Speaking of Elliott Abrams

And if you don't know, now you know.

If one studied Latin America in the 1980s (or Latin America, specifically Central America, of the 1980s), then one has encountered the name Elliott Abrams.  Abrams was an Assistant Secretary of State (first for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs and then for Inter-American Affairs) in the Reagan administration.  In both roles he was directly linked to US policy in Central America, the highlights (so to speak) of which involved a conviction for lying to Congress in the Iran-Contra Affair (for which he was later pardoned) and being known for downplaying (if not dismissing) human rights abuses by US allies in El Salvador and Guatemala.

To recap:  Elliott Abrams’ name conjures Iran-Contra, lying to Congress, and defending massacres in El Salvador and Guatemala (all in the name of US national security interests and the promotion of democracy).

One of the better summaries of this comes via Vox:  The fight between Ilhan Omar and Elliott Abrams, Trump’s Venezuela envoy, explained. The headline refers to testimony before a House committee and the confrontation between Representative Omar and Abarams.  I will come back to that below.  First, some quick info on El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

El Salvador:

In 1981, government soldiers from the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion slaughtered more than 750 men, women, and children in the village of El Mozote, raping girls as young as 10.

Roughly a month later, credible reports of the horror that the US-backed forces had perpetrated appeared in the US press — just one day before the Reagan administration was required to certify to Congress that the government of El Salvador was continuing to improve its human rights record (a condition required for US aid to the Salvadoran government to continue).

Though declassified cables have since revealed that senior administration officials were aware of the atrocities that the US-backed Salvadoran government forces were committing, they went ahead and certified to Congress that human rights were improving anyway. And they continued to do so in subsequent reports to Congress.

Abrams was assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs during all of this. In a July 1982 certification hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Abrams downplayed the El Mozote massacre, describing it as “an incident which is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the [leftist] guerrillas.”


In the early 1980s, the Guatemalan government launched a campaign of mass slaughter against the country’s indigenous Maya population, whom the government believed were supporting anti-government guerrilla fighters. In a years-long operation known as “Operation Sophia,” the Guatemalan military killed tens of thousands of Maya civilians in what is now widely considered to be a genocide.

In 1983, as the genocide was taking place, Abrams went on an American TV news show to defend the Reagan administration’s new policy: ending the arms embargo on sales to the Guatemalan government. “The amount of killing of innocent civilians is being reduced step by step,” he said. “We think that kind of progress needs to be rewarded and encouraged.”


Congress had passed a series of acts, collectively known as the Boland Amendment, explicitly intended to prevent the Reagan administration from further interfering in Nicaragua. So rather than abide by the law, Reagan simply figured out a way to go around Congress and fund the Contras anyway, just in secret.

Abrams supported the policy, and participated in covering up the arrangement from Congress. In the investigation that was launched after the whole affair was exposed, Abrams pleaded guilty to criminal charges for his role in misleading Congress, for which he was later pardoned.

All of the above is context for concerns that Abrams is a terrible choice for the Venezuela policy, if anything because his reputation precedes him and taints every action the US government engages in when viewed from Latin America. This is especially true because to my knowledge Abrams has never been especially reflective nor apologetic about his past, at least not in public.

It was also the backdrop for this (the aforementioned testimony in the House):

Omar’s questioning, in my opinion, was clumsy (as one might expect from a freshman member) and did not accomplish her goals.  Still, I would note that bringing up Abrams’ past, especially in terms of his untruthfulness before Congress, was totally fair game in my opinion.  The man has demonstrated his willingness to subvert the truth to the legislature in pursuit of executive policies.  It really should be up to him to demonstrate that he understands the problem his appointment to this role in Venezuela could create and he should attempt to allay them. Most importantly, he needs to reassure us all that he is no longer is willing to lie to cover up executive branch policies.

As political scientist profess Steve Saideman notes:

It is pretty basic: if you appoint someone who has pled guilty to lying to Congress, expect them to get some heat when they appear before Congress.  It is not that hard and definitely not surprising.  That it is a particularly controversial new Congressperson is really beside the point.  Someone has got to confront a guy who lied to Congress, especially if he didn’t pay for it because he got a pardon.  Pardoning those who lie to Congress tends to give a signal to future folks in the executive branch that you can get away with it.  And, oh, yes, this new administration has been putting out the pardon carrot again and again, and then they appoint a guy who has a very checkered history–not just lying but subverting the will of Congress via Iran-Contra and condoning human rights violations by proxies.  So, the Trump Administration, by appointing Abrams, was telling Congress to fuck off.

So, one Congressperson noted that he has a record as a liar so why believe him?  Then she asked a basic and very important question–do the ends justify the means?  In fighting for democracy or whatever (this administration’s record on being pro-democracy is just a wee bit, um, weak), will Abrams and this administration mind just a little bit of human rights violations.  Again, this is basic oversight stuff–Congress asking the executive if they will bend their responsibilities (to faithfully execute the laws of the US) to pursue a goal.  Has this administration given Congresspeople any cause to think they might not respect the law?

