excerpted from the book
The Iran Contra Connection
Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan
by Johnathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott, and
South End Press, 1987, paper
Every crisis is also an opportunity. The Iran-Contra crisis
is not one accidentally or gratuitously engaged upon, not the
result of inadequate presidential attention or someone's misjudgments
in the recruitment of White House personnel. It is deeply rooted
in tensions which go back at least to the beginning of this century,
if not earlier.
It would appear that, time after time, vanguard experiments
in liberal democracy (Athens, Rome, Spain, England), have become,
from the resultant liberation of expansive social energy, vanguard
experiments in imperial expansion. Leaving aside the debatable
example of Rome (which had no imperial competitors), one is struck
by how brief has been the period of vanguard imperial hegemony
(usually not more than a century), and how costly to the economic
base of the mother country. Especially when set against the examples
of Germany and Japan (two nations frustrated in their early drift
towards empire), the depressing examples of modern England and
Spain are memorials to empire's appalling erosion of both cultural
dynamism and parliamentary institutions. They illustrate not only
the crippling costs of maintaining a military hegemony, but also
the ensuing flight of capital and entrepreneurship (and hence
power) out of the home political economy. This calculus is unfavorable
even before we take into account the overwhelming cost to the
Crudely put, this is the background of the Iran-Contra affair:
the unresolved conflict between the needs of hegemony and the
needs of an open society. The strong executive essential to the
pursuit of hegemony is fundamentally at odds with the constitutional
system of checks and balances and the restraints afforded by public
opinion. Covert operations inevitably shield activist administrations
from public accountability and the law.
The striving for unilateral hegemony in a multi-polar world
is, moreover, inevitably destabilizing, and dangerous to peace,
world order, and international law. Indeed the sequence of illegal
American covert and paramilitary interventions for at least the
last three decades (by which even our closest allies have been
increasingly alienated) has been a prime cause for the progressive
erosion of America's professed commitment to international order.
One does not have to romanticize that order to find it a more
promising arena for global security, and our own, than the arena
of the great-power adventurism we have long endured.
The mining of Nicaragua's harbors in 1984 by the CIA (without
even involving the contras) triggered the immediate conflict between
the Administration and Congress; on the international level, it
also showed how the cost of hegemonic intrigue is a decline in
international influence. The United States has isolated itself
in world opinion to a degree unthinkable even a decade ago, to
a low comparable to that of Britain, France and Israel after their
futile Suez Canal attack of 1956.
Nicaragua's complaint to the World Court about the mining
was sustained by that court by votes of twelve to three (On one
issue the sole dissenting vote was cast by the judge from the
United States.) After Washington announced that it would not consider
itself bound by that court's ruling, Nicaragua appealed to the
United Nations, where it won again. In the United Nations General
Assembly the United States garnered a total of three votes, being
supported by only its two client states, Israel and El Salvador.
Even Canada, whose Conservative government had been elected on
a Reaganite domestic platform, did not abstain, but voted against
the United States.
The adventurism of Britain and France in the 1956 Suez fiasco
was in part an effort at self-prolongation and self-justification
by threatened hegemonic bureaucracies-the obsolete armies and
navies of two post-imperial powers. To their credit, the Joint
Chiefs of the U.S. armed forces have so far shown no appetite
to risk the political future of the Pentagon on a similar venture
in Central America, without Congressional or popular support.
They know very well that Nicaragua, with its army of 75,000 troops,
will not be another Grenada.
That the United States, in pursuit of its contra policy, should
nonetheless show similar disregard for international law and global
public opinion, is symptomatic of the way one small losing policy,
essential to the survival of one small bureaucratic subset, can
become a neurotic obsession when power is undemocratic.
In the eyes of its allies, the United States' role as a residual
guarantor of world order and process has been superseded, even
more than before, by its eagerness to display its capacity for
unilateral intervention and violence.
Europeans, above all, find our preoccupation with violence
and unilateralism especially unfortunate, at a time when a change
of leadership in the Soviet Union has raised new hopes for a restoration
of international understanding and possible breakthroughs in checking
the arms race. As our country grows increasingly dependent on
international support for its economy and currency, the mood in
Washington for solipsistic defiance of global political opinion
seems particularly short-sighted.
It is important however to remember that this conflict between
the needs of hegemony and the needs of an open society cannot
be blamed on any single U.S. administration or party. It had been
building for decades before it burst open in the Watergate crisis.
Unfortunately, in the ensuing debate over Nixon's impeachment,
about which press, politicians, and pundits have been so self-congratulatory
("The system worked!"), the deep issues about the imperial
presidency in an open society were almost entirely replaced by
discussions of personal responsibilities. Questions of constitutional
infractions (such as, for example, the undeclared "secret"
wars in Laos and Cambodia) were replaced by questions of cover-ups.
