy during the Contra war and had been explicitly ordered by his boss, Secretary of State George Shultz, to closely monitor North’s activities. In his guilty plea, he also admitted that he withheld from Congress the fact that he had personally solicited $10 million in aid for the Contras from the Sultan of Brunei. In other words, like President Saleh and his jovial aide, Abrams told the Sultan — who would undoubtedly fall into the dictator/authoritarian category that he now pontificates about — what he refused to tell the United States Congress or his “own population.”

Of course, one could go on and on about Abrams’ mendacity during his service under Reagan; first as assistant secretary for international organizations (1981), then as assistant secretary of human rights and humanitarian affairs (1981-85), and finally as assistant secretary for Inter-American Affairs (1985-89). So low was his credibility with senators — on both sides of the aisle — that his biggest fans on the George W. Bush administration (notably Dick Cheney) knew from the outset that he could never be confirmed to any post. So they sent him to the National Security Council — first as Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and International Operations (2001-2002); then as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Near East and North African Affairs (2002-2009) and Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Adviser for Global Democracy Strategy (2005-2009) — where he would never be required to testify before Congress.

One other anomaly struck me about Abrams’ most recent op-ed, aside from his highly questionable assertion — presumably from his old friends in Battalion 316 whose atrocities he helped to cover up in the 1980’s — about the “Honduran people’s unified desire to throw out” ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. I refer to his praise for former U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey’s analysis of Turkey’s new foreign policy as “sharp and well-written.” That seems very strange, indeed, given what Abrams himself has written about the direction Turkey is taking under the AKP government and President Erdogan. Here’s Abrams in the Weekly Standard last June immediately after the flotilla incident:

“[I]t’s obvious that our formerly reliable NATO ally has become a staunch supporter of the radical camp [in the Middle East]. …Turkey’s U.N. Security Council vote against the newest round of sanctions this past week put it in Iran’s camp against Europe, the United States, Russia, and China. That’s quite a realignment for a NATO ally.

“…Turks may tire of Erdogan’s speeches and return a government that seeks a true balance between East and West rather than a headlong dive into alliances with Iran and Syria.”

Now here’s what Jeffrey wrote in his summary of Erdogan’s foreign policy a few months before:

“Does all this mean that [Turkey] is becoming more focused on the Islamist world and its Muslim tradition in its foreign policy? Absolutely. Does it mean that it is ‘abandoning’ or wants to abandon its traditional Western orientation and willingness to cooperate with us? Absolutely not.”

There seems to be a yawning gap between Abrams’ conviction that Turkey has joined the “radical camp” led by Iran and Jeffrey’s “sharp” analysis that such a charge is absolute nonsense.

That’s the thing with many neo-conservatives like Abrams: it’s hard to know when they are deliberately deceptive (call it takiya), when they are engaged in agitprop, or when they are doing serious analysis (of which many of them, including Abrams, are quite capable). It’s kind of like figuring out what “dictators and authoritarians” really mean when they talk to “us.”

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.



  1. It’s not amnesia. It’s chutzpah, with a dash of UNself-conciousness thrown in (the two go hand-in-hand, don’t you think?).

    I recently tried to re-read the major sources on Iran-Contra, trying to get a better understanding of what happened and why. The Israeli connection and its dealings with Iran really stood out. At the time the media and the Congress skirted this aspect, as I remember.

    The whole business was sorry and dishonorable (but how could it have been otherwise, with Abrams involved?). And the atrocities in Central America were appalling. As a political scandal, however, it all traces back to the damned Boland Amendment. Why a Massachusetts pol and a bunch of other second-raters in Congress should have been directing U.S. foreign policy, I cannot imagine. The political tempest would never have brewed up had the Congress let the Executive conduct foreign policy. On the other hand, it’s clear in retrospect that the Communist “threat” in Central America was overstated.

  2. I think S.I.D.E. covers the bases: Stupid, Ignorant, Duped or Evil.

    If the girl you like tells you your hair is too long and you want to please her, you might get a haircut.

    The one confrontation Abrams had, where people presented him with evidence of his mendacity, he escaped getting dumped.

    No doubt he thinks he avoided prison because he was right to do what he’d done, and every ounce of justice was served until everyone was full.

    This thinking no doubt was bolstered when people didn’t bring up Iran-Contra much when he joined the ranks of high officialdom the second time.

  3. An excellent post. Let’s not forget that Central America is worse off today than before the wars of the 1980s. One encouraging sign: Mauricio Funes, the articulate FMLN president elected in El Salvador last year, is trying to rebuild after the devastation of the U.S.-supported rightwing regimes.
    Abrams and his friends spent billions of U.S. taxpayer money to support killers and torturers, and then walked away and forget about it.

  4. James North–I got real bad NEWS for you–USA is alot worse than Central America TODAY. America has been leech feeding off many countries, now a little middle East country is draining resources from the USA.
    We are broke you fool because of mostly crazy Devil’s Chosen Ones running down the country.
    You missed the authors point–Uncle Scam has many country wreckers and has done itself in– now a wreck.

    (Edited for content)

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