In 1981, an American-created military unit in El Salvador raped and murdered its way through several hamlets, including the village of El Mozote. Elliott Abrams, then new to his role as Reagan’s assistant secretary of State for human rights and humanitarian affairs, insisted that news reports had overstated the breadth of the massacre. In remarks to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Abrams dismissed the credibility of the numbers. Guerrillas had twisted the event for their own ends, he argued. We now know this to be false: A U.N. truth commission uncovered evidence of about a thousand murders, as Eric Alterman observed for The Nation.
Abrams’s record didn’t bother Donald Trump, who made him a special envoy to Venezuela in 2019. It apparently doesn’t bother Joe Biden much either. On Monday, CNN reported that the Biden administration had appointed Abrams to the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. The bipartisan commission “appraises the U.S. Government activities intended to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics” and “may assemble and disseminate information and issue reports and other publications to the Secretary of State, the President, and the Congress,” according to the State Department and CNN. The seven-member panel is required to include three Republicans (three Democrats when a Republican is president), and the appointment is largely a sinecure. Yet it betrays deeper problems. With Abrams as a public face, the United States is sending the wrong message to the world.
Abrams’s role in the El Mozote coverup is far from his only sin. As Alterman points out, Abrams has defended Efraín Ríos Montt, once the genocidal dictator of Guatemala, and he was convicted for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, only to be pardoned by George H.W. Bush. But after Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota harshly questioned Abrams about his record in 2019, some members of the American foreign-policy Establishment rose to his defense. Nicholas Burns, a former NATO ambassador, tweeted, “Elliott Abrams is a devoted public servant who has contributed much of his professional life to our country. It’s time to build bridges in America and not tear people down.”
In an interview with Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker, never-Trump neoconservative Max Boot called Abrams, his colleague at the Council on Foreign Relations, “basically a good person,” and added that he is “somebody who I don’t see as being terribly ideological.” Asked about Abrams’s support for Ríos Montt, Boot offered the typical excuses. The Reagan administration “made human-rights compromises, just like all of its predecessors and successors,” he said, and “actually did more to promote human rights and made human rights a more central part of its foreign policy than most U.S. Administrations of the last hundred years.” To grant Boot half a point, it’s true that various presidential administrations have compromised on human rights. It has often been the bipartisan custom of the American government to side with murderous right-wing regimes in the name of “democracy,” or at least stability. It’s interesting, then, that Boot considers Abrams a nonideological figure. The American foreign-policy Establishment is so convinced of its expertise and even its innate moral worth that its leading practitioners cannot or will not recognize ideology when it is in front of them.
Biden is no exception. The president spent over three decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and reportedly thinks of himself as an expert. “He’s got fluency on foreign policy that gives him confidence — he knows he can win the argument,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, told the Washington Post earlier this year. “It allows him to act with boldness and confidence, even when a decision he’s making may be ripe for political criticism.” That boldness does not portend a new foreign-policy vision for the United States. Biden is in most respects a typical American liberal, so compared to Trump he presents a friendlier face to the world. He removed American troops from Afghanistan, but at the same time, he cannot outrun his vote on Iraq or his complicity in a foreign policy that has aligned the United States with autocracies such as Saudi Arabia and with increasingly authoritarian powers such as Israel and India. By appointing Abrams to a public-advisory role, Biden honors him — and props up the Establishment to which they both belong.
The United States owes other nations something different, something new. Democracy is in peril at home and abroad partly because of the impunity that keeps Abrams employed. Though his latest role may be somewhat ceremonial, his appointment is out of step with the demands of our time. There should be consequences for someone like Elliott Abrams. At minimum, it ought to be possible to fail out of public service, but for that to happen, we have to change the way we define failure. The massacre in El Mozote was one such failing — not a regrettable historical footnote but a catastrophic atrocity that indicts the administration Abrams served. His reward must be ignominy. The world deserves nothing less.