Clicking on banner ads keeps JWR alive
Jewish World Review July 20, 2001 / 29 Tamuz, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
James Glassman
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Why Do They Still Hate Elliot Abrams?

The up-and-down career of a warrior for democracy -- HE was just a footnote to a scandal that was rapidly becoming ancient history. But the return of Elliot Abrams to a position of power in Washington has been enough to set the teeth of some people on edge.

When the appointment of Abrams to the post of director of the office for democracy, human rights and international operations at the National Security Council was announced, few noticed. But, predictably, Abrams foes on the left howled.

One mainstream outlet for such criticism was the July 11 editorial page of The Philadelphia Inquirer. On that day, the Inqy devoted the majority of its editorial space to blasting Abrams in a manner normally reserved for less esoteric foes on the City Council.

According to the paper, Abrams was unfit for office, “a shameful choice” of a man who was “a deceitful, scheming coddler of Latin American tyrants,” and who had been convicted of involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.

History, even recent history, is something we assume most Americans know little about. Thus, it is doubtful that many of the Inquirer’s readers knew anything about Abrams before reading their screed. But rather than giving those readers a grasp of the complex role of Abrams,who was Assistant Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, the Inquirer preferred to heap abuse on him.

While such invective against Abrams might have been expected back in the late ’80s, it was curious to read it today. When Abrams’ fast-rising diplomatic career was ended by the Iran-Contra scandal, it was still possible for some to pretend that the Cold War — and those like Abrams who were fighting it — was a pointless and maybe even a wrongful cause. But no longer. The real story is that whatever the flaws of Reagan’s policy, Abrams was on the right side of history and subsequent events proved him correct.

Twenty years ago, the Soviet empire was expanding, and Marxist revolutiona ries were succeeding in toppling right-wing oligarchies in the Third World. While the men with the guns sought to offer the people of Central and South America a stark choice between the despotism of a Fidel Castro and his imitators and that of Augusto Pinochet and his imitators, there were some who thought democracy was a viable alternative.

The administration of President Ronald Reagan was determined to “roll back” the victories of a foe they had the chutzpah — and the wisdom — to term an “evil empire.” The result was a campaign to aid those who were willing to resist the Marxists gunmen that was often mischaracterized as solely an effort to back dictators.

In El Salvador, a government led by Jose Duarte, a heroic believer in democracy, was aided in its fight to survive against leftist rebels who wanted to shoot their way into power.

In Nicaragua, the despotic rule of the Marxist Sandinistas — who had themselves ousted a vile right-wing government long supported by the United States — were also opposed by the Contras, a coalition of democrats and less savory allies who received American aid.

The twists and turns of the history of those conflicts were many and often tragic. There were atrocities committed on both sides of these civil wars.

But the bottom line was the efforts of Abrams to promote democracy triumphed. Contrary to the assertions of his detractors, Abrams played a key role in easing Pinochet out of power in Chile.

Thanks to the assistance given its democratic government by the United States, El Salvador’s democrats were able to defeat the Marxists gunmen and force them to accept the idea that the fate of the country would be decided by ballots and not Soviet-made machine guns.

And in Nicaragua, the pressure placed upon its new Socialist bosses forced them to accept fair elections in which they were promptly ousted.

The Cold War was won, but those eager to refight the political battles of the 1980s prefer to only think of Abrams, who had previously worked for Democrats like Sens. Daniel Patrick Moyniha of New York and Henry "Scoop" Jackson" of Washington, as a man who deceived Congress about efforts to aid the Contras during the short period when it was illegal for the U.S. government to do so.

Iran-Contra was a bizarre, foolish scheme, and Abrams’ peripheral involvement was not to his credit. Yet rather than break a promise given by his superiors to foreign governments that had insisted upon a pledge of secrecy, Abrams did not tell the truth when he testified (although not under oath) to congressional committees. That was wrong, but it didn’t justify the decision of America’s first out-of-control special prosecutor Lawrence Welch to make an example of Abrams. Most federal officials, past and present, have similarly avoided telling Congress all they knew about topics, but few have ever been threatened with prison for it.

Though Democrats suffering from the similarly unfettered reach of Kenneth Starr would eventually agree with the Republicans and abolish this extra-constitutional office, there was no sympathy for Abrams. He was a very young man with a reputation for arrogance. At the time, he had a choice of persisting in defending himself and his career, and thereby bankrupting his family with the costs of lawyers or copping a plea. The latter would save his family, but end his ambitions. He surprised everyone by choosing not to fight. The conviction on two charges brought him a slap on the wrist, and he was soon pardoned by the first President Bush in 1991. Abrams accepted his fate and slipped quietly out of the public’s view.

Since then, Abrams helped found a think tank called the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and devoted himself to the cause of human rights and to the question of the future of American Jewry. In 1997, he penned what is probably the most valuable book on the subject, Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America. It cannily outlined the importance of Jewish education and stressed that assimilation, not anti-Semitism, was the real threat to Jews in this country.

Even more importantly, he served as a member since 1998, and in the last year as chairman, of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Persecution. In that role, Abrams has helped lead the fight in Washington to bring morality into our foreign policy, focusing concern on persecutors of believers in places such as China, Sudan and Egypt.

But to some on the left, it is forever 1986. He is still the neo-conservative that deprived them of their illusions about gun-toting Marxists. Even after his humiliation at the hands of an office they would themselves come to revile, the left cannot let go. They seem to hate Elliot Abrams not because he was wrong about the Cold War, but because history proved him right.

I’m not sure why he is willing to subject himself again to press scrutiny. Apparently Abrams thinks the issues are more important than the privacy he has gained outside of the government.

As it happens, the administration of George W. Bush has floundered in its efforts to craft a foreign policy or a rationale for one. Abrams brings great skill and a passionate commitment to promoting democracy to his job. He is also a strong supporter of Israel and will be a crucial addition to Dubya’s foreign-policy team.

Abrams has grown since his evasions landed him in the dock. He can also take satisfaction in the fact that, revisionists at the Inquirer notwithstanding, he was on the side of the angels in the 1980s and that history will ultimately vindicate his work, even if Iran-Contra will always be a stain on it.

Let’s hope Abrams has the chance to add further luster to his legacy in the years ahead.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

Jonathan Tobin Archives


© 2000, Jonathan Tobin