Mark Danner

How the Foreign Policy Machine Broke Down

For a half-dozen years, Iran-contra has haunted American political life. The ghost arose anew on Christmas Eve, thanks to President Bush's pardons, and it is fated to reappear one day soon when Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel, releases his final report.

For a half-dozen years, Iran-contra has haunted American political life. The ghost arose anew on Christmas Eve, thanks to President Bush’s pardons, and it is fated to reappear one day soon when Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel, releases his final report. Next to the fashionable questions about the New World Order and the need for a “new vision” that now preoccupy many in the foreign policy community, Iran-contra seems a throwback, an irritating reminder of the way policy was actually made way back in the cold war. In truth, however, Iran-contra tells more about what needs to be changed in the way Americans make foreign policy than any dozen discussions of Somalia or Bosnia. The triumphalism of the last three years, the endless crowing about how “we won the cold war,” has tended to distract attention from the simple fact that during the last decade American foreign policy often didn’t work terribly well.

On occasion this resulted in initiatives of profound recklessness and stupidity — most obviously in Iran and Lebanon, where hostages were ransomed and more seized, but also in Panama and Iraq, where enthusiastic appeasement followed by diplomatic bumbling forced the country to send its young on needless military actions. Increasingly during the 1980’s, America’s foreign-policy-making apparatus was showing signs of breakdown. Iran-contra, along with Iraqgate, the Noriega affair and other mini-scandals, are best seen as bolts thrown by a broken machine, symptoms of a deep-seated problem whose causes can be traced to the struggle between the executive and legislative branches over what America’s role in the world should be and who should determine it.

Iran-contra is only the latest incarnation of a struggle that came to prominence two decades ago, in the wake of the acrimony over Vietnam, when Congress began drafting a series of laws meant to give it a greater say in foreign policy. They included the War Powers Resolution, passed over President Nixon’s veto in 1973, and designed to prevent a President from prosecuting another “undeclared war”; the amended Arms Export Control Act of 1976, intended to limit the President’s power to approve arms shipments to “friendly ” countries, and the Intelligence Oversight Act of 1980, meant to circumscribe the President’s virtually unlimited freedom to use the intelligence agencies to intervene secretly abroad.

That last power, like so many others, had been codified in the National Security Act of 1947, the historic legislation that created the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council and the other institutions of the postwar national security system, which was designed to grant Presidents enough power to prosecute a ceaseless, worldwide “cold war” — one carried out through means short of outright hostilities. That system produced what were considered cold-war successes, like the coups in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954; but it also led to damaging failures, like the Bay of Pigs and, ultimately, the Vietnam War.

The laws of the 70’s in effect posited a different kind of President, much more beholden to Congress, and to the public, for how the United States behaved around the world.

THAT WAS NOT AT ALL HOW IT worked out. In 1981, Congress came face to face with the ideological and activist Reagan Administration, which showed itself willing to exploit the exceptions and loopholes that had been written into many of the most important laws. This executive, fiercely jealous of his perogatives, would not be stopped by mere laws. Congress soon discovered that it was one thing to marshal a majority to pass a law during a time of reaction against executive power. It was quite another, in a different era and in the face of a popular President, to muster the power to see it enforced. That meant building a consensus on what to do and securing the political will to do it — a feat Congress showed itself rarely able to perform when it came to divisive issues of foreign policy. The result, especially in ideologically charged cases like the Central American wars, was prolonged conflict, bitter recrimination, and, in many cases, the resort by the President to a corrosive secrecy intended to conceal Government actions not only from the people but from Congress as well. This secrecy often brought with it a debilitating misuse of government institutions; policies that had been badly conceived to begin with often became amateurish and bumbling in their execution.

