July 23, 2024

Relocations: Biden nominates notorious human rights violator to serve on foreign policy advisory commission

Elliott Abrams. Photo via the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts University
July 12, 2023

We can act to stop his confirmation

By Herbert Rothschild

Regarding domestic policy, President Biden has compiled a record that exceeded expectations. In both large, well-publicized ways and in small, unnoticed ways he has advanced justice, the primary goal of political life. His record is mixed, but given the challenges he faced in the U.S. Senate in his first term and a reactionary U.S. Supreme Court, he deserves far more credit than his two Democratic predecessors in the Oval Office.

Herbert Rothschild

Regarding foreign policy, unfortunately, the difference between them is unremarkable. The latest indication of Biden’s unreconstructed imperialism is his nomination, announced on July 3, of Elliott Abrams to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy (ACPD). Created by Congress in 1948, the commission is charged with “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.” Nominees must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, which means you and I have a chance to block Biden’s appalling choice.

From 1981 to 1985, Abrams served in the Reagan Administration as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. There could be no more painful irony. Jimmy Carter established that position as the cornerstone of his pledge to make human rights intrinsic to U.S. foreign policy, and appointed Patricia Derian to it. Given the constraints of serving an empire, she did the best she could. Abrams, however, participated wholeheartedly in campaigns, led by CIA chief William Casey, to thwart any incipient effort in Central America to create a government that served its people, and in the case of Nicaragua, to overthrow its successful revolution.

For his part in covering up the Reagan Administration’s illegal military and financial support of the Contras, in 1991 Abrams pled guilty to two misdemeanors for withholding information from Congress. Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel investigating what came to be known as the Iran-Contra Affair, had prepared multiple felony counts for perjury, but he accepted the plea agreement in return for Abrams’ cooperation. Abrams served no jail time, and George H.W. Bush pardoned him the next year.

In 1981, Congress had passed the Boland Amendment forbidding aid to the Contras, most of whom had served in the armed forces under the ousted Anastasio Somoza DeBayle, the last member of a dynasty that had controlled Nicaragua with an iron hand since 1937. Based in Honduras, the Contras had no chance of restoring Somoza to power. Instead, they were content to kill and rape the inhabitants of cities and towns across the border. Reagan named them Freedom Fighters.

The forces we supported in Guatemala and El Salvador were equally murderous. When José Efraín Ríos Montt’s junta led Guatemala in the early 1980s, the government’s campaign to crush the popular insurgency led to what is widely regarded as a genocide of the Mayan-Ixtil people in the highlands. In 2013, a Guatemalan court found Montt guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced him to 80 years in prison.

In 1983, on the McNeil-Lehrer Report, Abrams had defended the Reagan administration’s request to lift a five-year embargo on military aid to Guatemala. He stated that General Ríos Montt’s rule had “brought considerable progress” on human rights and that “the amount of killing of innocent civilians is being reduced step by step.” “We think that kind of progress needs to be rewarded and encouraged.”

The El Salvadoran government, led by Roberto D’Aubuisson Arrieta’s Arena Party, ran death squads that pursued D’Aubuisson’s goal, which he announced to the Washington Post in August 1981, of killing “200,000 to 300,000 people to restore peace to El Salvador.” The most notorious of the atrocities was at the town of El Mozote, where in 1981 the army’s Atlácatl Battalion, which had been created and trained at the U.S. Army’s infamous School of the Americas, murdered more than 800 civilians.

Abrams told the Washington Post in 1993 that “the administration’s record in El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement,” and criticism of it are “a post-Cold War effort to rewrite history.” During a 2019 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) questioned Abrams on his role in the Reagan administration’s policy in El Salvador. Citing his ‘fabulous achievement” statement, she recounted the details of the El Mozote massacre and asked Abrams if he thought that was a fabulous achievement. “That is a ridiculous question, and I will not respond to it,” Abrams answered. “I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question.”

Such a record didn’t prevent George W. Bush from appointing Abrams in 2001 to the post of Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Democracy, Human Rights, and International Operations at the National Security Council. It wasn’t surprising that an administration comfortable with waterboarding would welcome Abrams back into the fold. That Biden is similarly willing, however, is disheartening.

An appointment to the National Security Council doesn’t require Senate confirmation. As I said earlier, a nomination to the APCD does. Sen. Jeff Merkley serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where I think the process will start. I recommend that my readers contact Merkley and urge him to oppose Abram’s appointment. Call his D.C. office at 202-224-3753, or use the email form at There’s no need to explain your request at length; Merkley knows what we know. Just tell him that Abrams is a murderer. While you’re at it, contact Sen. Ron Wyden as well (202-224-5244,

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Opinions expressed in his columns represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Email Rothschild at

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Bert Etling

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