© 1991 The Economist Newspaper Ltd.

The Economist, July 6, 1991, p. 4


Re-examining Iran-contra
By Robert McFarlane
Washington, D.C.

SIR -- Your review (June 22nd) of recent books on the Iran-contra affair by Theodore Draper and Ann Wroe made several useful points regarding the human and institutional failures exposed in this unworthy episode. As one of the principals in it, I must acknowledge many personal errors. Much of my life over the past five years has been spent in an effort at atonement. Still, I feel a measure of disappointment at the superficiality of contemporary criticism in this affair. It is easy to lump all the figures in a cabal together. And it is easy to assume that all actions in a failing effort were failures. That is seldom true. One or two examples may serve to make the point.

Regarding the "Iran" dimension of the affair, there was in my mind a national interest to be served by establishing ties to those likely to succeed Ayatollah Khomenei. The failure to do that more recently in Iraq with both Kurds and Shiites has weakened our position after an otherwise impressive victory. Clearly, however, it was a mistake to introduce arms into the Iranian equation until it was clear that those involved on the other side could act to change either policy or the government itself. That is why, once the ineptitude and relative weakness of the Iranian principals were exposed in December 1985, I urged President Reagan to cease and desist (as I did again after the trip to Tehran in May 1986). It is interesting to note that the adjectives ascribed to me and my colleagues for this effort somehow do not apply to our predecessors in the Carter administration who wanted badly to trade arms for hostages while keeping Congress uninformed, and relied on an arms merchant (not government channels) in their attempt.

The central criticism of these books is that a president and his staff attempted to circumvent constitutional processes, and to subvert congressional-oversight prerogatives in an unprecedented and dangerous fashion. In my case that is not true. My efforts to share what I knew with Congress went far beyond the standards set by my predecessors. My letters to Congress were expanded in personal testimony and private exchanges with them and, in toto, conveyed to them what I knew. Contrast that with the actions of my government in the early 1970s when White House officials decided to bomb a sovereign country, killing thousands, without telling Congress and indeed falsifying records.

As for professional competence and whether or not retired military men ought to serve at cabinet level; again, these books are terribly superficial. For example, if asked what was the most salient event in foreign affairs of the 1980s, most informed people would point to the collapse of the Leninist movements. The core of American policy at that time was an investment strategy through which the United States sought to exploit its comparative advantage in high technology with huge investments (eg, the SDI programme) and thereby to expose the relative backwardness of the Soviet system. The expectation in the White House was that if Brezhnev's successors could be faced with the political risk of being ideologically discredited throughout the communist world -- of presiding over the demise of the communist movement -- they would either come our way on things like arms reductions or change their system. They did both. When you contrast this approach with that of my predecessors who persisted in negotiating on Soviet terms, playing to Soviet strength -- and failing in the process to improve the United States' position -- the record of the mid-1980s looks very impressive.