Iran/Contra Was the Prototype for Post-Vietnam Imperial Adventure

Iran/Contra Was the Prototype for Post-Vietnam Imperial Adventure

Iran/Contra Was the Prototype for Post-Vietnam Imperial Adventure

On the 30th anniversary, we can see that it was an ideological project, with the New Right reasserting the righteousness of militarism and markets.


Attention is fixed elsewhere, but it is worth taking a moment from clicking 538 to consider that we are fast approaching the 30th anniversary of the Iran/Contra scandal. On October 5, 1986, a young Sandinista soldier named José Fernando Canales Alemán fired a SAM-7 surface-to-air missile and brought down a C123K CIA supply plane. Of its crew, only Eugene Hasenfus survived, parachuting into the jungle. “What now, Rambo?” a Sandinista asked him after he was captured a day later. Hasenfus had previously flown CIA missions in Laos and Vietnam, in the CIA’s infamous Air America program. In Nicaragua, he confessed that he was part of a clandestine network that was illegally supplying arms to the Ronald Reagan–supported Contras, flying out of Ilopango, El Salvador, and dropping weapons caches at arranged spots.

Then, a few weeks later, on November 3, 1986, a Lebanese weekly newspaper, Al Shiraa, was the first to report the other side of the story: that key Reagan administration officials—including Robert McFarlane, then Reagan’s national security adviser, and Vietnam veteran and Charismatic Catholic Col. Oliver North, an NSC staffer—had visited revolutionary Iran and worked out an arms sale with representatives of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Follow-up reports initially presented the operation as a bid by the White House to open a back channel with Tehran to negotiate the release of US hostages being held in Lebanon. But then it was eventually revealed that the profits from off-the-books arms sales to Iran, which included the participation of Israel, were used to purchase the weapons that Hasenfus and others were passing along to the Contras. Congress, in 1982 and 1984, had prohibited the United States from providing military aid to the Contras, so this was a work-around.

The operation was, a government source told Time, “run out of the West Wing” of the White House by a group of ideologically committed staffers—nearly all, like North, ultramontane right-wing Christians—who called themselves “the Cowboys.” “It was a vest-pocket, high-risk business,” said the source.It soon became clear that the doings of the Cowboys could no longer be kept secret, so Oliver North and his boss, John Poindexter (who had replaced McFarlane as national security adviser), spent a weekend in the bowels of the White House shredding documents and deleting e-mails en masse. When North’s shredder overloaded from the volume, his secretary, Fawn Hall, smuggled documents in her boots to another machine.

Over the course of the next few years, a presidential commission headed by John Tower, independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, and multiple House and Senate committees, including one headed by then-Senator John Kerry, revealed various aspects of the conspiracy. Heroic front-line investigative journalists, among them Robert Parry, Peter Kornbluh, Alfonso Chardy, and, later, Gary Webb, uncovered even more details.

The amount of information and the dense nexus of political and economic relationships uncovered was staggering, revealing the conspiracy—though the word “conspiracy” doesn’t do justice to what became known as Iran/Contra—to be about much more than an illegal arms sale and transfer of funds to bypass Congress and arm anticommunist insurgents. Today, all the many angles and players involved are hazy: La Penca, cocaine, William Casey and the Knights of Malta, Ross Perot, the World Anti-Communist League, Mena, the Office of Public Diplomacy, the Sultan of Brunei, Colombia, Manuel Noriega, Dick Cheney, Robert Kagan, Manucher Ghorbanifar, Otto Reich, Michael Ledeen… it’s as hard to keep in order as the plot of a Dan Brown novel.

The mainstream media and the Democrat-controlled Congress tried hard to Watergate-ize the revelations: That is, they tried, through reports and public hearings, to frame the Reagan administration’s activities as the transgressions of a few rotten apples, as a violation of procedure carried out by an NSC gone rogue. In the early 1970s, Watergate was about much more than the break-in of the Democratic Party’s campaign headquarters by Nixon-administration “plumbers”: The larger context of that crime was all bound up in America’s imperial war of aggression in Southeast Asia, particularly Nixon’s and Kissinger’s secret bombing of Cambodia. But by the time Nixon resigned in 1974, the break-in had been reduced to domestic politics and personal psychology, to Nixon’s paranoia. The insipid, oft-repeated cliché used to describe Watergate, “it’s not the crime, but the cover-up,” is itself part of the cover-up, deflecting from the interventionist and militarist assumptions that motivated the crime in the first place.

