Genocide and Overthrowing Democracy: Biden Appointment Signals Grim Continuance of Bipartisan US Foreign Policy

I’ve written before about the ways in which, on foreign policy in particular, Democrats are often as bad as Republicans. I’m generally not a fan of rhetoric claiming that “both sides are the same”, because in many ways, it’s objectively not true. The problem is that in other ways, it is true, and Biden has just given us a revolting example of that with his appointment of one Elliott Abrams.

For those who don’t know, Abrams is a politician who served in a number of cabinet positions under Ronald Reagan, as Deputy National Security Advisor to George W Bush, and as Special Representative for Venezuela, and then Iran under Trump. His career in US politics has been long and bloody, with involvement in the Guatemalan Genocide (also known as the Mayan Genocide or the Silent Holocaust), atrocities in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and the Iran-Contra affair, among other things. From The Jacobin:

Let’s start with the most obvious point, which is that Abrams’ chief claim to fame is his role in Ronald Reagan’s blood-soaked foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s, for which he earned the nickname, “contra commander-in-chief.” The contras were the brutal right-wing paramilitary groups in Nicaragua who terrorized civilians throughout the decade, cutting a swath of torture, rape, and murder aimed at everyone from the elderly to children. Their methods were similar to those of right-wing paramilitaries in the other countries of the region, including El Salvador and Guatemala, all of which were supported by the Reagan administration. If you have the stomach to read about them, there’s no shortage of sources that outline their barbarity.

To Abrams, however, they were “freedom fighters,” their work in El Salvador was a “fabulous achievement,” and he mocked critics of Reagan as people forced to “run the risk” of arguing that such groups were “doing something wrong and ought to stop it.” He himself had no illusions about what it is that the contras were doing. “The purpose of our aid is to permit people who are fighting on our side to use more violence,” he said in 1985.

How involved was Abrams? “Sure, there was excessive micromanagement [of the contras],” he told Policy Review in 1989; “and I was one of the people who engaged in it. But I’m not going to go around trying to assess blame, because the contras were an enormous success.” The contras would have floundered and faded away were it not for the tens of millions of dollars Abrams helped funnel to them, including personally soliciting $10 million from the Sultan of Brunei for their cause (that money never made it because Abrams gave the Sultan the wrong account number).

This “micromanagement” at one point also involved Abrams secretly delivering military equipment to the contras under the guise of humanitarian aid. As commentators have noted, this is particularly relevant now, when the Trump administration attacks Maduro for refusing to let humanitarian aid from the US into Venezuela.

Abrams is a Cold Warrior of the worst sort. Jacobin describes him as being committed to fighting communism over all other concerns, happily citing human rights as a reason to oppose the USSR, while actively and knowingly supporting some of the worst atrocities in his lifetime. Had he been around for it, he almost certainly would have been one of the many conservative USians who supported the Nazis, at least until the US officially entered the war. Here’s another look at his passion for peace and justice:

From the moment he won the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan began looking for somewhere to fight a proxy war against the Soviet Union. Together with his advisers, he chose the Central American nation of El Salvador, where a civil war was raging between Marxist guerrillas and a military-led dictatorship.

To remain in power, the junta relied on “death squads” to kill not only its opponents but anyone who might even think of supporting its opponents, including nuns, priests, and children. The government claimed the death squads were independent, but in truth, they were just regular government soldiers, often (but not always) out of uniform. In order to justify US involvement in the war, Reagan had to defend the junta in the media. “We are helping the forces that are supporting human rights in El Salvador,” Reagan lied in a 1981 news conference.

Congress, at the time, was much closer to the concerns of the public than now, and war remained deeply unpopular. Many Americans were not only appalled by the junta’s willingness to murder US-based nuns and churchwomen; they also feared US involvement in another anti-guerrilla war in which the country had no clear national interest. The bumper sticker “El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam” spoke for these Americans as few slogans manage to do.

Although they had the country behind them, few Democrats were willing to risk taking the blame should El Salvador go communist, as Nicaragua appeared to be doing. To avoid responsibility, they devised a face-saving plan to demand that the Reagan administration undergo a process of “certification” to demonstrate that the Salvadorans were making progress in respecting human rights. In January 1982, just as the Reagan administration was preparing to make its very first certification, the White House found itself faced with reports of a massacre in the village of El Mozote, in the tiny, guerrilla-friendly canton of Morazan.

