excerpted from the book

The Iran Contra Connection

Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era

by Johnathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott, and Jane Hunter

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 colonized peoples.

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 States.

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 the law.

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 shortcomings.

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

Iran-contra controversy

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.

The Iran Contra Connection

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