© 1991 The Economist Newspaper Ltd.

The Economist, June 22, 1991, p. 95

Books and arts

The scandal that got away
By Anthony King

By Theodore Draper. Hill and Wang; 690 pages; $27.95.
To be published by Chapman in July; £19.95

By Ann Wroe. I. B. Tauris; 341 pages; £19.95.
To be published by St Martin's in September; $24.95

THE Iran-contra affair should have been scripted by the Marx Brothers. The cast was rich: an absent-minded president, a manic Marine Corps colonel, a national security adviser who was a depressive, another who was a recluse, a retired air-force general with his eyes on the national flag and his hand in the national till, an engaging Iranian con-man who boasted "I made it up as I went along", rich Americans of advancing years who would do almost anything to have their picture taken with the president, and a large chorus of bemused Iranians, disputacious Nicaraguans and exceedingly unintelligent intelligence officers.

The plot was equally rich. One aeroplane carrying arms to Iran takes off from Tel Aviv bound for Lisbon but has to turn back because the Portuguese will not allow it to land. Another zig-zags from Frankfurt to Tehran without all its overflight permissions (the pilot made up the call signs he did not know and was never asked for the one he did). Yet another aircraft, loaded with bazookas instead of Band-Aids, gets stuck in the mud in Costa Rica. Robert McFarlane lies to George Shultz, William Casey lies to Congress, Ronald Reagan lies to the American people, George Bush lies in his campaign autobiography, and Oliver North lies to everyone in (and out of) sight.

Iran-contra was a box-office success; Mr North and his secretary, Fawn Hall, became stars overnight. But no one in the cast really got what he wanted. The Iranians got few weapons (many of them defective). The Americans got even fewer hostages (and failed to influence events in Iran). The contras never became a serious military force. Mr North and John Poindexter wound up in the dock, which was not at all what they had in mind. The president looked like an old fool. Only the elderly American patriots, or some of them, got their pictures.

The world soon lost interest in Iran-contra. It was all rather sordid and embarrassing (failures usually are). It was also morally ambiguous, with hostages' lives at risk and super-patriots lying without pause for super-patriotic reasons. But the world lost interest in Iran-contra at its peril. The events raised--or should have raised--fundamental questions about public morality and how the affairs of a great nation should be managed. A sound analysis of what went wrong on this occasion might conceivably prevent such things happening again.

Both Theodore Draper and Ann Wroe (who is The Economist's Books and Arts editor) have based their books on 50,000 pages of testimony and documents generated by the Tower commission, the joint congressional investigation and the North and Poindexter trials. The books strike at the affair from different angles. Both are excellent. Both deserve too be read.

Mr Draper's principal concern is to tell the story. With admirable (if occasionally daunting) thoroughness, he pieces together the details of every important meeting, every important conversation, every important lie and, not least, every important blunder. He devotes six densely packed pages to the White House meeting on November 10th 1986, at which Mr Shultz, the secretary of state, realised how completely he had been cut out of policy towards Iran and began subtly distancing himself from the rest of the administration. As a narrative of Iran-contra, "A Very Thin Line" is unlikely ever to be equalled.

Mrs Wroe's concern is to tease out the moral code that the principal actors in the affair were following. The code, being childlike, was at one simple and frightening: I am a patriotic American; more precisely, I am a member of the American armed forces; I have a duty to advance my country's interests; the president determines what those interests are; I owe the president an absolute duty of obedience; ergo, whatever the president bids me do--or whatever I believe to be in accordance with his wishes--is both legal and morally right (or, if not legal, morally right anyway) and will be done by me to the best of my abilities; in addition, if need be, I will even try to protect the president by concealing from him what I am doing on his behalf and in his name.

The fact that every link in this chain was flawed does not seem to have occurred to Messrs McFarlane, Poindexter and North, let alone to have influenced their behaviour. With the partial exception of Mr McFarlane, they held Congress in contempt and believed the law of the land to be subordinate to a "higher law", which emanated in some mysterious way from the president. As Mrs Wroe indicates, General Keitel in the dock at Nuremberg laid out a similar conception.

Mrs Wroe is readier than Mr Draper to see the affair's comic side, but at the same time she seems even more appalled by it. Mr McFarlane, Mr Poindexter and Mr North, like good soldiers, tried on the whole to protect their subordinates. President Reagan did not reciprocate. His motto was evidently "The buck stops in the outer office". Although she does not say so, Mrs Wroe clearly thinks he should have been impeached. Her treatment throughout is both incisive and gentle; it is only a pity that, having exposed the flaws and dangers of the Iran-contra moral code, she did not go on to expound her preferred alternative.

What, then, were the lessons? Was Iran-contra a "one-off", or could something like it happen again, possibly with even more devastating consequences? After the congressional hearings, Senator Daniel Inouye seemed to despair: "I would like to think this sort of thing could not happen again, but I suppose it will." Mr Draper, more positively, calls on Congress to reassert its traditional role in foreign policy. Mrs Wroe clearly believes that the role of military men anywhere near the White House should be strictly limited.

Two other possibilities are implicit in Mr Draper's narrative. One is that it might be a good idea to think through risky projects, staff them out and engage all the interested and knowledgeable parties; the Bay of Pigs seems to have been forgotten. The other is that Washington needs a more stable cadre of "men (and women) of government". Whether holy or unholy, Messrs McFarlane, Poindexter and North were innocents, unworldly men playing at being worldly. Proper civil servants would not have been so stupid as to be so deceitful; but then proper civil servants are seldom characters in farce.