Thus President Reagan, to avoid the Intelligence Committees and the Arms Export Control Act, conducted his Iran initiative through reckless covert operators on his National Security Council staff, who then hired private “subcontrators” to handle the covert legwork. To avoid the 1984 Boland Amendment, which forbade aid to the contras, the President reduced himself and other high officials to soliciting “private” contributions from foreign leaders. To support a collapsing Iraq in its war against Iran while sidestepping the arms export laws, Presidents Reagan and Bush funneled billions to Saddam Hussein through the Department of Agriculture and the Export-Import Bank (ignoring warnings by the professionals in these institutions). To escape the strictures of the War Powers Resolution, which says a President must seek Congress’s approval to commit troops to hostilities abroad for more than 60 days, Presidents Reagan and Bush fought their wars rapidly, as in Grenada and Panama — or, as in the Navy’s protection of Kuwaiti tankers, simply redefined “hostilities” to mean whatever they liked.

This last case was only the most glaring of those in which Congress connived with the executive in violating the spirit if not the letter of its own laws. Indeed, little of the executive’s “lawbreaking” during the last decade is comprehensible if understood as merely the isolated evil deeds of arrogant officials in the executive branch. Time and again in the face of aggressive executive flouting of the laws, a bitterly divided legislative branch found itself unable to muster the political will to act. In effect, the series of laws Congress had passed, combined with the determination of successive Presidents to find a way around them and the consequent impotence of Congress to enforce them, worked together to help give much of America’s recent foreign policy its strange, erratic cast.

The real, lasting damage, to the country’s institutions and to its self-respect was done in the case of Iran-contra.

The supposedly “secret” and “illegal” aid to the contras was in fact the product of political deadlock and cowardice on all sides. Though the Reagan Administration was deeply commited to the contras, the public never was, and President Reagan’s handlers were unwilling to risk his popularity by waging the public campaign that would have been required to persuade Americans fully to support the cause. Congress, for its part, though it had managed to pass the Boland Amendment, proved too sharply divided to put a decisive end to Oliver North’s activities. Though they violated the Amendment, these were virtually an open secret in Washington — and certainly would have been uncovered had Congress been willing to undertake a serious investigation. But Congress showed itself content to accept the Administration’s bland assurances that it was complying with the law. In fact, the Administration’s contempt for the law was shared by many in Congress. The entire matter was awash in hypocrisy.

If anything, that hypocrisy grew more pervasive after the scandal broke. Congress proceeded to open hearings that, in their sheer reluctance to get at the truth, were a mortifying disaster. The problem was not only the playing to television, and the consequent coddling of witnesses (particularly Colonel North); or the ridiculously tight deadline, which allowed the Administration to stonewall the committee on the release of sensitive documents. Worse, the committees proved shamelessly eager to accept the Administration’s chosen narrative — that the diversion of funds to the contras was the only actionable instance of wrongdoing in the affair. As North himself put it, the diversion “was so dramatic, so sexy, that it might actually — well, divert public attention from other, even more important aspects of the story.” Congress showed itself only too willing to be diverted. After all, a thorough investigation — of the violations of the arms export laws, say — might well lead to (as Lawrence Walsh recently put it) “timely impeachment proceedings against President Reagan,” a prospect no one wanted to contemplate.

The abject failure of the hearings has overshadowed everything that has come after. If there is any truth to President Bush’s irresponsible remark about “the criminalization of policy differences,” it lies here: Congress once again did not do its job, and, having blown the investigation, simply dumped the matter on the independent counsel. And Lawrence Walsh has been laboring under this disadvantage ever since. Not only did the hearings, by “tainting” testimony, make it impossible for him to sustain convictions against John Poindexter and North; they have accounted for the air of injustice that has pervaded the affair as the independent counsel has brought each minor figure before the courts. Their very appearance cannot help reminding us that the high officials whose directives they followed escaped with impunity. In the end, what has suffered is respect for justice, and faith in our Government’s ability to provide it.

SIX YEARS AFTER IRAN-CONTRA WAS exposed, the reforms imposed by Congress lie in ruins. The War Powers Resolution has been weakened to the point of uselessness. Congress played virtually no role in the decision to send a half-million young Americans into combat against Iraq, finally managing to stage a belated debate and vote that did little more than demonstrate its own irrelevance. In the face of clear evidence that remarkable diplomatic stupidity, and perhaps even criminal misuse of Government institutions, had helped lead to Saddam’s military buildup and his invasion of Kuwait, Congress could not bring itself to hold serious hearings — until, that is, an election loomed and the President began to appear vulnerable. In the recent decision to send tens of thousands of Americans to Somalia, Congress, and the public behind it, played virtually no part.