I would note Abrams’ arrogant posture and his clear impatience with the issues being raised at all.  He is not contrite, even for show.  He does not respect the Representative’s right to raise the issue.  I would note that if one is familiar with Abrams, one is very familiar with this approach.  From tone of voice, to body language, to righteous indignation, this is all typical Abrams.  If one is inclined, a trip to YouTube will support my assertions:  whether the interviews are from the 1980s, the 1990s, or the 2000s, the basic tone is the same.  He is supremely self-confidence, and self-righteous.  This is not a man who learned from past mistakes, or so it seems from afar.

Plus, Saideman raise a really salient point:  the current administration is not known for its devotion to the truth nor does it appear squeamish about using the pardon power for political gain.  As such, the Abrams appointment has even deeper layers than the flashbacks from the 1980s conjure.

All of this sums to having reasons to not be sanguine about Abrams’ involvement in Venezuela.  And this position is reinforced by what I am seeing in Venezuela this weekend.

The problem (or, one of the problems) with US policy vis-a-vis Central America in the 1980s was a single-minded devotion to anti-Communism.  It created, whether defenders of the policy want to admit it or not, a clear ends-justify-the-means mentality that included supporting some pretty terrible governments and enabling them to engage in some pretty heinous behaviors.  If Trump is going to assert that the US has to stop “the spread of socialist tyranny” in Venezuela, this moves us into a space where US operatives have demonstrated a willingness in the past to work with unsavory actors who do immoral things to gain power (or to fight “socialists”).  Abrams track record plays directly in that direction.  And while I have read defenses of him (see such references in this Drezner piece and this interview with Max Boot), I have not seen enough from Abrams in a public way to convince me to trust him in this instance (and that there is nothing in the broader Trump foreign policy apparatus to make me feel better about the situation).

See, also:

WaPo ’Someone is not being honest’: Elliott Abrams, Trump’s Venezuela envoy, trailed by mistrust.

The Atlantic:  What Did Elliott Abrams Have to Do With the El Mozote Massacre?


Side note on El Salvador:  while Abrams pegs the election in 1984 of José Napoleón Duarte  as the point at which the country became democratic, the reality is that while that was part of the transition to democracy in the country, the reality is that it cannot be really classified as democratic until after the civil war was over in 1992.  1994 would be the first post-civil war free and fair presidential election, which marked the real establishment of democracy in the country.

FILED UNDER: Latin America, US Politics, World Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. An Interested Party says:

    Add yet another example to the large mountain of evidence that this president and his administration are unfit, corrupt, and a complete disgrace…

  2. Kylopod says:

    In 2016, Abrams wrote a piece for Commentary opposing Trump’s candidacy, and it may stand as the definitive example of the moral vacuity of neocon Never-Trumpers. It is mostly a screed about George McGovern’s disastrous 1972 candidacy and a suggestion that the GOP should work to rebuild their party ahead of Trump’s anticipated landslide defeat just like Dems did with McGovern. In the entire piece, which runs for 1,600 words (I copy-pasted it to Word to find out), there is not one word, not even a hint, that Trump is a racist, sexist, unqualified moron. (Even Erick Erickson mentioned all that.) Instead, Abrams’ point of comparison with Trump is an accomplished Senator and war hero of unquestioned character and integrity. The impression Abrams leaves is that his chief objections to Trump–perhaps his only ones–are Trump’s supposed antiwar stance and unelectability. Once Trump proved those two complaints wrong, managing not only to win the election but going on to govern as anything but a dove, as anyone with a modicum of sense ought to have realized he would, Abrams is AOK with this administration.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    When I saw Elliot Abram’s name pop up I had two thoughts, that whatever happened at the hearing, Omar was right and only Tiny would kick over the rock that Abram’s has been hiding behind and give him a diplomatic portfolio in South America.

    A side note, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, the three countries that Abram’s mucked up are the three countries that are generating the waves of asylum seekers that Tiny wants to build his wall to stop.

  4. @Sleeping Dog: I almost commented on that: much of the asylum-seeking we are seeing can be linked to US-funded conflicts in the countries in question (plus the US directed drug war). I would by no means suggest that everything is the US’ fault, but we do have significant culpability in terms of the development of that region. We have been meddling in Nicaragua since at least the 1930s (really even before that) and set the course of Guatemalan political history in 1954 when we fomented a coup against a democratically elected leader for being too lefty.

    The history is long and often (frequently) sordid. Most Americans are clueless about it (including POTUS, I have no doubt).

  5. SenyorDave says:

    Abrams is actually proud of backing terrorists in Central America. No matter what his supposed level of expertise that fact should disqualify him from ever serving in any capacity for the US government. He seems like the type that would have no trouble justifying an ally’s action no matter how horrific.

  6. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Sleeping Dog: I see your point. On the other hand, what kind of democracy can a country claim if it is not making the country and society safe for that most fragile of all groups, the gangsters and narcoterrorists? Everyone is out to get the specifically and merely for being who they are. How can we not confront such blatant discrimination?

