The Iran-Contra lesson
A REPUBLICAN PARTY on the ropes, bloodied by a mid-second-term scandal; a resurrected Democratic opposition, sure it can capitalize on public outrage.
But before Democrats start divvying up House committee assignments, they should consider that they’ve been here before. And things didn’t turn out exactly as they’d hoped.
It was 20 years ago this Nov. 3 -- the day after the Democrats regained control of the Senate in 1986 -- that a Lebanese magazine revealed that the Reagan administration sold missiles to Iran. The sale (brokered by a National Security Council staffer named Oliver North) violated a U.S. arms embargo against Iran and contradicted President Reagan’s personal pledge never to deal with governments that sponsored terrorism. Soon after, it was revealed that profits from the missile sale went to the Nicaraguan Contras, breaking yet another law, this one banning military aid to the anti-Sandinista guerrillas.
The Democrats rejoiced. They had taken back the Senate after six years in the minority, and Reagan’s poll numbers plummeted as follow-up investigations uncovered that the National Security Council was waging an off-the-books foreign policy using rogue intelligence agents, neoconservative intellectuals, Arab sheiks, drug runners, anticommunist businessmen, even the Moonies.
The Democrats, now with majorities in both congressional chambers, gleefully convened multiple inquiries. From May to August 1987, televised congressional hearings offered a rare glimpse into the cabalistic world of spooks, bagmen and mercenaries. Fawn Hall, North’s secret shredder, told of smuggling evidence out of the Old Executive Office Building in her boots, and she lectured Rep. Thomas Foley that “sometimes you have to go above the written law.”
One year after the hearings, though, Iran-Contra was a dead issue. Reagan’s poll numbers rebounded, and his vice president, George H. W. Bush, won the White House despite being implicated in the scandal.
How did Democrats fail to inflict serious damage on an administration that sold sophisticated weaponry to a sworn enemy of the United States? How did they also fail to depict Iran-Contra as a sequel to Watergate -- that earlier tutorial on the danger of unchecked executive power? One explanation is that their congressional hearings backfired. For months, they amassed evidence of what many observers believed amounted to treason by administration officials, if not Reagan himself.
But then in marched North: the crisp Marine with his hard-rock jaw and chest full of medals.
For six days, North fended off the questions of politicians, and many TV viewers viscerally connected with the loyalty and courage he so artfully displayed. “If the commander in chief tells this lieutenant colonel to go stand in the corner and stand on his head,” North said, “I will do so.”
Olliemania swept the heartland and Hollywood. Even liberal TV producer Norman Lear admitted he couldn’t “take [his] eyes off” the colonel.
North’s standoff with Congress allowed the president’s defenders to reduce a cacophonous scandal to simple chords of patriotic anticommunism. Conservative activist Richard Viguerie compared the hearings to a song: “Liberals are listening to the words, but the guy in the street hears the music.”
The Democrats refrained from challenging Reagan’s militarism, getting bogged down instead in procedural issues. So they failed to wring a parable out of the scandal. But others did.
Just last December, Vice President Dick Cheney pointed to the Republican “minority report” on Iran-Contra -- written, not coincidentally, by Cheney’s current chief of staff, David Addington -- to justify the White House’s insistence on the primacy of the executive branch in matters of national security. At the time, that report, which blamed the scandal on Congress for “legislative hostage-taking,” was considered out of the mainstream. Today, it reads like a run-of-the-mill memo from the Justice Department outlining the legal basis for any of the Bush administration’s wartime power grabs.
Cheney and Addington are not the only veterans of the scandal who have resurfaced to help President Bush fight the war on terror. So have Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Otto Reich, John Negroponte, John Poindexter, neoconservative Michael Ledeen and even Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian arms dealer who brokered one of the first missile sales to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime.
Iran-Contra, then, wasn’t just a Watergate-style crime and a coverup. It was, rather, another battle in the neoconservative campaign against Congress and in defense of the imperial presidency. Though Iran-Contra might have been a draw -- the 11 convicted conspirators won on appeal or were pardoned by George H.W. Bush -- the backlash has become the establishment.
Already there are reports that if the Democrats take over Congress in November, their agenda will have a 1986-ish look: hearings and calls for more congressional oversight of foreign policy.
But if they want to avoid again snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, they must do what their counterparts 20 years ago failed to do. They must challenge the crusading ideology that justified the invasion of Iraq and has made war the option of first resort for this administration.
Otherwise, no matter how many probes they convene -- or congressional seats they pick up -- the Democrats will always be dancing to Ollie’s tune.