Put Principle Before Loyalty : Backing Reagan Come-What-May Hurts Conservative Cause

Tom Bethell is a media fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Conservatives are reluctant to recognize that in the Iran- contra s affair the fault lies primarily with President Reagan. It's no use trying to blame Donald T. Regan or the secretary of state or Congress or the news media. Reagan's mistake wasn't management style, either. It was weakness, pure and simple.

His error was to regard the hostages in Lebanon as his responsibility. They weren't. They were and are the victims of politically motivated street crime in a foreign country. Jimmy Carter had far more reason to accept responsibility for the U.S. Embassy hostages in Iran.

"The President noted that it would be another Christmas with hostages still in Beirut," Regan told the Tower Commission, "and that he (the President) was looking powerless and inept because he was unable to do anything to get the hostages out."

The President shouldn't have worried about how he was "looking." Reagan seemed to see the hostages in the context of Rose Garden photo opportunities, and their lachrymose families on television as a reproach to his presidency. He should have been tougher. It may have been hypocritical of the media to make so much of the hostages in the first place, and then turn on Reagan when he tried to do something for them. But Reagan should have learned by now not to let the media control his agenda.

Reagan's error was to abandon a conservative (or classical liberal, or constitutional) approach to government, in which the law applies equally to all. Instead, he adopted the left-liberal world view, according to which it is the function of government to minimize the suffering of the disadvantaged. The hostages were Reagan's "homeless."

In a sense Reagan failed conservatives by adopting a strategy of compassion more appropriate, say, to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). From the Democrats' point of view, the nice thing about the Iran affair is that it enables them to get to the right of the Republicans--probably the only way they are going to recapture the White House.

Nonetheless, the conservative response has been to stand by Reagan. Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), for example, said that Reagan was "ill-served in not having a national-security adviser of sufficient judgment and stature to have headed off the sale of arms to Iran." True, Robert C. McFarlane brought this unwise scheme to Reagan's attention. But as McFarlane said, Reagan's reaction was "quite enthusiastic and somewhat perhaps excessively enthusiastic." When will conservatives stop attributing to his advisers Reagan's insufficient devotion to their beliefs? Who appoints the advisers, after all? (Actually, Reagan's new regent, Howard H. Baker Jr., seems to have been appointed in all but name by Paul Laxalt, Nancy Reagan and pollster Richard Wirthlin.)

The conservative mind, in sharp contrast to the liberal disposition, is strongly inclined to subordinate principle to loyalty. This is proper among those who have worked for Ronald Reagan, or those who know him personally. But continued support from those who feel that Reagan has let them down is politically dangerous. If the President senses that the conservatives will stay by his side come what may, then he only has to placate the liberals in order to restore across-the-board political support.

It is clear now that most liberals are not out to "get" Reagan. Far better, after all, to get the President to enact their agenda: arms control, an end to aid to anti-communist forces and perhaps a nice little tax increase for Christmas. In return they will "offer" Reagan (undeliverable) promises of favorable treatment in the history books.

That, as I see it, is the danger that we face today. Fortunately, presidential politics are likely to obstruct a tax increase. Now comes Soviet ruler Mikhail S. Gorbachev with a proposal to eliminate medium-range missiles in Europe. There is much to be said for this, provided we understand the danger. The missiles can be driven about on trucks, and so can be hidden. Verification is therefore all-important. But as arms-control director Kenneth Adelman told me after the Reykjavik summit meeting, "We're negotiating on the numbers at Geneva, but we're not negotiating on verification." The State Department hopes to relegate verification to the status of minor detail, which should not be permitted to jeopardize the greater good of signing a treaty.

As for aid to the contras and other anti-communist forces: It is clear from the Iran-contras affair that Republicans have not learned how to cope with the maze of barricades with which Democrats on Capitol Hill have fenced in foreign policy. Despite Watergate, some Republicans still think that they must quietly tiptoe around these barricades in the dead of night. On the contrary, they should use them as a platform: Stand up on top of them and proclaim to the American people that such would be U.S. policy were it not for these unwise obstacles to decency and human rights across the globe.

But that would mean conflict, and Republicans shrink from it. Democrats have a monopoly on the accusatory privilege, and they relish using it. Until Republicans learn to use it, too, Democrats will continue to control the political agenda, whoever sits in the Oval Office.

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