We are not suggesting that the Watergate discussions and hearings
were of no worth. Calling as they did for new levels of investigative
journalism and Congressional inquiry, as well as of statesmanship
and balanced citizen concern, the Watergate debate did perhaps
as much as could be done at that time to rectify executive excess
by democratic process as traditionally practiced in the United
But when Congress failed to resolve the deeper questions,
especially those relating to the desirability or undesirability
of the so-called "Vietnam syndrome," the re-emergence
of a new crisis like the present one was virtually guaranteed.
The present crisis is not only deeper than Watergate, it is more
directly related to the on-going debate over a hegemony for which
no one ever voted. At the center is not a break-in, a "third-rate
burglary" (with its consequent flurry of shredded memos),
but a well-elaborated scheme to deceive Congress and responsible
parts of the national security bureaucracy, as well as the public,
by using a secret network of parallel institutions to circumvent
To understand the inevitability of this confrontation, we
have to put ourselves in the position of those responsible for
forcing it to happen. CIA Director Casey had a point: it is just
not possible to run a lot of covert operations abroad, and also
report on them (as the law now requires) to a gallery of Congressional
critics and their staffs. In his own way Casey was verbalizing
the dilemma of the need to choose between hegemony and democracy.
So, in a more theoretical way, was Michael Ledeen, one of
the first architects of the Irangate arms deals, when he argued
that we must learn to understand the need for occasional law-breaking
and assassination. We should be grateful for his candor. Failure
this time to respond to such arguments, with equal energy and
conviction, would be tacitly to concede by default that the time
for an open society has passed.
Thus the Iran-contra affair is an urgent challenge for all
those who see hegemony, and not our open society, as the curse
to be mitigated. A simple re-run of Watergate, in which the public
are essentially spectators to a succession of sensationalist headlines
and televised hearings, would almost surely degenerate, as the
Watergate hearings did, into an elaborate public relations exercise
in damage control: one in which the focus is transferred from
systemic irregularities and basic policy questions to personal
There is no doubt that Nixon, as a person, was responsible
for Watergate, in a way that Reagan with his Teflon, or remoteness
from decision-making, could never be. Many commentators have turned
this, remarkably, into an argument that Iran-Contragate is less
important than its predecessor-as if we should think of Ollie
North or of Albert Hakim as the problems, rather than the system
of illegal covert intervention which needed them, and the hegemonic
system which in turn depended on covert intervention.
Such punditry is not encouraging. It should remind us that
the media and Congress, necessarily, are part of and beholden
to the systemic process which they must now criticize. The press,
for example, is not likely to expose the elaborate disinformation
programs, such as Ghorbanifar's fictitious "Libyan hit-squads"
in 1981, which played such an important role in re-mounting domestic
CIA covert operations. Some of the media, to put it bluntly, were
themselves too willing and active partners in such disinformation
scenarios. Nor will Congress raise the even more sensitive and
complex issues of pro-lsraeli lobbying and the incorporation of
Israel as an adjunct to unauthorized foreign operations- even
though Israel is now clearly and unambiguously defined as a prominent
player at both the Iran and the Contra end of the current
The power of the intelligence apparatus and its corporate
allies seems to have virtually silenced genuine Congressional
opposition on the deep issues of covert operations. The Democrats
in particular have flocked to show their support of the CIA and
Pentagon, and for the most part have confined their criticisms
to the behavior of members of the Reagan White House staff. As
the New Yorker has observed,
The buzzwords the Democrats have put forth-"competitiveness,"
"excellence,"-are of singularly low voltage. They hardly
buzz at all. Even in decline, Reagan seems more commanding than
these opponents. His absence from the scene is larger than their
presence on it. Reagan rose. Reagan fell. The Democrats seem to
have had little to do with it.
In the last few years, unfortunately, members of Congress,
much like Weinberger and Shultz, merely "distanced themselves"
(to use the tactful rebuke of the Tower Report) from what was
going on. In the fall of 1985, when the New York Times reported
on the support of North and the National Security Council, both
the House and the Senate Intelligence Committees received assurances
from McFarlane that no one on the NSC staff had broken the law;
and declined to investigate further. Press stories the same year
that aid was reaching the contras from third countries, including
Israel, led to initial legislative efforts to close any possible
loopholes. After White House lobbying, however, the final language
had the opposite effect-to legitimize the administration's collection
of "donations" (including kickbacks) from third countries.
It remains to be seen whether the isolated voices of Congressional
opposition in both parties can now begin belatedly to articulate
the mood of alienation and activism that is beginning to be heard
on the nation's campuses, and enlist the corrective participation
of a citizenry grown cynical.
Iran Contra Connection