WASHINGTON (JTA) — Twentieth and 21st century lightning rods clashed in the hallowed halls of Congress in the persons of Elliott Abrams, the Jewish Reagan-era official often accused of looking away from atrocities in Central America, and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., the freshman lawmaker embroiled in an anti-Semitism controversy.
Abrams appeared Wednesday before the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss his latest job, the Trump administration envoy to efforts to pacify Venezuela. Much of the West, including the United States, rejects the presidency of the socialist Nicolás Maduro and considers the country’s leader to be National Assembly President Juan Guaidó.
Abrams wanted to talk plans and policy, but a number of Democrats would not let him shake his Reagan-era past. He was the point man for that administration’s alliance with Latin American right-wing militias and governments. In 1982, Abrams derided as propaganda reports of a massacre carried out by the Salvadorean army in El Mozote; it was later verified that troops killed more than 800 civilians.
He also pleaded guilty to withholding from Congress information about the Iran-Contra guns for hostages affair, the signature Reagan presidency scandal.
Omar, who apologized this week for a tweet falsely accusing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee of paying lawmakers to be pro-Israel, was especially confrontational.
Pressed by Omar to confirm, as he once said, that he believed the U.S. legacy in El Salvador was “fabulous,” Abrams said that the United States had midwived democracy in the country. Omar asked him if he thought the El Mozote massacre was “fabulous.” Abrams said that was “ridiculous” and complained to the committee’s chairman, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., that he was under attack.
Omar also asked how the committee could be expected to trust anything Abrams would say, a non-question question that also led Abrams to appeal to the chairman.
For all the rhetorical bomb-throwing, the son of a Jewish immigration lawyer and the refugee from Somalia agreed on at least one thing.
“Does the interests of the United States include protecting human rights and include protecting people from genocide?” Omar asked.
“That is always the position of the United States,” Abrams said.
Their exchange, shared widely on social media, was an ideological Rorschach test. Abrams’ supporters said Omar was bullying a longtime public servant and strong defender of Israel. Omar’s defenders insisted a neoconservative champion of realpolitik was getting his just desserts.