On the day before the first hearing, January 26, 1982, Raymond Bonner of The New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of The Washington Post simultaneously reported on an incident in which hundreds of unarmed civilians had been summarily murdered by uniformed Salvadoran soldiers. (Bonner put the number of victims between 722 and 926.) Neither reporter had seen the massacre take place, and both noted that their guides to the site had been associated with the guerrillas. Yet the journalists saw the corpses firsthand, and photographer Susan Meiselas documented many of them as well.

Immediately, the administration and its allies went to war with reporters and their publications to try to prevent the story from mucking up their proxy war. It sent out its own investigators, who never reached the area after they refused a guided tour from the guerrillas. As one of them later admitted to the journalist Mark Danner, “In the end, we went up there and we didn’t want to find that anything horrible had happened.” So they didn’t. The assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, Thomas Enders, took their tentative conclusions and insisted that there was “no evidence to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operations zone, or that the number of civilians remotely approached the seven hundred and thirty-three or nine hundred and twenty-six victims cited in the press.” Without any independent confirmation, Elliott Abrams—who, at 33, was Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs—also took up the cause. The El Mozote case “is a very interesting one in a sense,” he remarked to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, “because we found, for example, that the numbers, first of all, were not credible, because as Secretary Enders notes, our information was that there were only 300 people in the canton.”

Abrams’s argument was deliberately misleading. News reports had been clear: The mass killing had taken place in several hamlets. This particular argument was of a piece with the rest of the administration’s McCarthyite strategy to discredit the massacre’s existence. “We find…that it is an event that happened in mid-December [but it] is then publicized when the certification comes forward to the committee,” Abrams continued. “So, it appears to be an incident which is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.”

This is, of course, just a taste of the atrocities the US has supported in South and Central America, but it gives you an idea of who Abrams is, and what he stands for. It also gives you an idea of what’s considered “acceptable” by both parties in Washington, because Biden has just announced that he’s appointing Abrams to the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. From there, he will be involved in “appraising U.S. Government activities intended to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics and to increase the understanding of, and support for, these same activities.”(Wikipedia)

It’s hard to know exactly what’s going through the president’s mind, but I think it’s worth remembering who Biden is. He’s a rich white man, born before World War 2, who supported the disastrous War on Drugs (while protecting his son from it), helped bring about mass incarceration, and worked with segregationists to prevent desegregation busing. He is also a relic of the Cold War, and to me, it seems most likely that he’s bringing Abrams in because when it comes to the left, they’re on the same side.

I imagine it’s been difficult for most of you to not notice the constant Sinophobic fearmongering, but in case you’ve missed it, the US government – both parties – seems to want a new Cold War with China, or something very like it. A lot of discussion about this seems to be mostly focused on economics and trade, but there’s also plenty of attention paid to China’s military capabilities. It’s unlikely that the new Cold War will look just like the last one, given how intertwined the US and Chinese economies are, but I think the anti-communism in the US, and proxy wars in the name of “fighting communism” are both likely to be similar. Why else would Biden seek out someone like Abrams? The political left is rising again in South America, and that threatens to cut into billionaire profits as countries like Bolivia, Chile, and Brazil adjust their economies for the benefit of their people, rather than international corporations.

Everyone is expecting climate change to shake things up. It’s already creating millions of refugees every year, it has already been linked to conflicts like the Syrian civil war. It is also changing what’s valuable, as changing technology increases demand for resources like cobalt and lithium. Both the Democrats and the Republicans want to ensure that the US remains a dominant force in the world, and that countries of global south continue providing cheap materials, no matter the harm done to their own people. That kind of political interference seems to be Elliott Abrams’ specialty, and bringing him on like this signals – to me, at least – that the Biden administration is entirely ok with supporting atrocities in pursuit of those goals. It also signals that environmental concerns will not meaningfully change US foreign policy, at least under its current geriatric leadership, and that is a serious problem for the world.

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  1. says

    “We are helping the forces that are supporting human rights in El Salvador,” Reagan lied in a 1981 news conference.

    Jesus, that’s a triple whopper with cheese!

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