Russell Mokhiber: Ari, two questions. Why is the President appointing convicted criminals like Elliott Abrams to policy positions at the White House?
Ari Fleischer: Russell, you asked that question last week.
Mokhiber: I did not ask that question last week.
Fleischer: You asked it about somebody else. I dispute the premise of your question.
Convicted on two misdemeanour counts for withholding information from Congress for acts under Ronald Reagan and later pardoned by George H. W. Bush, Abrams is in action again in the administration of George W. Bush.
Abrams went to Harvard Law School in the 1960s and witnessed the radical student movement. Although by mainstream political standards he was a liberal, by campus standards he was positively conservative. Some people even say Abrams is still fighting against the anti-American hyperbole of the liberal Universities, and he is very forthright in expressing support for what he sees as the United States' values. He is a signatory to the Project for the New American Century's Statement of Principles, which can be summed up in its last paragraph -
"Such a Reaganite policy of military strength and moral clarity may not be fashionable today. But it is necessary if the United States is to build on the successes of this past century and to ensure our security and our greatness in the next."
Abrams describes himself as a "neo-conservative and a neo-Reaganite", as well he might having worked in the administration of Ronald Reagan in the Department of State. Abrams was a key architect of the strategy of "rolling back Communism" in Central America, a goal Reagan took up with characteristic firmness. Abrams first served as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, and in this job he believed promoting human rights throughout the world was a necessary part of an anti-Communist foreign policy. But in this position and later as Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs, Abrams was accused by his opponents of distorting the picture of human rights abuses in Central America for political gain.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International bashed Abrams, saying he was covering up atrocities committed by the U.S.-backed governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, and by U.S.-backed rebels such as the Contras in Nicaragua and UNITA in Angola (who were also backed by South Africa). He was also involved in the Iran-Contra Scandal (in which a number of officials faced charges for providing false testimony and withholding information from Congress), in which he pleaded guilty to the charges of withholding information from Congress. Abrams wasn't invited back to join the administration of George H. W. Bush, and he turned his attention to the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which he was President of. The group seeks to "reinforce the bond between the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the public debate over domestic and foreign policy issues."
Abrams is the author of Undue Process, Security and Sacrifice (about the Iran-Contra Scandal, and in which he calls his prosecutors "filthy bastards") and Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America in which he writes about the threat secular America poses to Jewish identity. Abrams believes that conservative Christians are an important pro-Israel lobby and that the Jewish community needs to marry itself with evangelical Christians. And evangelical Christians are Bush's sort of guys.
National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice appointed Abrams to the National Security Council's office for democracy, human rights and international operations in 2001. At the turn of 2003 he took up the most influential seat on the NSC with regard to Near East policy, and that's where a lot of Abrams work is now directed. Critics outside the government say that he's not commited to a Two State Solution, but as this is the line given by President Bush it seems unlikely he'd be appointed to the position if he wasn't. Abrams had a big influence over the final shape of the Roadmap to peace in the Middle East, and he was said to be very critical of anything involving the United Nations or the European Union, preferring to reduce the number of variables that could go wrong.
Abrams has a reputation as a very competent, intelligent person with formidable skills as an administrator. His personal opinions and beliefs, which the administration say are irrelevent to his position, tie in very well with the prevailing wind within Washington at the moment. In 2000 Abrams wrote calling for regime change in Iraq and consequently bringing more pressure to bear on the Palestinians. Like most Reaganites, he believes in maintaining America's military pre-eminence and not being afraid to use it. He said (writing before 9/11) that the coming decade presented a great opportunity for America to advance her interests in the Middle East, and we can be sure that Abrams is on the same wavelength as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. The director of the Arab-American Institute doesn't see this as a good thing at all, saying this is further evidence of the -
"lock that the neocon set now has on all the major instruments of decision-making except for the State Department."
Supporters of Likud can be sure Abrams is fully behind them and will take a tough line towards the Palestinian Authority. But this time he's doing it out of the limelight and avoiding the public which, given his history, have quite a lot of questions for him.