Hours before the president’s State of the Union address earlier this month—a perfect moment for burying inconvenient news—the White House announced the ascension of Elliott Abrams to the highest ranks of its foreign-policy team. Abrams has moved from the staff of the National Security Council to the post of deputy national security adviser. It’s a significant promotion, one that gives Abrams both an elevated stature and new management powers. Specifically, the White House says Abrams will be in charge of “global democracy strategy,” effectively making him Bush’s democracy czar. In other words, Abrams is now the brains behind George Bush’s grand mission to fix the world. Over the next four years, he may come to represent, more than anyone, the id of the Bush administration’s foreign policy.
Why would the White House bury Abrams’ promotion? Because he still hasn’t shed his image as a Reaganite villain. As Iran-Contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh prepared to bring a multicount felony indictment against him in 1987, Abrams pleaded guilty to misleading Congress, a misdemeanor crime. Many Democrats also revile him as the lead apologist for brutal Central American dictatorships in El Salvador and Guatemala during the 1980s. He’s “the guy who lied and wheedled to aid and protect human rights abusers,” TheNation’s David Corn wrote upon Abrams’$2 2001 return to government. Surely the White House grasps the ironies here: A man accused of subverting the Constitution is leading its charge for democratic government; a reputed defender of dictators is working to depose them. In this sense, Abrams embodies Bush’s foreign policy as a whole. The goals are noble—but are the methods sound?
Abrams is a neocon with almost cartoonishly pure credentials. He grew up in a liberal Jewish household in New York. While a student at Harvard Law School, he lived in the attic of the sociologist Nathan Glazer, a pioneer of neoconservative social thought. In the 1970s Abrams worked for the two Democrats to whom neocons still pay homage, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late New York senator, and Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the famously hawkish senator from Washington state. He married Rachel Decter, whose mother, Midge, is married to the neocon Yoda-figure Norman Podhoretz. He is also a longtime friend of Natan Sharansky, the Russian dissident turned Israeli parliament member who is a pro-democracy hero to neocons and whose tome on democracy recently graced Bush’s bedside table.
Like so many other neocons, Abrams ditched the Democratic party in the late 1970s because of its post-Vietnam foreign-policy timidity. After a meeting with Jimmy Carter, he declared the president “hopeless” about confronting the Soviets. He joined Reagan’s State Department and in the name of anti-communism placed himself on the front lines of the administration’s Central American proxy wars with the Soviets. Abrams was among the first to agitate for the downfall of Manuel Noriega, and his loathing of Augusto Pinochet led him to feud openly with Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, who urged cooperation with the Chilean strongman. But Abrams undercut his credibility by stubbornly defending the U.S.-backed military regime in El Salvador even after evidence emerged of regime-sponsored massacres. This made him a villain among liberals like New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, who accused him of whitewashing human rights abuses. A famously tough political operator, Abrams gave as good as he got. “I would like to take a machine gun and mow Anthony Lewis down,” his wife once told the Washington Post. “I wouldn’t waste the bullets,” Abrams rejoined. “I would rather have them go to the contras.”
That sort of self-certainty helped to enmesh Abrams in the Iran-Contra scandal. Though not a principal architect, he was well aware of Oliver North’s secret aid program to the Nicaraguan rebels and played his own memorable role in the skullduggery. In a classic bit of John le Carré intrigue, Abrams traveled to London in 1986 armed with a Swiss bank account number and the code name “Mr. Kenilworth.” He met in Hyde Park with an agent of the Sultan of Brunei and solicited a $10 million donation for the contras. When the Iran-Contra investigation revealed his role, Abrams took a beating and then hung on for the duration of Reagan’s presidency. He wasn’t invited to join the new team when George H. W. Bush took office in 1989, however, though Bush later granted him a Christmas Eve pardon to clear his legal record. Abrams never apologized for his Iran-Contra doings. “I don’t have any regrets at all,” he proclaimed upon leaving government. Much like the defenders of the Iraq war in the current administration, he felt he had done the right thing in the name of a larger, heroic cause.
Abrams used his time out of government to develop the new specialty that paved his path back: religion and the Middle East. In 1996 he became president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington outfit dedicated to applying faith-based morality to public policy. To boost support for Israel, Abrams urged a new kinship between observant Jews and evangelical Christians. He promoted a strongly pro-Israel stance toward peace negotiations with the Palestinians, criticizing the 1993 Oslo accords as too demanding of Israel.
When Abrams returned to government in 2001 as a National Security Council staffer (a position that did not require a sure-to-be-bloody Senate confirmation), his unflinching belief that only strong American power can catalyze democracy and human rights abroad wasn’t a Bush priority. Abrams seemed bound to be a secondary figure. Like his fellow neocons Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, however, his ideas gained sudden new currency after Sept. 11. Unlike Wolfowitz and Perle, however, Abrams hasn’t been tarnished by the Iraq war. They made public assurances that proved fanciful; Abrams was a supporter of the war but not a key planner.
He has instead spent the past couple of years as a senior adviser to Bush on the Middle East peace process. In that post he has used his clout to undercut the administration’s “road map” to peace because he thought it demanded too much of Israel. Abrams has compared Ariel Sharon to Winston Churchill, an enthusiasm that has translated into a White House policy of few concessions to the Palestinians. His promotion, then, would seem to suggest a more pro-Israel slant. But there is also a school of thought, expressed to me by one administration official, that only someone with Abrams’ bona fides can convince American Jews that a U.S.-brokered peace deal is worth supporting. If Bush is to Ramallah as Nixon is to China, then Abrams is the Henry Kissinger.
Meanwhile, Abrams’ central task is to implement Bush’s call for “the expansion of freedom in all the world.” Ill-defined as it may be, the concept presents a quandary for liberals, who may admire Bush’s democratic ends but loathe his means, and who may wish for democracy in Iraq but feel the Bush administration has lied in its effort to achieve it. Elliott Abrams’ career has been defined by similar contradictions. In that sense, he is a perfect face for George Bush’s foreign policy.