Through the 80’s, divided government — a stubborn Congress with vivid memories of Vietnam and an executive branch that took an aggressive view of its own powers abroad — only served to bring to the surface a fundamental problem. The United States, because it became a superpower during the early nuclear era, created for itself a foreign-policy-making machinery that in the end had little to do with the principles underlying the country’s institutions and political beliefs.

The last few months have brought much talk of the need for “a new strategy” in foreign affairs. President Clinton, though he has expressed his determination to act “with force when necessary” to protect the country’s “vital interests,” has said little about how he plans to act forcefully abroad while avoiding misadventures like Iran-contra. It is not enough to declare a willingness to intervene. Some way must be found to help insure that when the country does act, it will do so only after building a true consensus around its policy.

The first task for President Clinton is not to devise a new Truman Doctrine but to construct a new way of making foreign policy — of making a democratic foreign policy. The country badly needs a new National Security Act for the post-cold-war era, a law that will include procedures to restore true consultation between the executive and the legislative branches; return secrecy to its proper role; and insure that both branches play a part in any decision to commit Americans to hostilities abroad. It is certainly not beyond the wit of man to design workable mechanisms that will encourage regular consultation and even collaboration on foreign affairs. (A version of the “fast track” procedure, for example, which Congress now uses to vote on large trade bills, might be adopted for legislative approval of deployments of troops abroad, a remedy described by Prof. Harold Hongju Koh of Yale, who has written thoughtfully on these matters.) Legislative mechanics, however, are not the problem; the difficulty lies in securing agreement that reform is needed — particularly from the President, who tends to exhibit, whether he is Democrat or Republican, a jealous determination to hold fast to his supposedly “inherent” powers. But the Constitution does not confer on the President sole power over the country’s foreign policy, and when a President behaves as if it did, the result tends to be policies that are ill conceived or corrupt or both.

After Vietnam and Iran-contra, any President should recognize the perils of taking strong action abroad without first working to secure public understanding and support. CNN and other outlets have insured that the public is better informed about America’s role in the world than ever before. To prosecute his most controversial policies, a President should feel obliged to build a public consensus by convincing and educating the people, rather than being tempted to misuse secrecy to avoid their scrutiny. It is not merely that building such a consensus is central to the American system of government; in the end, an informed consensus must serve as a cushion of support if things go wrong — the sort of cushion that Presidents lacked in Vietnam, and that President Bush would have found egregiously wanting if matters had become difficult and bloody in Somalia.

It remains to be seen whether President Clinton will honestly face the task of building such a consensus over Bosnia. Early signs are a bit disquieting. Having fashioned a policy that will steadily increase America’s involvement in the Balkans — and that is likely to lead to the introduction of at least some American troops there — the President has tended to emphasize that the United States is “not committing today to make war” in Bosnia. His focus on what the country won’t do, his reluctance to admit the ultimate destination of the road he has chosen, suggests that Clinton is feeling the insidious effects of the Vietnam syndrome. Notwithstanding President Bush’s statement after the gulf war, the country has not “kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” Rather, it has become enshrined in policy makers’ conviction that, because the public is inherently fickle and impatient, the primary concern in considering any intervention must be whether American forces “can get out, and get out on our terms” (as former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger described our strategy in sending troops to Somalia).

Expediency alone can not serve as the basis for a workable foreign policy. It leaves out too many things, including moral responsibility. In our system, at this point in history, creating a workable foreign policy depends on public understanding. Until the President and Congress find a way to work together to school the people, treat them not as simpletons to be deceived or halfwits to be condescended to but as citizens to be educated, we’ll still be living in the shadow of the cold war. And the ghost of Iran-contra will still be abroad in the land.