Iran-Contra Was a Better Class of Scandal
It arose out of serious aims, not tawdry ones, and it holds lessons in resilience and perseverance.
During presidential scandals, members of the media often speak of the Iran-Contra affair. I’m not sure they really understand it.
In retrospect that scandal was distinguished by two central, shaping characteristics. First, it was different from other scandals in that its genesis wasn’t low or brutish. It wasn’t about money, or partisan advantage, or sex; it was about trying to free American hostages in the Mideast, and attempting to pursue a possible, if unlikely, foreign-policy advance. It had to do with serious things. Second, when the story blew it eventually yielded a model of how to handle a scandal, though it didn’t look that way at the time.
In July 1985 President Reagan was in Bethesda Naval Hospital recovering from colon-cancer surgery when his national security adviser, Bud McFarlane, told him of a potential opening in efforts to free the seven American hostages the Iranian-dominated terrorist group Hezbollah had taken in Beirut. Among them were the Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson; Father Lawrence Jenco, the head of Catholic Relief Services in Lebanon; and William Buckley, the Central Intelligence Agency’s Beirut station chief. Buckley, who’d seen action in the U.S. Army in Korea and Vietnam and been much decorated, had been held since March 1984 and endured more than a year of torture. Reagan knew this, and he’d met with the families of other hostages.
Mr. McFarlane said Israeli contacts had told him that a group of moderate, politically connected Iranians wanted to establish a channel to the U.S. With the Iran-Iraq war raging and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in his 80s, Iran’s political leadership might soon be in play. The moderates would show their sincerity by persuading Hezbollah to give up the hostages. Mr. McFarlane wanted to talk. Reagan approved.
Thus commenced an initiative that its participants thought farsighted, its critics called almost criminally naive, and Secretary of State George Shultz later called “crazy.”
The moderates wanted the U.S. to permit Israel to sell them some TOW antitank missiles. They would pay, and the U.S. would replenish the Israeli stock. This would enhance their position in Iran by proving they had connections to high officials in Washington.
Reagan should have shut everything down at the mention of weapons. He didn’t. He later wrote, “The truth is, once we had information from Israel that we could trust the people in Iran, I didn’t have to think thirty seconds about saying yes.” It was only a one-shipment deal, he reasoned, and the moderates had agreed to his insistence that they get the hostages out. A shipment was made, and hostage Benjamin Weir was released.
In October 1985 the terrorist group Islamic Jihad announced it had killed William Buckley. (The White House National Security Council concluded he’d probably already died of a heart attack.) Reagan stayed hopeful, although when word got around of what was happening, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Mr. Shultz opposed it. Mr. Shultz told Reagan that while it might not technically be an arms-for-hostages deal, it would certainly look like one — and it would blow sky-high as soon as it leaked, as it would leak.
By winter it was clear some of the Iranian go-betweens were dubious. No more hostages were being released. Mr. McFarlane resigned. His successor, John Poindexter, pressed for another shipment of missiles, to be followed by talks with Iranian moderates. CIA Director William Casey agreed it was worth the risk if there’s a chance they could deliver. Mr. Shultz and Weinberger pushed back. Reagan later said, “I just put my foot down.” In the spring, Mr. McFarlane returned for a secret trip to Iran, which he’d been told would free the last of the hostages. He went home without them.
That July, Jenco was released. Casey and the NSC asked for another missile shipment. Reagan approved.
Then a new terrorist group took three more American hostages in Lebanon.
A channel had been opened to a group that included a nephew of the speaker of the Iranian Parliament, who requested various gifts including a Bible inscribed by the president. Amazingly, he got them. Later, it was reported the Americans even brought a cake shaped like a key.
In November 1986, a Lebanese news outlet broke a story saying America was trading arms for hostages.
It was explosive. Reagan looked like a hypocrite — his administration had long pressed others not to sell arms to the Iranians. His people looked like fools gulled by gangsters.
Mr. Shultz later summed it all up this way: “The U.S. government had violated its own policies on antiterrorism and against arms sales to Iran, was buying our own citizens’ freedom in a manner that could only encourage the taking of others, was working through disreputable international go-betweens … and was misleading the American people — all in the guise of furthering some purported regional political transformation, or to obtain in actuality a hostage release.” Mr. McFarlane, Mr. Poindexter and Casey “had sold it to a president all too ready to accept it, given his humanitarian urge to free American hostages.”
Reagan was embarrassed, but once he saw the dimensions of the problem — he believed his motivations were right and the American people would understand once he explained — he took a series of constructive decisions. He kept Mr. Schultz, who’d been public in his criticism, in the administration.
When Reagan’s friend and confidante, Attorney General Ed Meese, announced he’d found evidence that Lt. Col Oliver North of the NSC had diverted part of the money the Iranians paid for the weapons to the anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua, Reagan was originally sympathetic, less so when he was told Col. North was shredding documents. In the end he fired him. Mr. Poindexter resigned.
Reagan appointed a commission to investigate everything that had been done. The three members were sensitively balanced: chairman John Tower, a Republican senator; Edmund Muskie, a Democratic former senator and vice-presidential nominee; and Brent Scowcroft, the coolheaded former and future White House national security adviser. There were 50 witnesses, including the president. A joint congressional committee held public hearings. Reagan waived executive privilege. He accepted an independent counsel.
The Tower Commission’s 200-page report was delivered in February 1987, three months after the story broke. It was sharply critical of the president but found he did not know of the Contra angle.
Democrats in Congress and the media had exploited the mess for all it was worth, but on another level some Democrats quietly pitched in. A former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Robert Strauss, met with the Reagans and helped steady the ship.
Throughout the drama the president fell into a funk. The public turned on him; his poll numbers plummeted.
But he wasn’t over. There were great triumphs ahead — the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed in 1987 and ratified in 1988; “Tear down this wall” in 1987, and its fall in 1989, less than 10 months after Reagan left the presidency.
Our allies were offended by the scandal but impressed by its aftermath. Mikhail Gorbachev noticed too: The old lion didn’t die.
Iran-Contra was a big mistake, a real mess. But its deeper lessons have to do with how to admit and repair mistakes, how to work with the other side, and how to forge through and survive to the betterment of the country.
Republished by permission from peggynoonan.com.