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Why Iran-Contra Proves We Were All Wrong to Think that Ronald Reagan Was Disengaged

One unfortunate consequence of the Watergate scandal was the demise of the White House taping system. Historians of the post-Nixon era must settle for memoirs, diaries, interviews, private collections, and official records stored in the National Archives and printed in the Foreign Relations of the United States series. Memories are selective, however; policymakers tend to win their own memoranda of conversations; and, no piece of paper can match a surreptitiously-recorded meeting with the president of the United States.

With the Ronald Reagan administration, minutes of the majority of meetings of two principals committees -- the National Security Council (NSC) and National Security Planning Group (NSPG) -- are available to researchers at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, and are highly illuminating. Especially in the early years of that administration, Counselor to the President Edwin Meese, a longtime Reagan associate with no formal foreign policy brief, is the person steering the conversation. One might even regard Meese as the de facto National Security Advisor in 1981, since the person actually bearing the title that year, Richard Allen, reported to him.

Five years later, then-Attorney General Meese may well have saved Reagan’s presidency. On November 25, 1986, he took over a White House press briefing after his boss announced the resignation of National Security Advisor John Poindexter and the dismissal of NSC staffer Lt. Colonel Oliver North. Meese provided the results of an initial White House inquiry after newspaper reports surfaced of clandestine U.S. arms transfers to Iran and illicit support for Contras fighting against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. The gist of the reporting was indeed true. Meese’s priority was, however, to protect the president. That meant directing the glare of the media and focusing the congressional spotlight on the diversion of funds from one account to the other -- as opposed to whether Reagan had violated the Boland Amendment, which prohibited assistance to the Contras to overthrow the Sandinista regime; or the Hughes-Ryan Act, which required that he submit to Congress a presidential finding before authorizing covert action. Because few had ever touted Reagan as a detail-oriented micromanager, it was eminently plausible that the president had been unaware of rogue actions on the part of North, Poindexter, or former national security advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane.

In his valuable new book, Iran-Contra: Reagan's Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power, Malcolm Byrne takes aim at Meese’s version of the story. “In fact,” he argues, “the driving force behind both sides of the scandal was President Reagan himself.” Documentary evidence, he contends, shows that “Reagan was a forceful participant in policy discussions, not the cartoon image of utter detachment often portrayed, and provided the primary guidance and direction to his staff on policies close to his heart.” Among those policies were assisting the Contras and crafting ways to free the hostages in Lebanon. “The president approved every significant facet of the Iran arms deals,” Byrne goes on to say, “and he encouraged conduct by top aides . . . to subsidize the Contra war despite the congressional prohibition on U.S. aid.”

Byrne has been working to unearth the details and meaning of Iran-Contra practically since the scandal broke. In 1987, he edited The Chronology: The Documented Day-by-Day Account of Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Contras; in 1993, he co-edited with Peter Kornbluh, an annotated collection of primary documents, The Iran-Contra Scandal. In Iran-Contra, his first narrative account, he mobilizes earlier evidence in addition to a body of material stemming from Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests over the past twenty years. But he seems more interested in developing an argument than showing off everything he has found. One of Byrne’s many strengths as a writer is that he does not jam puzzle pieces where they do not belong. The subtitle and cover do not augur its becoming a permanent fixture at the Reagan Library gift store. Readers of all political stripes should nevertheless consider this book; aspirants to high office who seek to avoid mistakes would do well to read it.

Byrne’s stated purpose is to save the Iran-Contra affair from “consignment to historical irrelevance.” This is not what observers at the time might have anticipated. Watch any few minutes from the joint House and Senate hearings in late spring 1987, and Iran-Contra appears to have imperiled the survival of the Republic. Then again, the national mood that year was gloomy. West German and Japanese companies were outpacing American firms. Paul Kennedy’s declinist Rise and Fall of the Great Powers and Allan Bloom’s disquieting Closing of the American Mind topped bestseller lists. On October 19, “Black Monday,” the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 20% in what remains the single worst single-day loss ever. All this came as Americans geared up for a brutal presidential election campaign.

Somewhere in the years that followed -- be it the miraculous events of 1989 in Eastern and Central Europe, the smashing U.S. victory in Operation Desert Storm, or the collapse of the Soviet Union -- Iran-Contra receded from view. It did not end for figures such as John Poindexter or Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, who endured costly legal battles while Oliver North became rich. Nor was it over for Lawrence Walsh, the Republican former deputy attorney general whom Congress enlisted in late 1986 to untangle the facts. Democrats cheered when Walsh re-indicted former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger on the eve of the 1992 election. Six years later, their enthusiasm for the Office of the Independent Counsel waned as the House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton for having a sexual relationship with a White House intern.

For some, the memory of the investigation eclipsed that of the Iran-Contra scandal itself. Congressman Dick Cheney of Wyoming had been the ranking Republican on the House Committee during the proceedings. On him it clearly left an impression. “If you want reference to an obscure text, go look at the minority views that were filed with the Iran-Contra Committee,” Cheney told reporters in 2005. “Nobody has ever read them, but . . . [they] are very good in laying out a robust view of the president’s prerogatives with respect to the conduct of especially foreign policy and national security matters.”

Presidential prerogative, of course, does not automatically determine presidential behavior. Capabilities differ from intentions. During the Watergate hearings, Senator Howard Baker, who replaced White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan in February 1987, famously asked the question: “what did the president know, and when did he know it?” In the case of Reagan and Iran-Contra, a more pertinent question remains: “what did the president decide, and when did he decide it?”