There were efforts to do the same with Iran/Contra, to pin it on Reagan or the colorful North (who tried in congressional testimony to fall on his sword to save Reagan), and to recommend, as a correction, greater oversight of the NSC. But unlike with Watergate, there were just too many moving parts to the Iran/Contra conspiracy, too many plot threads, too many tales told, to make stick a Shakespearean narrative—of hubris, of a great man being brought low for reaching too high. At the end of the day, 11 mid-level officials were convicted, mostly of crimes such as destruction of evidence, but all were pardoned, most by George H.W. Bush on Christmas Eve 1992, just after he’d lost the White House to Bill Clinton. Even before that pardon, however, the public had lost the thread. Democrats, in all the many, many hours of hearings broadcast on PBS, never once questioned the underlying objectives Iran/Contra was designed to carry out, never once critiqued the assumptions of Washington’s bipartisan policy in the Middle East or its brutal, inhumane war on the Sandinistas. My favorite bit of Iran/Contra theater is found in this video clip from 1987, available on YouTube, of Maine Senator George Mitchell, a Democrat, lecturing North, who had just essentially confessed. For nearly eight minutes, Mitchell dilates on the procedural virtues of America, its “rule of law,” its constitutional system, its “openness,” which allows all immigrants to have an “equal chance” and the right to criticize the government. North had earlier testified that he had been doing God’s work, which earned this rebuke from Mitchell: “God does not take sides in American politics, and in America disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of lack of patriotism.”

But Mitchell had already lost the argument: He had started his sermon admitting the legitimacy of intervening in Nicaragua and “containing” the Sandinistas. “There’s no disagreement on that,” the senator said. OK, then, North might have responded, why are we here? But he didn’t say anything. He didn’t make a sound. He sat there listening in absolute silence. Mitchell, on the other hand, kept talking. And talking. And talking, afflicted by a logorrhea born out of the political exhaustion of the New Deal. But having accepted the premise of North’s anticommunism, he really had nothing to say other than quibble about the means. The Teutonic North, with his chin high and a chest full of medals on his starched uniform, knew that he, and the New Right coalition he stands for, had won the political debate without saying a word.

A year after Mitchell’s lecture, during the campaign to succeed Ronald Reagan, Michael Dukakis, Democratic nominee for the presidency, tried to make something out of Iran/Contra. He couldn’t. After raising the issue in one of his debates with George H.W. Bush, Bush responded as if he were brushing away a fly: “I will take all the blame” for Iran/Contra, Bush said, “if you give me half the credit for all of the good things that have happened in world peace since Ronald Reagan and I took over from the Carter administration.” Dukakis didn’t raise the issue again.

In Empire’s Workshop, which came out a decade ago, I tried to step back from the rabbit hole and look at Iran/Contra not as crime or conspiracy but as a consequential historical moment that both helped unite the various political constituencies that made up the Reaganite New Right, including first-generation neoconservatives, theocons, law-and-order anticommunists, economic free-traders, and disgruntled Vietnam vets, mercenaries, and covert operators. The immediate motivation for that book was to try to figure out why so many of the key players involved, either in executing or justifying Iran/Contra, had returned to take influential positions in the administration of George W. Bush. Among them were Dick Cheney, John Negroponte, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, John Poindexter, and Otto Reich. Others, such as Robert Kagan, became prominent opinion makers.

Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s ambassador to the UN, called Central America “the most important place in the world for the United States.” There was a lot going on in the world in the 1980s, so commentators were hard-pressed to account for such an opinion. But the importance of Central America—Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—rested in its unimportance: There was no arms race, no critical resources, and the region was squarely in Washington’s sphere of influence. In other words, unlike Lebanon and Syria, where Reagan refused to commit, Central America could be given to movement conservatives without fear of major blowback.

What, then was Iran/Contra? Many things.

