Elliott Abrams: the Neocon’s Neocon
President Bush’s Inaugural Address was the sound of the second shoe dropping. Three years ago the president shocked the world with the announcement of the U.S. government’s new doctrine of preventive war and global military engagement. Last month he proclaimed that U.S. power and influence had a soft side. Along with use of our military might, the U.S. government was committing the American people to an international campaign to promote freedom and democracy.
Minutes before his State of the Union Address, in which he repeated the promise to answer the call of freedom worldwide, the White House announced that Elliott Abrams would direct the new global democracy campaign as well as overseeing Middle East policy from his perch in the National Security Council.
Elliott Abrams embodies neoconservatism. Perhaps more than any other neoconservative, Abrams has integrated the various influences that have shaped today’s neoconservative agenda. A creature of the neoconservative incubator, Abrams is a political intellectual and operative who has advanced the neoconservative agenda with chutzpah and considerable success.
As a government official, Abrams organized front groups to provide private and clandestine official support for the Nicaraguan Contras; served as the president of an ethics institute despite his own record of lying to Congress and managing illegal operations; rose to high positions in the National Security Council to oversee U.S. foreign policy in regions where he had no professional experience, only ideological positions; proved himself as a political intellectual in books and essays that explore the interface between orthodox Judaism, American culture, and political philosophy; and demonstrated his considerable talents in public diplomacy as a political art in the use of misinformation and propaganda to ensure public and policy support for foreign relations agendas that would otherwise be soundly rejected.
Abrams has moved back and forth between government and the right’s web of think tanks and policy institutes, holding positions as a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), advisory council member of the American Jewish Committee, and charter member of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Abrams has maintained close ties with the Social Democrats/USA, the network of right-wing social democrats and former Trotskyites who became the most vocal of the self-described "democratic globalists" within the neocon camp in the 1990s.
His family ties have helped propel Abrams into the center of neoconservatism’s inner circles over the past few decades. In 1980 he joined one of the two reigning families of neoconservatism through his marriage to Rachel Decter, one of Midge Decter’s two daughters from her first marriage. As a member of the Podhoretz-Decter clan, Abrams became a frequent contributor to Commentary and Norman Podhoretz’s choice to direct the magazine’s symposiums on foreign policy. As one of the leading neocons in the Reagan administration, Abrams also served as a liaison between government and the right wing’s network, as exemplified by his appearances at the forums organized by Midge Decter’s Committee for the Free World in the 1980s.
Emblematic of Abrams’ visceral right-wing politics was his statement following the murder of John Lennon in December 1980. Setting the tone for the cultural and political backlash that would soon dominate U.S. politics, Abrams complained publicly about all the media attention given the famous singer: "I’m sorry, but John Lennon was not that important a figure in our times…Why is his death getting more attention than Elvis Presley’s? Because Lennon is perceived as a left-wing figure politically, anti-establishment, a man of social conscience with concern for the poor. And, therefore, he is being made into a great figure. Too much has been made of his life. It does not deserve a full day’s television and radio coverage. I’m sick of it."
Abrams as Anti-Communist Gladiator
As an aide to Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson in the 1970s, Abrams began his political career mixing the soft and hard sides of the neoconservative agendaas both a proponent of Jackson’s strategically driven human rights policies and as an advocate of his proposals to boost the military-industrial complex. Through Jackson, Abrams became involved in a group of Cold Warriors called the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, which was associated with the Democratic Party and led by the neoconservatives.
Among former members of Jackson’s staff to find positions in the Reagan administration’s foreign policy team were such neoconservative operatives as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Frank Gaffney, Charles Horner, and Ben Wattenberg. Other Jackson Democrats who secured appointments in the Reagan administration included Jeane Kirkpatrick, as UN ambassador, and neoconservatives on her staff, such as Joshua Muravchik, Steven Munson (like Abrams a Podhoretz-Decter son-in-law), Carl Gershman, and Kenneth Adelman.
Abrams joined the neocon exodus from the Democratic Party in the late 1970s led by members of the Committee on the Present Danger and the Coalition for a Democratic Majority. His first position in the Reagan administration was director of the State Department’s Office for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. But he was appointed only after Reagan’s first choice came under fire in the Senate.
During the Reagan years, the neocon human rights program was a velvet glove tailored for the iron fist side of foreign and military policy. During the Reagan administration, Abrams was at once a human rights advocate, a manager of clandestine operations, and a bagman for the Nicaraguan contrascalling himself "a gladiator" in the cause of freedom.
Crimes and Misdemeanors
Although he entered the Reagan administration scandal-free, he left as a convicted criminal. Abrams, who entered the administration as its human rights chief and in 1985 became assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, was indicted by the Iran-Contra special prosecutor for intentionally deceiving Congress about the administration’s role in supporting the Contras, including his own central role in the Iran-Contra arms deal.
The U.S.-backed and organized Contras were spearheading a counterrevolution against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Congress had prohibited U.S. government military support for the Contras because of their pattern of human rights abuses. Abrams pleaded guilty to two lesser offenses (including withholding information from Congress) to avoid a trial and a possible jail term.