  7. al Ameda says:

    Two thing will survive nuclear war – cockroaches and Elliot Abrams. It’s like we’re the Hotel California and Abrams just won’t checkout and go away.

  8. Kathy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    America is rather clumsy as regard what we might term imperial politics. Meaning most of its foreign interventions tend to backfire and last for decades for little gain.

    Consider simply Iran. the thread runs from supporting a coup to install the Shah, to getting in bed with Saddam to check the Mullahs, to removing Iraq as a check on Iran, to interminable hostility towards Iran (not without reason). Obama broke with this pointless tradition by trying a bit of constructive diplomacy, and see what happened.

    You can see much the same in Central America, and previously in Southeast Asia (involvement in Vietnam began just after WWII).

    This happens to all major powers with a global or even regional reach. But they’re not all equally adept at dealing with it. What amazes me is how they keep getting into bad situations when they literally just saw another power damaged in a bad intervention. I mean like how the US got involved in Vietnam after what happened to the French there, or in Afghanistan after how the Soviets fared there.

  9. Gustopher says:

    This is not a man who learned from past mistakes, or so it seems from afar.

    He learned that he will get a pardon, supported by AG Barr. It’s what happened last time, why wouldn’t it happen again?

    Have there been people pardoned by more than one President? He might get to be the first.

  10. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Agreed, not all blame for the troubles in Central America can be blamed on the US, but we do have a knack for making things worse there.

    The US is really lousy colonial power (if there is a good one), we muddle in countries we have no clue about, ignore whatever experts that we do have if their recommendations don’t fit the administrations predetermined desired outcome. Then when we do get involved we to often rotate out the diplomats and military planners who are becoming experts. This is not just a Tiny or Repug problem, Dem presidents have been as myopic.

  11. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I’m not clear on your point, so I’m not sure how to respond.

  12. @Sleeping Dog:

    Agreed, not all blame for the troubles in Central America can be blamed on the US, but we do have a knack for making things worse there.

    Lest I be mistaken: I think the US has a significant amount of responsibility for the current state of the countries in question. This also means we have responsibility for the asylum-seekers that POTUS wants to pretend are all a national security threat to the US.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    I’ve noticed that in some circles, mostly country club Republican circles, mentioning that someone is an asshat is way more of a faux pas that being an asshat.

  14. Argon says:

    “All of the above is context for concerns that Abrams is a terrible choice for the Venezuela policy, if anything because his reputation precedes him and taints every action the US government engages in when viewed from Latin America.”

    Hmm… Terrible choice… tainted… unrepentant liar. Sounds like he checks all the boxes to serve in this administration.

  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Sleeping Dog: I’m just being snarky. I probably need to adjust my settings. No need to respond at all.

  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @al Ameda: Well, that’s fair. After all, the lyric is

    You can check out any time you like./But you can never leave!

  17. drj says:

    It’s kind of funny (but not necessarily in a good way) that Democrats need to worry about Klobuchar’s temperament, while a Republican admin brings back an outright criminal.

    Still not a fan of Klobuchar, but damn…

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Your settings are fine. Either that or my settings are completely in tune with yours.

  19. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    This is not just a Tiny or Repug problem, Dem presidents have been as myopic.

    Everyone has been myopic. In the United States people think that you’d just have to build a wall or keep Brown people out, but the fact of matter is that having countries with social unrest or high levels of violence in the neighborhood is not a good idea.

    There should be a policy for economic development and security in the Americas, the continental institutions like the OAS makes the African Union or the Arab League to look efficient and cohesive.

  20. Kit says:

    I typically strong post, Steven, but let me push back against a pet peeve of mine, namely this notion that the ends never justify the means. Well, what else can justify the means if not the ends?! Breaking eggs for the sake of breaking eggs is worse than pointless, it is wrong, while breaking eggs for the sake of baking a cake is a perfectly fine justification. On the other hand, no cake would justify killing a child so as to add a bit of blood to the batter.

    When it comes to issues such as El Salvador, I see three basic positions:

    1) Those who assert that slaughter along with the subversion of a country’s laws and institutions can never justify the promotion of democracy. Most of us simply feel the force of this argument in our bones, but might at least listen to a cold-blooded realist argument to the contrary.

    2) Those who claim that a cold-blooded realist policy can bring about sufficient good to outweigh any evil committed in its name. The real test for this position is a) to objectively evaluate the ends achieved, b) to willing confess to all crimes committed and then to suffer the consequences of those actions. I’d applaud the cop who breaks the law in order to nail the bad guy, but only if he then demanded to be tried, convicted and sentenced for his crimes. There would be a man who so believed in justice that he willingly sacrificed his very freedom to see it realized. Need I say that I never recall having seen this, neither at a local- nor at an international level? Realists wish to be allowed to act based on their ideals, then judged on their intentions (if judged at all).

    3) Those who believe that they act on a higher moral plane that both justifies and excuses all. God, blood and country usually serve the trick for those that go in for this sort of thing.