The “Contragate” hearings have been a poor substitute for daytime soap operas and do not begin to match the thrills of Watergate. Perhaps it is because we have heard them before: arrogantly inarticulate congressmen scoring points off frightened bureaucrats, an administration that turns to private contractors to carry on apparently illegal activities, and an imperialist Congress eager to seize control of American foreign policy.
There were a few bright spots, notably Richard Secord’s forthright denials of wrongdoing, but a new low in the performance art of testifying was reached by Robert McFarlane: quivering, self-righteously remorseful—he couldn’t have given a worse impression of the administration if he tried.
The hearings are, first and last, a partisan affair, one skirmish in the long war between populist-Republican Presidents and the social democrats who have seized control of the Democratic Party. Still, the whole affair raises very serious constitutional and—perhaps as important—ethical questions. Who is responsible for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy—the President, the Congress, or private citizens?
Despite repeated alarms in the press over the emergence of an imperial presidency, the fact remains that no President in the 1980’s has anything like the freedom of action enjoyed by Thomas Jefferson when he authorized a “war” against the Barbary pirates, or James K. Polk when he responded to Mexico’s invasion threats in the 1840’s. Increasingly, Congress has been able to tie the hands of Presidents with the red tape of resolutions and amendments that have the accumulating force of precedent and tradition. When Presidents do attempt to break through the interference to carry out a foreign policy initiative, the result is usually a formal inquisition staged for the benefit of Turner Broadcasting and the CBS Evening News.
The White House, on the other hand, is not entirely guiltless. Presidents and their staffs have also muddied the waters by presuming to negotiate what are, in effect, treaties without the consent of Congress. Both Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy made secret foreign policy deals with potentially disastrous consequences. FDR was so eager to drag America into war that he allowed British intelligence agents to snoop on anti-interventionist congressmen. And we may never know exactly what Kennedy promised Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis.
More recently. Presidents have pretended to agree to all the restrictions enjoined by Congress while at the same time authorizing secret wars and fielding teams of semiprofessional freelancers. If the contras really were “freedom fighters”—or fighters of any description—and if there really were an influential party of Iranian moderates, the responsible parties (whoever they are) could be pardoned for excessive zeal in the national interest. As failures, they will have to face the music, and one of the tunes they are liable to hear is a dirge for all the civilian victims of contra shenanigans. The decision to deal with Iranian terrorists combined with the deliberate prolongation of this war—not in the expectation of victory but in an effort to destabilize and/or democratize the Sandinista regime—cannot be brushed aside as a partisan issue. It seems clear that some of the President’s advisors have abused the trust he placed in them.
There is no easy solution to the Sandinista problem, except an invasion in force. If they are, as they appear to be, a Soviet and Cuban backed dictatorship threatening regional security and fundamental U.S. interests, then the honorable course would be to take TR’s big stick out of the closet and use it to bludgeon the Sandinistas. Nothing less will fulfill our obligations, and anything less than war condemns the Nicaraguan people to worse violence at the hands of both parties. That it should be done in the name of democracy is the crudest sort of political joke. If the cowardice of Congress or the American people renders such a course of action impossible, then we can pull in our head and feet within the shell of national boundaries. If the national will is that weak, we have no business engaging in global adventurism. Fish or cut bait remains the most moral as well as the most prudent outlook for a nation whose governors are responsible to the citizenry.
Instead, senior administration officials have apparently duped wellmeaning private citizens into believing that their contributions would assist the President in bringing peace to Central America. Those who contributed money did so from the best and highest motives; government officials who assisted in soliciting or acted as bagmen owe the American people a candid explanation.
Remember Aaron Burr? He was accused of conspiring with a high government official either to separate the West from the U.S. or at least of planning an illegal expedition into Spanish territory. Burr was acquitted, but went into exile to escape further prosecutions. In the narrowest legal sense. Burr may not have been guilty of treason, but when renegade bureaucrats and private citizens—with or without the President’s blessing—undertake the conduct of foreign policy, when they raise money to support insurrection, ship arms and ammunition, and provide every type of advice and support (including volunteers), they expose themselves to very serious charges. Considering the almost criminal misbehavior of Congress, a privatized foreign policy may seem a tempting prospect to the journalists and academic Metternichs who have been advising the President. Now they have to face their enemies and answer to their charges. (TF)