Iran-Contra and the Fallibility of Presidential Deal-Making
Thirty-three years ago today, Ronald Reagan made an entry in his diary that, considering the disaster it eventually led to, was remarkably brief, and surprisingly candid. After mentioning meetings with an Italian political leader and a group of conservative state legislators, the 40th U.S. president wrote this:
“Only thing waiting was N.S.C. wanting decisions on our effort to get our 5 hostages out of Lebanon. Involves selling TOW anti-tank missiles to Iran. I gave the go-ahead.”
Reagan, who was less than a month away from his 75th birthday, then spent four times as much space in his journal describing the preparations for his annual physical at Bethesda Naval Hospital. It went well, apparently. The doctor, whom Reagan noted was a woman, told him after looking at his CAT scan that he had the “innards” (Reagan’s word, not the doctor’s) of a man 20 years younger.
“My day was made,” Reagan wrote, “so off to Camp David.”
What Reagan had unwittingly done that day was set in motion a series of events that would be known by the end of the year as the “Iran-Contra scandal,” which led to the alienation of U.S. allies and more hostages being taken, not to mention a lengthy special prosecutor’s investigation that tarnished Reagan’s legacy and compromised the re-election chances of his successor.
The covert initiative that he approved on January 17, 1986 had been brought to him by National Security Adviser Robert C. “Bud” McFarlane, a Naval Academy grad and decorated U.S. Marine who’d seen combat in Vietnam and retired from the military as a lieutenant colonel. McFarlane had resigned as NSC director six weeks earlier, but the plans he’d brought to the president to free the kidnapped Americans -- one of whom was the CIA Beirut station chief William Buckley -- were now in effect.
“Reagan convinced himself that he was dealing with middlemen and not the kidnappers themselves and therefore was not trading arms for hostages,” wrote Lou Cannon. “Nothing good came of this.”
In a 2014 magazine piece on the topic of presidential leadership, Reagan’s preeminent biographer offered a succinct, and chilling summation of the ensuing scandal:
McFarlane’s successor John Poindexter turned over the operational details to Oliver North, a swashbuckling Marine who served on the National Security Council staff. On May 25, 1986, McFarlane, North and a CIA official who spoke Farsi flew to Tehran from Tel Aviv in an unmarked Israeli 707 loaded with anti-aircraft spare parts. They bore gifts of pistols and a chocolate layer cake decorated with a brass key plus maps for intelligence briefings on Iraq. The Americans were met by an arms buyer and Iran Revolutionary Guards who unloaded the spare parts, took the gifts and ate the cake.
The U.S. delegation spent four days in Tehran without seeing a high-ranking official. The “moderate Iranians” were fictional; the entire operation was orchestrated by the Iranian government.
Reagan was heartened when an American hostage was released in July, as Secretary of State George Shultz had predicted, but the arms sale provided more incentives for kidnapping hostages than releasing them. Three Americans were taken in Lebanon in September and October. After 500 anti-tank weapons were delivered to Iran at the end of October, three hostages were freed -- and three other Americans were kidnapped in January 1987. A year after Reagan approved the arms deal, the same number of hostages were in Lebanon. Two of the original seven had died, including Buckley, but they’d been replaced by other captives.
Meanwhile, the “Contra” part of the scandal was the attempt by North to divert $12 million of the proceeds to the Contras (short for counterrevolutionaries), the forces opposing Nicaragua’s Marxist government.
Although Reagan had once compared the Contras to the Founding Fathers, he knew nothing about the diversion of arms sales profits, as Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh finally acknowledged on August 3, 1993. By then, Bill Clinton was in the Oval Office and Reagan was struggling with Alzheimer’s disease.
Is any of this relevant to us today? Perhaps. First, let’s start with the obvious point: For those who think Robert Mueller’s probe into President Trump’s 2016 campaign is wrapping up, how do we know? Walsh didn’t issue his final report until four-and-a-half years after Reagan was out of office.
A more universal point is that all presidents, even those not given to making absurd boasts, seem to overestimate their skills at salesmanship. When my father interviewed Reagan soon after his first meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, he asked the president what he thought was the most neglected aspect of his biography. Reagan unhesitatingly harked back to his time in Hollywood -- specifically citing his negotiations with movie producers while he was president of the Screen Actors Guild.
What had he learned from these interactions? “That the purpose of a negotiation is to get an agreement,” Reagan replied.
Ronald Reagan didn’t enter politics until he was 55, and this was the attitude he brought with him, and it was at the root of his acquiescence to dealing with “moderate” Iranians. It was a hope of finding the elusive middle ground of mutual interests between opposing parties.
Donald Trump had just turned 70 when he accepted the Republican presidential nomination, also with established theories about human nature -- and his own efficacy. “Deals are my art form,” he says in the opening of his famous bestseller. “Other people paint beautifully on canvass or write wonderful poetry. I like making deals, preferably big deals. It’s how I get my kicks.”
Certainly, it would thrill any president to broker détente between Seoul and Pyongyang, while simultaneously ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons. And we don’t have to wait for the publication of Donald Trump’s diary to know how he rationalized his doubts away when it came to this undertaking. He publishes his whims, in real-time, on Twitter, as he did last April. “Mike Pompeo met with Kim Jong Un in North Korea last week,” Trump tweeted. “Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed. Details of Summit are being worked out now. Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!”
But Kim Jong Un had plenty of incentives to give up his nukes before Trump ever entered politics, as did Kim’s father. But this is a dictator notorious for his atrocities, most of them against his own people -- sometimes the victims are his own family members.
While Ronald Reagan was trying to free William Buckley, Hezbollah was torturing the former CIA man to death, a savagery that lasted 15 months and that his executioners videotaped. In other words, international relations are rarely like business deals with fellow Americans. Not everyone in the world can be reasoned with. Optimism, self-confidence, even good intentions -- admirable qualities, to be sure -- are not always enough in a president.