First, it was a vast covert fundraising network, one that went well beyond Iran and well beyond the goal of arming the Contras. Funding came from four main sources: third-party allied countries, such as Saudi Arabia; the conservative grassroots, which, through various right-wing activists coordinated by North, contributed to the anti-Sandinistas cause; wealthy US businessmen, many of them tied to the extractive industry, such as Ross Perot; and Latin American drug cartels (much of the money was routed through Manuel Noriega’s Panama; the cartels’ transport infrastructure was used to get weapons to the Contras and, in turn, drugs into the United States—as North wrote in his personal diary: “Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S.”).

Second, this dense, transnational fundraising-and-supply network, which included Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Freedom Council, was more than logistical. It helped bind diverse, often fringe groups into a unified campaign. It was, for example, the first time neoconservatives and the religious right worked together on an extensive project. Well before those two groups joined after 9/11 to fight radical Islam, the logistical network that undergirded Iran/Contra allowed them to warm up against another “political religion”: Liberation Theology, Latin America’s Christian socialism, which fought against US-backed military juntas and sought to achieve social justice through a redistribution of wealth. In order to bypass public and congressional opposition, the White House outsourced the “hearts and minds” component of its Central American wars to evangelicals. This gave the religious right its first real taste of power within the Republican Party and drew it closer to other groups within the Reagan Revolution. Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum sent down “Freedom Fighter Friendship Kits” to the Contras, complete with toothpaste, insect repellent, and Bibles. Gospel Crusades Inc., Friends of the Americas, Operation Blessing, World Vision, the Wycliffe Bible Translators, and World Medical Relief likewise shipped hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid to the anti-Sandinista rebels and Honduran refugee camps, where they established schools, health clinics, and religious missions. Similar operations took place in El Salvador and Guatemala, where Pat Robertson used his Christian Broadcasting Network to raise money for Efraín Ríos Montt, the evangelical Christian who presided over Guatemala’s 1982 genocide, which killed over 100,000 Mayan Indians.

Third, the money raised by Iran/Contra’s vast fundraising operation was used not just to wage a war on Nicaragua but to fight psy-ops here, on domestic US soil, to neutralize political opposition in Congress and deflect critical public opinion. The Office of Public Diplomacy, headed first by Otto Reich and then Robert Kagan, targeted journalists and public opinion, while the White House worked closely with “independent” grassroots conservative organizations to defeat congressional opponents and keep tabs on, and harass, anti-interventionist activists in organizations such as the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. The details are too thick to relate here, but a draft chapter in the Senate’s Iran/Contra report called these activities “what a covert CIA operation in a foreign country might do”; they “attempted to manipulate the media, the Congress and public opinion to support the Reagan administration’s policies.”

Finally, Iran/Contra was at its heart an ideological project. It wasn’t enough for militarists and neocons to figure out ways to secretly wage an illegal war. Congressional oversight was only part of the problem, and easily overcome. What had to be defeated was the widespread, diffuse anti-militarism and cynicism regarding the use of American power that had overtaken the American public since the 1960s, with the loss of the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal.

To this end, the illegal war against the Sandinistas provided a chance: Reagan defended support of the Contras in highly idealistic terms, describing the counterinsurgencies as the “moral equivalents” of the founding fathers, as carrying Tom Paine’s and Abraham Lincoln’s torch. This is the first time that the modern Republican Party used such grandiose language to describe a foreign intervention; before this, from Wilson to JFK, similar lofty rhetoric had been the property of Democrats. Similarly, intellectuals on the religious right, along with mainline conservative Protestants, used the war against Liberation Theology—identified by one as “the single most critical problem that Christianity has faced in all of its 2000 year history”—to offer a proactive ethical defense of markets and militarism, to insist that wealth and power were a sign of God’s grace. And neocons got to test arguments—which they would ultimately win after 9/11—concerning the power of the executive branch to wage unaccountable war. Wyoming Representative Dick Cheney’s office wrote the dissenting report to the damning congressional investigation, which made “the case for presidential primacy over foreign relations.” Asked years later, in 2005, as his war in Iraq was collapsing into catastrophe, where his views concerning war and the presidency come from, Vice President Cheney responded: “If you want reference to an obscure text, go look at the minority views that were filed with the Iran/Contra committee.”

