Like some ancient, bardic epic that changes in interpretation--but not essence--as generations of tellers embellish it, the Iran-Contra morass seems destined to receive both additional intriguing details and less comprehensive definition as time goes by.
Now, we have an "insider's account" and an "untold story" to add to the stream of literature exploring the still inconclusive saga.
Even before the recent death of Israeli security expert and weapons broker Amiram Nir, a central figure in both accounts, these two books were especially tantalizing for close followers of Iran-Contra. One is written by a man long known to have been deeply involved in the secret international contacts at the heart of the affair; he was a frequently rumored upcoming witness at the public hearings but was never called to testify. The second is by an Israeli journalist seemingly in position to reveal an important missing link in the story: a definitive account of Israel's pivotal role in the matter.
Nir's death--he was killed in a plane crash while purportedly negotiating a commercial avocado arrangement in Mexico--raises the grim specter of further mystery in the matters that both Ledeen and Segev treat fully. It is clear from both accounts that he was a close collaborator with Oliver North not only on Iran-Contra but on other deeply hidden U.S.-Israel security matters. It is also quite possible that Nir's knowledge, if revealed inside or outside a courtroom, might have made North and his cohorts extremely uncomfortable.
Indeed, the last words of Ledeen's book are, "Insofar as anyone may have something dramatically new to add to our knowledge of Iran-Contra, it is likely to be Amiram Nir." And Ledeen ought to know.
An indication of Michael Ledeen's standing in Washington during the last eight years can be gleaned from references to his activities, contained in his new book, as well as from the now released depositions of his closed-door testimony to the Iran-Contra committee. What emerges clearly is that this self-described consultant on terrorism and courier for national security officials seems to have enjoyed virtually open doors and open classified document files, spread before him from Washington to the capitals of Europe.
As a close associate of Oliver North, out of whose office he worked, and as a courier for both the CIA and the NSC, as well as a longtime crony of intelligence officials from Israel to Italy and beyond, Ledeen would seem to be in a perfect position to tell us where many of the still missing bodies in the Iran-Contra affair are buried . . . or are still stalking real or imagined prey.
Unfortunately, Ledeen did not get to know all those people, travel at taxpayer expense to explore their secrets and read all those documents merely because of an ability to write clear memos or a familiarity with airline schedules.
Rather, his access developed from--and his career has been built on--an adherence to a hard-line, right-wing ideology, whose exponents on the Iran-Contra committee--Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Reps. Harry Hyde, R-Ill., and Jim Courter, R-N.J.--are virtually the only people Ledeen singles out for praise.
As for the rest, from President Reagan through Oliver North, government agencies, Cabinet members and even members of Congress who were ostensibly on the same side of the political fence as Ledeen, "Perilous Statecraft" reserves full measures of scorn, condemnation and not a little self-serving bitterness.
Each individual and governmental branch involved in Iran-Contra, according to the author, made critical errors. President Reagan was "an intermittent force within his Administration . . . who sometimes had lapses of memory and concentration." Three of the President's intimate advisers--Michael Deaver, James Baker and Nancy Reagan--had a "soft approach to foreign policy," inimical to what Ledeen considers a correctly muscular geopolitical agenda.
The CIA, "savaged" by mid-1970s reforms, was a leaky, inept agency, distrusted even by its appointed director, William Casey. The White House's National Security Council, newly encouraged to accomplish what the CIA couldn't or wouldn't do, was headed by two career military officers--Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter--who each brought critical weaknesses to the position ("rarely has a man been more poorly suited for a position than John Poindexter," Ledeen opines).
Even the arch-activist/ideologue North, out of whose cup Ledeen supped, "lacked the intellectual background that usually underlies sound foreign policy judgment" and "had a great deal of difficulty distinguishing between truth and fantasy."
Indeed, there is only one figure bursting forth from the pages of "Perilous Statecraft" who has that intellectual background, that lock on the truth, that subtle ability to distinguish between geopolitical truth and egocentric fantasy . . . Michael Ledeen!
The verdict that leaps from his book is that if we had only listened to him instead of those fuzzy bureaucrats and politicians, those poseur incompetents and soft-hearted cowards, we would have been so much better able to figure out what was going on in Iran; destabilize such world devils as Khomeini and Kadafi; overthrow those pesky Sandinistas; and bang the ultimate enemy, the Russian bear, on its all-intrusive nose.
As with Ledeen's hitherto most notorious work--his co-invention of the now discredited KGB-Bulgarian "plot to kill the Pope"--acceptance of his approach to Iran-Contra requires a leap into Ledeenland unjustified by either known facts or the opinions of most others. Those predisposed to inhabit that territory, composed of ideological rigidity, heroic self-aggrandizement and a good measure of fantasy, will find happy reading in "Perilous Statecraft."
Israeli journalist Samuel Segev is not likely to be riding the Ledeen bandwagon. In "The Iranian Triangle," he finds him an "interesting combination of academic ability and political ambition, together with pride and adventurousness."
Segev's retelling of the saga puts Ledeen--and a number of other key players in the affair--in a light different from what we have seen before. It now seems clear that Ledeen was more deeply involved, more mysteriously involved, in communications between Israel and the Reagan Administration than we have previously been told.
Reading "The Iranian Triangle" leads one to conclude that it is too soon to expect the full story of such things as Ledeen's involvement to emerge, but Segev's dry recounting of intergovernmental relations does make it clear that, dating back to the Eisenhower years, "the U.S., Israel and Iran worked together in a strategic, unofficial alliance aimed at halting the Soviet Union's expansion in the Middle East and weakening its friends in the Arab world."
Efforts to update this geopolitical alliance into the Reagan-Khomeini era doubtless lie behind some of what became Iran-Contra. Geopolitics, however, is a very limited way to sing a saga, if we consider the human voices who have a right to be part of the chorus, rather than merely passive victims. Geopolitical analysts, even those with such differing perspectives as ideological activist Ledeen and fact-gathering journalist Segev, can take the music only so far.