Some unforced political errors are so baffling, you wish you could’ve been in the room to witness how multiple brains could have decided they were good ideas. This is the case with the Biden administration’s nomination of war criminal and convicted misleader of Congress Elliott Abrams to the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (ACPD).
On the one hand, few people are less appropriate to be appointed to anything related to diplomacy than Abrams, best known for facilitating and covering up many years of grisly human rights atrocities racked up over the course of the Reagan administration’s covert wars on the Left in Central America. As career foreign services officer Frank McNeil put it, Abrams “practices the Doberman Pinscher school of diplomacy.”
On the other hand, the ACPD doesn’t have that much to do with diplomacy anyway: “public diplomacy” is a Cold War–era euphemism for US government propaganda efforts aimed at foreign populations via vehicles like the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, or the Cuba-targeting Radio Martí, which was envisioned as an affordable way to try and destabilize the Fidel Castro government. In that sense, it’s a perfect fit for Abrams, who views himself as a lifelong counterrevolutionary devoted to opposing leftism in any form.
But Abrams’s appointment is yet another self-inflicted ding to the White House’s public image–conscious foreign policy. Since winning the presidency, Joe Biden and his team have tried to do a reset from the scandal-filled Donald Trump years, when US foreign policy largely chugged on in the same way it had for decades — selective outrage at human rights abuses, self-serving appeals to democracy while coddling dictators and plotting coups — only with the pretense ripped off. They’ve tried this by reframing US foreign policy as revolving around a global “battle between democracy and autocracy” and upholding the “international rules-based order.” Abrams’s nomination makes a mockery of all of this.
Why? It’s not just that Abrams was a high-profile, controversial Trump appointee, undermining Biden’s rhetoric around the former Apprentice host’s presidency being an aberration divorced from American norms gloriously restored. Abrams was the subject of a fair bit of rancor four years ago when he was more or less tasked by Trump with spearheading his administration’s regime-change effort in Venezuela.
It’s not just that Abrams pleaded guilty in 1991 to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress, a result of his and other Reagan officials’ efforts to cover up their crimes in Central America — though lesser ethical lapses have been scandals at the ACPD in the past. When Ronald Reagan’s United States Information Agency (USIA) director was caught secretly taping his phone conversations with powerful people — including in Florida, where it’s illegal — it led then Middlebury College president Olin Robison to resign in protest from the commission, which oversees the USIA.
It’s not just that Abrams’s role as the “contra commander in chief” was overseeing the delivery of supplies to anti-communist death squads, then lying about them to Congress and the public. Abrams worked to shield from accountability the perpetrators of the El Mozote massacre, where among other things US-backed thugs slaughtered and raped children, and of several brutal assassinations of dissidents, including one where a man was repeatedly sodomized with a stick and had his head sawed off. As Abrams openly said, the “purpose” of the military aid he was directly facilitating was to “permit people who are fighting on our side to use more violence,” and he later admitted to taking part in “excessive micromanagement” of the contras.
And it’s not only that Abrams has shown a career-long contempt for democracy, from playing a pivotal role in the 2002 coup attempt in Venezuela, to provoking a civil war in the Palestinian territories when George W. Bush’s administration didn’t like the 2006 election results. Abrams had a simple formula when it came to authoritarian governments: if it was communist, it had to be toppled for the sake of freedom and human rights; if it wasn’t, then the United States needed to deepen its partnership with the government and “use our influence to effect desirable change,” hold off on pushing for liberalization (“The line between progress and anarchy is hard for anyone to draw,” he explained), and support “even a highly imperfect regime,” since it has “a much better prospect of democratization” than a communist government.
Any single one of these factors should be enough to disqualify Abrams from being appointed so much as presidential dog-walker. The fact that, with this entire rap sheet, Abrams still ended up nominated by a Democratic president to a position that puts him within one hundred feet of US foreign policy is a disgrace. And it will make a world that looks more cynically than ever at US rhetoric around democracy and human rights even less likely to swallow it.