Elliot Abrams and the absurd paradoxes of American foreign policy
Only in America could a man best known for enacting policies that led to mass murder, participating in a criminal conspiracy to subvert the will of Congress, and helping to plan and execute a war that destabilized an entire region and resulted in more than a hundred thousand deaths be chosen to lead yet another delicate foreign policy mission and then enjoy the fulsome support of the country's bipartisan national security establishment who passionately defend him as "a leading advocate of human rights and democracy."
I'm talking, of course, about Elliott Abrams, President Trump's choice of special envoy to Venezuela, who faced blunt, sometimes rude questioning from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) before the House Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. The grilling sparked a tidal wave of outrage and umbrage among leading members of the foreign policy community, many of whom viewed Abrams' treatment as a violation of decorum and an affront against a card-carrying member of the club of Very Serious Policy Intellectuals who have devoted their lives and careers to helping the United States lead the free world.
It's crucially important that we come to understand how a man with Abrams' resume could end up treated like royalty in the nation's capital — and why, by American standards, this seemingly unlikely confluence of events really isn't that unlikely at all but rather far closer to something like an inevitability.
To become an honorary member of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, one must affirm two contrary views about the country. Because these views partially contradict each other, holding them both in one's mind can be a challenge. But once it's accomplished, a whole range of wondrous things become possible, including magical thinking about the malleability of the world and the capacity to evade responsibility for both morally treacherous behavior and outright failure.
The first of these views holds that the United States is a righteous country that invariably acts on the side of the angels. Our ends are noble, our principles pure, and decent people everywhere benefit enormously from our leadership. We stand for the freedom and dignity of all, with God, humanitarians, and all people of good will applauding our actions. This was true in World War II, during the Cold War, and since then, up to and through the War on Terror. The liberal international order that encourages rule-following and negotiation while fostering peace and prosperity among nations is our handiwork, as is the democratic world we have nurtured around the globe. Those who oppose us in defending this order are evildoers, pure and simple, and we'll seek to demonstrate this by pointing to every bad thing they've ever done as evidence of their inherent treachery and malevolence.
We're idealists, in other words. Moral, well-meaning, law-abiding, leading by principle and example in everything we do.
But that's only one half of the equation. America might be unwaveringly moral, but we are also tough, ruthless, hard-nosed, realistic about the ugly ways of the world, like a sheriff toiling to establish a modest and vulnerable zone of order in a lawless land. In such a world, the ends often justify the means. When fighting our enemies, we need to be willing to do whatever it takes to prevail. We have no choice. We need to win and our opponents need to lose. History is written by the victors and no one ever came out on top by playing nice, staying pure, or keeping their hands clean.
Put these two positions together — a conviction about our innate decency and the purity of our motives with a willingness to do anything to come out on top in a conflict — and a number of ... remarkable things follow. For one thing, unlike the bad guys, whose every unsavory deed deserves to be treated as an exemplification of their wickedness, our seemingly malicious actions appear to be rare exceptions, wholly excused by the lamentable necessities that govern a fallen world.
The firebombing of Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo; the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the carpet bombing of North Korea, North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; the Chilean coup that put Pinochet in power; the anti-Communist Latin American death squads that Elliott Abrams helped to encourage and fund; My Lai and Abu Ghraib. Exceptions? Or the rule? America's foreign policy establishment has no doubt at all what to call them. They are unfortunate but unavoidable examples of collateral damage that follow from doing the right thing. There's no way around it. Stuff happens. Nasty stuff. But none of it invalidates America's righteousness.
The one-way ticket out of self-examination even extends to success. American policymakers will cheerfully forgive each other for acts of injustice they wouldn't hesitate to denounce if they were undertaken by countries on the opposite side of a conflict. But they will also forgive their own failures. Egregious, draw-dropping failures. No error is too great, no consequence too grave, to get an analyst or policymaker dismissed from the ranks of the wise. Which is one reason why nearly identical mistakes are made or proposed again (Iraq) and again (Libya) and again (Syria) and again (Venezuela).
"He meant well": That sentiment makes everything possible. Abrams didn't mean to do anything wrong in Guatemala or El Salvador. He didn't mean to break the law in helping to cover up the funding of the Nicaraguan Contras with money earned by selling clandestine arms to Iran. He didn't mean to make a catastrophic misjudgment about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and the necessity of toppling the Iraqi government. He was trying to do the right thing. He'll be trying to do the same in working to overthrow the Maduro government in Caracas and replace it with what we're all certain will be a much nicer regime backed up by the very nice leadership of the Venezuelan military. What could possibly go wrong?
But it doesn't really matter. Abrams means well. And so do the members of the foreign policy establishment of the United States. They always do. Every single time. And that, it seems, is the only thing that counts.