WASHINGTON — Since the mid-1970s no political movement--not even the New Right--has so captured Washington's attention as neo-conservatism. For neo-conservatives are very good at what policy intellectuals are supposed to do--sell ideas to political leaders. And true believers have occupied key roles in the Reagan Administration, notably former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard N. Perle.
But neo-conservatives arouse both strong admiration and resentment because of what they symbolize. Most are former Democrats once solidly in the party's liberal mainstream. They began to move rightward to protest what they saw as the Democrats' Vietnam-induced lurch to the left at home and abroad.
Neo-conservatives are also living reminders of old ideological feuds at the base of much of today's foreign and domestic agenda. Thus left-wingers denounce them as traitors to progressive values while conservatives prize them as heralds of liberalism's demise.
This explains Washington's current fascination with the phenomenon of Elliott Abrams. Granted, the 38-year old assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs plays a starring role in the nation's hottest foreign-policy drama, the recurring battle over aid to the Nicaraguan contras. Abrams has taken the Administration's case everywhere in recent weeks--to the offices of fence-sitting congressmen, the studios of "Nightline" and newspaper Op-Ed pages.
His public profile peaked in March, when he was accused of hyping the Sandinista attack on contra camps just inside Honduras to influence a congressional vote. More important, he has directed the recent efforts to "reform" the contras and polish their image on Capitol Hill. During Reagan's first term, Abrams helped on a similar rescue mission for the President's human-rights policies; he was involved in engineering a shift away from Kirkpatrick's admonition to excuse, in effect, repression by friendly right-wing dictators.
But Abrams is also today's quintessential neo-conservative, a cocky, hard-line anti-communist who embodies the Reagan Doctrine--the neo-conservative contribution to U.S. foreign policy. It advocates supporting anti-Soviet insurgencies worldwide and that, by audaciously appropriating liberal buzzwords, has the American left emotionally enraged and intellectually confused.
Abrams literally grew up with neo-conservatism. A Vietnam War protester as a Harvard undergraduate during the late 1960s, he served as director of the campus arm of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Yet even then, Abrams was deviating from the campus radical line.
In a New Leader article published during the 1968 Tet offensive, Abrams condemned the Vietnam War but also castigated "the lack of political realism among American intellectuals, exemplified by the New Left and its adult cohorts." That same year, he was dumped as ADA national chairman because he backed Hubert H. Humphrey rather than Eugene McCarthy for President. And, in 1969, he helped spearhead the campaign to Keep Harvard Open in the face of a student-organized strike.
Abrams soon came to the attention of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, Democratic activists who opposed George McGovern's 1972 nomination drive as well as new party rules that gave more power to women and minorities. He gained Washington experience on the Senate staffs of the late Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.)--whose hard-line foreign-policy views and support of New Deal social programs made him a neo-conservative role model--and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), an early guiding spirit of neo-conservatism.
According to Abrams, his final break with the Democrats came shortly after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when he and a group of conservative Washington Democrats met with Jimmy Carter and Walter F. Mondale to learn whether the Administration had finally recognized the Soviet Union as an ideologically driven menace with which no cooperation is possible. They flunked the Abrams test, and by the summer of 1980 Abrams joined Democrats for Reagan. He switched parties soon after the election. Since January, 1981, he has headed the State Department's international organization and human-rights bureaus, and, in July, 1985, he replaced the more placid Langhorne Motley as head of the Inter-American Affairs Bureau.
This is a challenge Abrams has been preparing for all his adult life, and he has carried out his duties with unusual pugnacity. Like his fellow neo-conservatives, he understands that Reagan foreign policy is based on showing the world that the Vietnam syndrome no longer inhibits the United States from forcibly resisting Soviet expansionism--challenging Soviet clients themselves. And like his adversaries, he knows that both are still fighting the foreign-policy battles that began on campus 20 years ago.