Photo: BBC, retrieved
The new State Department Special Envoy for the Venezuelan Crisis does not like communism. Not even a little bit.
At 71 years old, Elliott Abrams is nearing the end of a long and controversial career that, at its low-point, saw him plead guilty of withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra scandal. He was pardoned by the elder president Bush and spent years rebuilding his reputation after that.
Today, Abrams must realize that Venezuela is probably his last big job in government: his chance to rack up a signal accomplishment as a book end.
In the 1980s, he was in charge of the Reagan Administration’s hard-line policy against communist movements in Central America. The proxy war the U.S. fought against Cuba and the Soviet Union in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua had an immense human rights toll. It broke those societies for a generation or more, and lay the foundations for the migrant crisis Abrams’ new boss thinks he can fix with a wall.
It also stopped Cuban-style communism from expanding in Latin America for twenty years, until Fidel figured out a way to crack the Venezuelan riddle. For Abrams, then, Venezuela is a clean-up mission of sorts.
Abrams isn’t the kind of diplomat who spends a lot of time on a plane: his forté is in Foggy Bottom.
Abrams isn’t the kind of diplomat who spends a lot of time on a plane: his forté is in Foggy Bottom. His Spanish isn’t good enough to conduct a negotiation — really he’s spent the last few decades working on the Middle East. It’s been so long since his last stint working on Latin America, he doesn’t have personal relationships with any of the key players in Venezuela. But that isn’t the point —you turn to Elliott Abrams not to ship him out to the field, but because he knows how to get the American bureaucracy of international power projection to do what you want it to do. Nobody in DC outdoes him when the time comes to pull the levers of U.S. power and get things done.
It’s easy to caricature Abrams as a warmonger, and he’s certainly comfortable with the use of U.S. military force.
It’s easy to caricature Abrams as a warmonger, and he’s certainly comfortable with the use of U.S. military force. But it’d be a mistake to see him as a kind of Bolton figure. In the 1980s, Abrams grasped the the Reagan Administration’s close association with Chile’s General Pinochet was destroying the State Department’s credibility in Central America. He quietly maneuvered in 1986-1988 to distance the administration from Pinochet and rally U.S. support for the referendum that ultimately saw Pinochet lose power. It’s not talked about a lot, but that’s how operators do their thing — quietly.
Abrams is an unlikely figure to be running a big policy initiative for this administration. In the heat of the 2016 campaign, he was one of many traditional Republican operatives to sign a letter opposing the Trump candidacy. That landed him on a Tascón-style blacklist. Early on in his tenure as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson wanted to appoint Abrams to a senior State Department role but was overruled by the White House. It speaks to Secretary of State Pompeo’s clout within the administration that he managed to get this appointment approved at all.
So, what do Venezuelans need to know about Elliott Abrams? They need to know he’s a fanatically devoted anti-communist, a skillful bureaucratic operator, and the type of very senior figure Republican presidents always seem to turn to when they need to get results.
They need to respect him as a serious foreign policy thinker who’s happy to use U.S. military power when needed, rather than a bomb-them-first-and-ask-questions-later hawk. They need to know his appointment signals serious commitment on the part of the administration, in general, and Secretary Pompeo, in particular, to finding a way to bring down not just Nicolás Maduro, but chavismo in general.
And they need to know he doesn’t mess around.