How Ilhan Omar’s Attempt to Shame Elliott Abrams Backfired
The new committee member’s very rhetorical questions to ‘Mr. Adams’ suggested deep suspicion of America’s foreign affairs, and limited knowledge of them.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee heard testimony from U.S. experts about the growing humanitarian and political crisis engulfing Venezuela. One of those testifying was Elliott Abrams, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s newly appointed Special Envoy on Venezuela in the State Department, who found himself in a viral moment.
That came after Abrams read his opening statement, defining the U.S. mission as one of defending the nation’s only independent body, the National Assembly that elected Juan Guaido as its head, and which the U.S. now views as the arm of government, and Guaido as Venezuela’s only freely elected leader. U.S. policy, Abrams said, was to aid the Venezuelan people, and to work in conjunction with other nations to help the people of Venezuela in their effort to restore democracy. He emphasized that the U.S. did not favor arming Maduro’s opponents, and supported a peaceful democratic transition.
Things proceeded apace until the controversial new member of Congress from Minnesota, Ilhan Omar, appointed to the committee by Nancy Pelosi in an obvious attempt to give the Democratic Party’s far-left base something it sought, started asking “questions.” Coming right after the condemnation of her anti-Semitic tweets by most Democrats, all eyes were on her.
Omar’s performance clearly was in sync with the Code Pink demonstrators who interrupted the hearing at its start and had to be removed by security. The Code Pink crew yelled in defense of the Maduro government, and had posters attacking Abrams as a “war criminal.”
Omar opened up by calling Abrams “Mr. Adams,” which no one corrected, and reading a statement she did not appear to be familiar with, hesitating often and mispronouncing many words. She restated the old charges of the political left-wing in in the 1980s that have been revisited over and over throughout the years.
They have been after him again since then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wanted to appoint Abrams as his deputy at the beginning of the Trump presidency. Trump blocked that move, because he was angry about a piece Abrams wrote opposing his candidacy, but that was enough of a new peg for Eric Alterman to write in The Nation that Abrams was an “actual American War Criminal…a neo-con golden boy [who] has behaved so badly in so many different arenas, it actually works in his favor.” Alterman then raised the left’s favorite charge: “Abrams was forced to plead guilty to deliberately misleading Congress regarding his nefarious role in the Iran-Contra scandal.”
Omar too pointed out that in 1991 Abrams had pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress pertaining to the Iran-Contra debacle. She said, “I don’t understand why members of this committee should find any testimony that you give today to be truthful.” She refused to let Abrams respond, telling him that she was not asking a question and he could not defend himself. Abrams correctly responded that she had waged a personal attack on him and was not even trying to ask a question.
Omar went on, without letting him reply, asking Abrams whether he would “support crimes against humanity or genocide if you would believe they were serving U.S. interests as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.” She posed that very rhetorical question after she’d made known that she considered the U.S. attempts to defend democracy in Venezuela a “U.S. backed coup,” the same position of the repressive Maduro government whose leader refuses to give up power. She went on to say that she wanted to find out if “a genocide will take place and you will look the other way because American interests were being upheld.”
Abrams answered that “I don’t believe this line of questioning is meant to be real questions and so I will not reply.”
Omar then charged Abrams with denying that a massacre took place in El Mozote, El Salvador on Dec. 11, 1981, when the U.S. trained Salvadoran military Al Atlacatl battalion went into the town. Reports emerged that the soldiers had tortured and killed men, women, and children in a counterinsurgency raid meant to defeat communist guerillas. The town’s entire population was killed. At the time, Abrams had said that it was an “incident that is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas." Other officials had denied one had taken place. In 1992 it was confirmed by forensic evidence that indeed it had occurred.
Rep. Omar said that in 1982 testimony he had given to the Senate, Abrams had just lied, implying that he would again look the other way and again lie if the U.S. created a genocide in Venezuela. She quoted Abrams as having said years ago that U.S. policy in El Salvador had been a success. “Do you think the massacre was a fabulous achievement,” she asked.
“That is a ridiculous question,” Abrams retorted. He noted that after the election of Napoleon Duarte as president, every government since has been democratically elected, and he considers that a success. Abrams made it clear that “the entire thrust of American policy in Venezuela is to support the Venezuelan people’s effort to restore democracy to their country.”
As for his conviction, for testimony given a few months before Omar was born, perhaps she should read Abrams’ own 1992 book, Undue Process: A Story of How Political Differences are Turned into Crimes. It was this book that convinced one of Abrams’ major human rights critics, Aryeh Neier, to change his mind. Neier had been seen as Abrams’ arch-enemy in the era of the Central American wars, one who like Omar today, expressed satisfaction when Abrams was found guilty of misdemeanors. He had written a column in The Nation expressing his satisfaction when Abrams had been convicted, “because it seemed the appropriate denouement to a career in public office in which deceit had been a hallmark.”
After reading Abrams’ book years later, Neier had second thoughts, and wrote in Dissent that he “found its central points persuasive.” Agreeing with Abrams, he wrote that political differences over policy should be “dealt with through the political process and not by means of criminal law.” The way he had been indicted, Neier argued, “suggest a political prosecution rather than the fair administration of justice.” He thought that “Abrams’ argument that he was chosen as a target because the special prosecutor needed a recognizable scalp following [Oliver] North’s victory on appeal,” and that this was “buttressed by the evidence of timing.” If one read Abrams’ book, Neier concluded, it “should persuade fair-minded readers that the prosecution wronged him.”
Many in the GOP are demanding that Omar be removed from her seat in the Foreign Affairs Committee, just as they had finally removed Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) from all of his committee assignments for his latest overt racist remarks. Yes, they let King go on for years way after his racism was apparent and said nothing when he was campaigning for re-election. Hypocrisy is perhaps the only bipartisan effort. But the Democrats, just as they have demanded that in Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam and Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax resign, should now add their own voices to ask Chairman Pelosi to remove Omar from the Foreign Affairs committee.
Omar’s comportment at the hearing, as well as her obvious belief that the United States is an imperialist and reactionary nation that by its very nature abuses human rights, should alone be reason enough to have her removed before she can do real damage.