Shortly after Meese’s White House briefing, Saturday Night Live ran a skit featuring the late, great Phil Hartman as the Gipper. The scene begins with a doddering Reagan concluding an interview in which he apologizes for remembering so very little. No sooner has the reporter left the room than Reagan summons his national security team to bark orders at Ed Meese, Don Regan, and the rest of the gang. “[National Security Advisor Frank] Carlucci, you’re new, here's how we run things. The red countries are the countries we sell arms to. The green countries are the countries where we wash our money.” The president is about to identify the blue countries when an aide interrupts to announce the arrival of the Girl Scout who sold the most brownies in America. “Damn! . . . This is the part of the job I hate!”

The Reagan who emerges from Byrne’s book did not actually command his national security team this way (also, he was surely thrilled to meet entrepreneurial girl scouts). But the Saturday Night Live skit is a great imagining of the president’s id. Reagan’s affinity for the Contras was disproportionate to whatever threat Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega posed at the time. More understandable is his devotion to an effort to free American hostages in Lebanon. One does not require recordings to understand Reagan. “Critics frequently lampooned him as disengaged from the policy process to the point of requiring cue cards,” Byrne writes. “There were grounds for this caricature on issues in which he had no deep interest, but on subjects he felt strongly about, such as the Contras or the hostages, it was inadequate.” Indeed, the president was “at his most impressive during crises” such as the extended hostage situation or the Achille Lauro hijacking in October 1985. He was willing to answer charges of illegality, as Weinberger later put it -- just not the charge that “big strong President Reagan passed up a chance to free hostages.”

And yet, Reagan seldom acted decisively. In the summer of 1985, as the president recovered from cancer surgery, he listened as National Security Advisor Bud McFarlane floated the idea of reaching out, via a middleman, to “moderates in Iran” who purported to wield influence over the terrorist organization Hezbollah. “The president’s views were opaque,” Byrne writes. “When his aides disagreed, he often did not commit himself right away. As a result, each participant left the meeting with his own reading of where things stood. Shultz and Weinberger believed he opposed the idea; McFarlane thought he was inclined to go ahead.” In the months following this particular encounter, the secretaries of state and defense focused their attention on the phenomenon of Mikhail Gorbachev and the challenges it posed to U.S. strategic planning and arms negotiations. They picked their battles -- frequently with each other -- and probably hoped that McFarlane’s ambitions would lose momentum.

They did not. McFarlane pursued the Iran gambit even as he seemed to acknowledge his own physical and emotional exhaustion before resigning in December 1985. Reagan’s personal diaries, published in 2007, show that he knew about the transfer of arms to Iran by that month at the latest. His entry of December 7, 1985, reads: “had a meeting with Don R., Cap W. & Bud M., John P., Geo. Shultz & Mahan [sic] of C.I.A. This has to do with the complex plan which could return our 5 hostages & help some officials in Iran who want to turn that country from [its] present course & on to a better relationship with us. It calls for Israel selling some weapons to Iran. As they are delivered in installments by air our hostages will be released. The weapons will go to the moderate leaders in the army who are essential if there’s to be a change to a more stable govt. We then sell Israel replacements for the delivered weapons. None of this is a gift—the Iranians pay cash for the weapons—so does Israel. George S., Cap & Don are opposed—Cong. has imposed a law on us that we [can’t] sell Iran weapons or sell any other country weapons for re-sale to Iran. Geo. also thinks this violates our policy of not paying off terrorists. I claim the weapons are for those who want to change the govt. of Iran & no ransom is being pd. for the hostages. No direct sale would be made by us to Iran but we would be replacing the weapons sold by Israel. We’re at a stalemate.”

The above passage accords with the reasoning that Reagan provided after the scandal broke the following year. Few accepted the explanation of “no arms for hostages.” In the wake of the February 26, 1987 publication of the Tower Commission report, Reagan expressed regret. “A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages,” he told the nation on March 4, 1987. “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.” True to form, Reagan the performer nailed this delivery.

Congressional hearings later that spring focused on whether the president had known that funds garnered from profits on arms sales to the Iranians had been diverted to the Contras whose support, again, Congress had restricted. Meese’s initial framing of Iran-Contra had paid off. In his own bravura performance, Colonel Oliver North claimed not to have shared with the president knowledge of the diversion. In this new book, Byrne acknowledges that he has found no “smoking gun” quality of evidence to contradict North on this claim.

And yet, as Byrne argues convincingly, Iran-Contra qualified as a concerted policy. It comprised shady characters such as the profiteering Richard Secord, the dubious Manucher Ghorbanifar, and the hapless Eugene Hasenfus, none of whom had any direct dealings with the president. The principals in the affair did, however; they acted in light of what they believe the president wanted. Ideology and fantasy played key roles. In the world of American conservatism in the 1980s, Oliver North was Brünnhilde to Ronald Reagan’s Wotan: the former proceeded according to the latter’s will in the absence of explicit orders.

Why were McFarlane, North, and Poindexter motived to take such risks? When it came to McFarlane, I think, the potential opportunity to pull off with Iran what Henry Kissinger had done with China was irresistible. For all three individuals, only a dramatic geopolitical reorientation could reverse the troubling Cold War strategic balance in the early to mid-1980s. Ultimately, Gorbachev’s reforms mooted these concerns. No one in Washington cared so much about Nicaragua after the Soviet leader cut the cord on revolutionary nationalism in the Third World. The contest between the United States and Iran, however, outlasted the sudden collapse of Soviet power from 1989-1991. As Malcolm Byrne demonstrates in his very fine book, the Iran-Contra affair belongs as a key chapter in that longer story.