So Iran/Contra was, in its sum, a vast logistical and ideological work-around, a way both to bypass specific restrictions in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate that Congress placed on the executive branch to wage war and conduct covert activities and to neutralize a more diffuse antiwar and anti-interventionist sentiment that had overcome the American public. Support for the Contras allowed the diverse secular and religious strains of the New Right to once again assert the moral righteousness of militarism and markets. It shouldn’t, then, be thought of as a conspiracy, but as the conspiracy, a conspiracy of conspiracies—a crime of state that makes all other crimes of state possible, less Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (a conspiracy of a small cabal) and more James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand (the totality of American ideology).

Watergate, in our political imaginary, returns again and again as the “good” scandal, a recursive metaphor that can be applied as needed to make sense of the inevitable abuses of power that afflict all political systems. As mentioned above, Watergate, bound up in the politics of covert imperial war in Southeast Asia, was about much more than the dark heart of a fallen president. But its metaphorical power is that it can be reduced to this obvious equation: Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Yet even as the political moral of Watergate was being contained, the art the crime inspired was free-wheeling and inquisitive. Nixon’s paranoia and machinations inspired, directly or indirectly, some of new cinema’s greatest conspiracy films, including The Conversation, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, and Marathon Man, among other movies.

But Iran/Contra? Nothing, really. Kevin Costner’s No Way Out was playing in theaters during North’s testimony, but it was saccharine, deflective, and contained. After this, the conspiracy was just as likely to be blamed on aliens as it was on the politics of empire and capital. It made all of us—especially investigative journalists like Gary Webb, who wouldn’t let go of the story—a little bit like Gene Hackman, who at the end of The Conversation puts down his saxophone and begins pulling up the floorboards and peeling off the plaster down to the laths to find the bugs, which, whether they are there or not, can never be traced back to their source. Iran/Contra destroyed the genre of the conspiracy film, as if Hollywood somehow internalized the fact that the nature of social relations revealed in all the many thousands of pages of official reports couldn’t be represented, or even invoked, and gave up trying. Its legacy is The X-Files, a show that collapsed into its own baroque—a quality all too common today.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the shooting down of Hasenfus, I showed my undergraduate class on US-Latin American relations a few scenes from the great Alex Cox movie, Walker, starring Ed Harris and Marlee Matlin, with small parts by the late Joe Strummer and the Sandinista leader, Tomás Borge, who is also deceased. The sprawling production, led by the British director Cox and his screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, arrived in Nicaragua just a few months after Iran/Contra broke, with the war raging. The film is nominally about the filibuster William Walker, played by Harris, who in the 1850s invaded Nicaragua, declared himself president, and restored slavery, which Nicaragua had abolished decades earlier. But it’s really about the Contra War, and how chronic military intervention in the name of Christ and individual freedom has destroyed the idea of time as a linear phenomenon. Imperial war and covert ops create, especially in Latin America, an eternal present, an untranscendable now, in which the justifications are always the same. To wage war under the banner of progress for over a century has the unfortunate consequence of destroying the notion of progress.

I also screened bits of Dispatches from Nicaragua, a documentary about the “making of” of the film. My heart always flutters a bit when I see Ed Harris and Marlee Matlin tossing a baseball back and forth, with Matlin dressed in a red-and-black Sandinista T-shirt, and Joe Strummer hamming it up, imitating the techniques different actors use to keep the camera on them in scenes where they have no dialogue. Or when members of the film crew attend a demonstration outside the US embassy to protest the Contra murder of Ben Linder, an engineer from Portland who was helping a rural community in northern Nicaragua build a small hydroelectric dam. And there’s director Alex Cox, emaciated, standing on a beach dressed in nothing but yellow gym shorts railing, justifiably, against US aggression. Both Walker and Dispatches capture a more innocent, morally certain time to be an anti-imperialist (especially considering the corruptions of the current version of the Sandinistas), a point that I think wasn’t lost on the students.

Anti-imperialism can only be as coherent and rational a project as the imperialism it seeks to contest, and since 9/11—that is, since the triumph of the coalition that first came together during Iran/Contra and the insanity of our response in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—there’s been nothing rational or coherent about American foreign policy and militarism.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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