Back in the 1980s, Central America was all the rage on the left.
At that time, there was no better way to burnish your leftist credentials than to roll your R when saying “Nicaragua.” Rallies in support of the Sandinistas, the leftist revolutionary group fighting the US-backed Contras, were a regular event on college campuses. Collecting money for the peasants displaced by the fighting was a cause célèbre.
So too in El Salvador, where a thuggish right-wing government was fighting an insurrection by the FMLN (Farabundo Mart? National Liberation Front). In both cases, the United States government was on the side of the right-wing strongmen. Concerned with the spread of Communism in the Western Hemisphere, the United States chose sides: Better the corrupt and militaristic right-wing government than the socialist insurgent party supported by the Soviet Union.
By the way, the United States had good reason to worry about the spread of socialism. According to José Cárdenas, a former US Agency for International Development official in the George W. Bush administration, Cuba alone was helping to train 27 different radical groups who totaled about 25,000 armed members, all with the express purpose of undermining US interests and bringing the revolution north of El Paso.
So when Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota interrogated Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special representative for Venezuela, last week about his role in shaping US policies in Central America during the 1980s, when he was a top official in the State Department in the Reagan administration, it brought back a bit of nostalgia. I well remember the multicolored, striped, ever-scratchy wool sweaters woven by the poor peasants of El Salvador or Nicaragua or Guatemala. For me, and thousands of other college students on liberal campuses, they were a prime means of identification, a signal that I was one with the people. But I digress.
Raising US conduct in the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, as Rep. Ilhan Omar did on February 13, is a bit like Texian patriots remembering the Alamo, or, closer to home, Palestinian nationalists memorializing the “Nakba.” It’s the event leftists refuse to forget, the singular example of injustice and inhumanity perpetrated by the United States government, the outrage that proves Washington’s corruption and cynicism. It is the rallying call that refuses to die, despite the decades that have passed.
And that shows you where Rep. Ilhan Omar is coming from, or at least what the foreign policy aide who directed her interrogation (she hardly looked up from her notes) believes, the one she picked up from the editorial board of the Nation or the Communist Party of the United States or some other such place. Rep. Ilhan Omar is not only an anti-Semite — she’s a leftist, Muslim anti-Semite with a revolutionary bent. She believes the United States is evil, its foreign policy enables right-wing death squads, and counts the days until its white, colonialist oligarchy will be overthrown by the virtuous peasants (in this case, over-educated white kids in Portland overburdened by their white privilege), all led by revolutionary elites like herself who of course know what’s best for all of us.
There I go, exaggerating again, but mark my words, this is the start of something rotten. When Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House and the Democratic Party leader, chooses, with precision, to give someone like Rep. Ilhan Omar a spot on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to spout counter-historical inanities, she is telling us something important. The party is moving in Omar’s direction. This will fire up the base. We can keep the fire burning low and control it when we need to. (Until we can’t.)
Others have compared the current state of the Democratic Party to that of England’s Labour Party a few years ago. Back then, Jeremy Corbyn was a back bencher whom few took seriously. But then Labour changed its party rules, allowing the progressive base more say in choosing its leaders, and Corbyn shot right to the top. It’s not at all a stretch to imagine that Omar, or someone like her, will one day sit atop the Democratic Party, catapulted to stardom precisely because she considers the United States to be compromised, hates Israel, and wants to tear it all down and build it up again in the image of her progressive fellow travelers — emasculated white progressives, black nationalists, and the patois of freedom-loving, amoral, and atheistic followers who increasingly make up the Democratic vanguard.
But back to earth for a second. Just imagine the next time that Omar, sitting confidently in her chair on one of the most important committees in Congress, faces a witness sympathetic to the State of Israel. Perhaps it will be someone like Ambassador David Friedman, who, before he took his post as US ambassador to Israel, was quite outspoken in his right-wing, pro-settler views. Just imagine Omar questioning Friedman as she did Abrams: Ambassador Friedman, the United Nations Human Rights Council condemned Israel 21 times in 2018 and reaffirmed the Palestinian right of return and the illegality of the occupation. Yes or no: Is it the policy of the United States to support war crimes in Israel and a campaign of genocide against the Palestinian people?
I started off by saying that Omar’s questioning of Elliott Abrams brought back memories of the 1980s, but it also recalled a darker time — the 1930s, when show trials were common in the Soviet Union. The result of a show trial was predetermined. The only purpose was to demonstrate to the public that X party official had violated some party norm, expressed an opinion contrary to party doctrine, or fallen out of favor with party leader Joseph Stalin. And it worked; everybody said and thought the right thing, because the consequences were otherwise too grave.
From her first performance on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, it appears that Omar wants to live in a world in which everyone thinks like her, and those who do not, like Elliott Abrams, are liars who should not have the right to speak, much less advise the United States government. Woe to us if we do not consider the meaning of this moment and treat it with the utmost seriousness.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 749)
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