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COLUMN: Elliott Abrams should not have been invited to IU

Last Friday, former diplomat Elliott Abrams spoke at IU as part of the Tocqueville Lecture Series.

Abrams' visit was met with protest. Within the first several minutes of his speech, audience members held up signs accusing Abrams of complicity in violence that ravaged Central America throughout the 1980s. 

The protesters, who made up most of the audience, then walked out of the room. Some left their signs on Abrams’ lectern.

The Tocqueville Lecture Series, which invited Abrams, is part of the Ostrom Workshop. This lecture series also invited Charles Murray, a social scientist known for racist and sexist views, to speak last April. 

The protests that took place against Murray focused on his ideas but, in the case of Abrams, it’s not just his ideas that are worth protesting. It’s also his actions as a policy maker.

Abrams held several posts in the State Department under the Reagan administration, working extensively on Latin American policy. During that time, he helped formulate policies that spread mass terror in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

The Reagan administration backed the military junta that took control of Guatemala in 1982 and committed widespread atrocities against its people. Guatemala’s dictator at the time has since been convicted by a Guatemalan court of genocide against the Ixil people, an indigenous group in Guatemala.

In El Salvador, the Reagan administration lent its support to a brutal counterinsurgency by the government and government-allied death squads. The United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador attributed 85 percent of the deaths in El Salvador’s 12-year civil war to the side backed by the United States.

Many Salvadorian officials who carried out extrajudicial killings and assassinations of dissidents were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas. Later implicated in thousands more civilian deaths, this so-called Atlacatl battalion, named after a legendary Salvadoran ruler, contained nearly 7000 soldiers trained by members of the U.S. Special Forces.  

It’s Abrams’ actions in Nicaragua that have earned him the most attention. Abrams pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress during the investigation of the Iran-Contra affair

The Iran-Contra affair took place when the U.S. secretly sold arms to Iran — even while backing Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war — and funneled some of the proceeds to the Contras, a right-wing, Honduras-based militia that attacked Nicaragua throughout the 1980s. The operation took place after Congress prohibited aid to the Contras.

A report by the Washington Office on Latin America accused the Contras of a pattern of indiscriminate attacks against civilian targets. Regardless of whether Abrams was involved in the arms sales to Iran, he was instrumental in aiding the Contras’ terrorist campaign.

Abrams was convicted of two misdemeanors for withholding information from Congress, but former president George H.W. Bush pardoned him.

Despite his crimes, Abrams was able to make a comeback as deputy national security adviser in former president George W. Bush’s administration, where he helped formulate another set of harmful policies.

And, sadly, Abrams is still given the honor of speaking at universities. The Ostrom Workshop and other IU entities should teach students to serve ethically in whatever professions they pursue. Inviting Elliott Abrams sent the opposite message.

Clarification: This column has been updated to reflect that the Tocqueville Lecture Series invited Abrams to speak.

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