Abrams and five other Iran-Contra figures were pardoned by President George H.W. Bush on Christmas Eve 1992, shortly before the senior Bush left office. By pardoning Abrams, John Poindexter, and other former Reagan officials, Bush was in effect protecting himself. At that time media and congressional investigations of Iran-Contra scandal were threatening to expose the role of Bush himself, who was Reagan’s vice president during the executive branch’s program of illegal support to the Nicaraguan Contras.
During the Reagan administration, Abrams was the government’s nexus between the militarists in the National Security Council and the public-diplomacy operatives in the State Department, White House, and National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Abrams worked closely with Otto Reich, who directed the White House’s Office of Public Diplomacy, which was in charge of disseminating "white propaganda" to the U.S. public, media, and policymakers to build support for the Reagan administration’s interventionist policies in Latin America and elsewhere.
Abrams in the 1990s
After Reagan left office in 1989, Abrams, like a number of other prominent neoconservatives, was not invited to serve in the Bush Sr. administration. Instead, he worked for a number of think tanks and in 1996 became president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. With EPPC as his new base, Abrams wrote widely on foreign policy issues, especially on Middle East policy, and on cultural issues, including about the threats posed by U.S. secular society to Jewish identity.
Created in 1976, EPPC was the first neocon institute to break ground in the frontal attack on the secular humanists. For nearly three decades, EPPC has functioned as the cutting edge of the neoconservative-driven culture war against progressive theology and secularism, and the associated effort to ensure right-wing control of the Republican Party. It explicitly sought to unify the Christian right with the neoconservative religious right, which was mostly made up of agnostics back then. A central part of its political project was to "clarify and reinforce the bond between the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the public debate over domestic and foreign policy." Directed by Elliott Abrams from 1996-2001, EPPC counts among its board members well connected figures in the neocon matrix including Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Neuhaus, and Mary Ann Glendon.
Abrams remained an integral part of the tight-knit neoconservative foreign policy community in Washington that revolved around the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Abrams was also a charter member of the Project for the New American Century, which issued its statement of principles about the need for a "neo-Reaganite" foreign policy in 1997.
Elliott Abrams, when serving as EPPC president, said that human rights should be a "policy tool" of the U.S. government. Working closely with Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress, EPPC together with the Christian Coalition and Family Research Council lobbied for the creation of a new permanent commission that focused on religious persecution. The main countries of concern listed in the congressional deliberations were China, Sudan, North Korea, Cuba, Laos, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia, as well as general condemnation of Muslim nations. Abrams became a founding member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and served as its chairman until mid-2001, when he joined the Bush administration.
Regarding Abrams’s biased stance on Middle East affairs, Dr. Laila al-Marayati, a former member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, wrote: "From the vantage point of the [U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom], as an American and as a Muslim, I had the unfortunate opportunity of witnessingclearly and unequivocallythe deep bias that Abrams brings to his new position. …As chairman of the commission at the time, Abrams led the delegation to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but did not go to Jerusalem with three of us as he was of the opinion that there are no problems with religious freedom in Israel that would warrant the attention of the commission. …Bypassing Israel was not the only way Abrams undermined the Commission’s visit to the Middle East. …Abrams managed to snub the leading Islamic cleric in Egypt… which nearly created a diplomatic nightmare that was only narrowly averted by the intervention of the U.S. ambassador."
The New Freedom Fighter
Since Bush’s reelection in early November, Abrams has become one of the administration’s most high-profile officials. He has acted as Bush’s envoy to Europe and Israel as part of the administration’s new attention to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Abrams participated in an hour-plus meeting in the Oval Office with the president and Natan Sharansky, Israel’s minister for Jerusalem and diaspora affairs. Sharansky, the author of The Case for Freedom, subsequently met with Rice. Both Bush and Rice have repeatedly referred to Sharansky’s book in their pronouncements about the U.S. government’s new commitment to ending tyranny and spreading democracy, frequently using the same phrasing as Abransky.
Also in November, Abrams arranged conference calls with the leaders of the major national Jewish American organizations in advance of formal meetings with Rice. Last week, Abrams traveled to Israel and met with Ariel Sharon’s top adviser Dov Weisglass to smooth the way for Secretary of State’s visit with Prime Minister Sharon.
After the scandals involving neoconservatives in the late 1980s and the end of the cold war, many foreign policy observers wrote off the neoconservatives as a spent force. The same dismissal of the enduring influence of the neoconservative camp became widespread among pundits and analysts when the Iraq invasion proved a quagmire rather than a liberation "cakewalk."
It’s likely that Elliott Abrams, who has established a close working relationship with Condoleezza Rice, will become the leading administration architect of Middle East policy during the second Bush administration. Like the Middle East policy of the first administration, the regional initiatives of the new administration will continue to be guided by neocon notions about the centrality of Israel, the U.S. mission to restructure the Arab world, and the use of public diplomacy gloss of spreading freedom and democracy to advance U.S. national security strategy.
TOM BARRY is policy director of the International Relations Center, online at www.irc-online.org He is the author of books on U.S. economic aid including The Soft War: Uses and Abuses of U.S. Economic Aid in Central America (Grove Press).