Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s thorough destruction of Elliott Abrams, the current U.S special envoy on Venezuela, during a House Foreign Affairs committee hearing on Wednesday, was a welcome departure from the norm of letting the worst actors in U.S. foreign policy off the hook. Not everyone was happy about it, though—least of all Abrams’ friends and colleagues who think it’s just so unfair that a war criminal should be made to feel moderately uncomfortable about his crimes.
Abrams, in his role as assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration, played a crucial role in propping up dictators in El Salvador and Guatemala—as well as the Contra death squads in Nicaragua—all in the interest of staving off left-wing movements (and presumed Soviet influence) in those countries. Abrams once said that the brutal Guatemalan dictator Efraín Rios Montt, who was convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide, had “brought considerable progress” on human rights. Abrams also helped perpetuate the cover-up of the 1981 El Mozote massacre by U.S.-trained Salvadoran soldiers, telling a Senate panel that reports of the massacre were “not credible.”
Eventually, as Omar pointed out, Abrams played an integral role in the Iran-Contra affair, and pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress—a crime with a obscenely low punishment, considering the things he’d done, but one for which he was later pardoned by President George H.W. Bush anyway.
After her tough questioning of Abrams, which very well could be the first time he’s been made uncomfortable in at least a couple decades, Omar was vehemently attacked by some conservatives. The Washington Free Beacon’s story ran with the headline “Anti-Semite Defames Jewish-American Hero,” which calls into question what the Free Beacon considers to be a hero.
But perhaps the grossest response to the whole thing came from the D.C. think tank set, which rushed to Abrams’ defense with personal accounts of how he’s actually a really nice guy. Center for American Progress vice president Kelly Magsamen, a Bush and Obama appointee whose last job prior to joining CAP was as a deputy assistant Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration, posted and then deleted a tweet calling Abrams a “fierce advocate for human rights and democracy,” only nodding towards Abrams’ crimes as “serious professional mistakes.” She replaced it with one that was arguably just as bad:
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Magsamen wasn’t the only one.
All of these people, of course, were showered with disapproval after posting their very bad tweets. And why wouldn’t they be? They were defending a man whose career has a body count of thousands, and who’s now been appointed by the Trump administration to do the exact same thing in Venezuela.
For the foreign policy blob that permeates Washington D.C., minor offenses like the enablement of and active involvement in war crimes are just not considered valid reasons to remove people like Elliott Abrams from polite society. These people on both sides of the aisle—right-wingers and those slightly left of that—genuinely believe that it’s impolitic to bring up the past. Call it delusion, call it D.C. brain, call it whatever you want: It’s actively making things worse.
This whole episode is an exercise in what happens when the most powerful people in America are shielded from the consequences of their actions. The failure to prosecute anyone in the Bush administration for the Iraq War has produced a society where an alarming amount of people believe that George W. Bush was a good president, though that is also no doubt driven by the fact that our current Republican president is such a clueless shitbag. The failure to really hold people account for Iran-Contra, the worst scandal in American history, has produced a society where Abrams is right back in power and Oliver North is running the NRA.
But these things are cyclical. In a just world, people like Donald Trump and Kirstjen Nielsen and Stephen Miller and Scott Lloyd and Thomas Homan and Ronald Vitiello would end their tenure in this administration in handcuffs for the damange they’ve done to migrant families. But it’s far more likely that Trump will be cited by liberals in 10 or 15 years as a “bad president, but not as bad as President Tom Cotton,” and that Nielsen, Homan, and the rest of the crew will land posh think tank jobs where their friends from both sides of the aisle defend them.
Omar and Rep. Joaquin Castro’s lonely fight on Wednesday to force people to remember what Abrams has done and what he’s capable of in his new role is a glimmer of hope that it won’t always be like this. We don’t need to “build bridges” for or “see the best in people” like Elliott Abrams. Your friend and colleague is a war criminal. Find some better friends.