By Greg Grandin 10/17/06

Will the Democrats blow it again as they did in 1986?

A Republican Party on the ropes, bloodied by a mid-second-term scandal; a resurrected Democratic opposition, sure it can capitalize on public outrage to prove that it is still, in the American heart of hearts, the majority party.

But before House Democrats start divvying up committee assignments and convening special investigations, they should consider that they’ve been here before, and things didn’t turn out exactly the way they hoped.

It was twenty years ago this November 3rd – exactly one day after the Democrats regained control of the Senate after six years in the minority – that the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa reported on the Reagan administration’s secret, high-tech missile sale to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran, which violated an arms embargo against that country and contradicted President Ronald Reagan’s personal pledge never to deal with governments that sponsored terrorism.

Democrats couldn’t believe their luck. After years of banging their heads on Reagan’s popularity and failing to derail his legislative agenda, they had not only taken back the Senate, but follow-up investigations soon uncovered a scandal of epic proportions, arguably the most consequential in American history, one that seemed sure to disgrace every single constituency that had fueled the upstart conservative movement. The Reagan Revolution, it appeared, had finally been thrown into reverse.

The New York Times reported that the National Security Council was running an extensive “foreign policy initiative largely in private hands,” made up of rogue intelligence agents, mercenaries, neoconservative intellectuals, Arab sheiks, drug runners, anticommunist businessmen, even the Moonies. Profits from the missile sale to Iran, brokered by a National Security Council staffer named Oliver North, went to the Nicaraguan Contras, breaking yet another law, this one banning military aid to the anti-Sandinista guerrillas.

The ultimate goal of this shadow government, said a congressional investigation, was to create a “worldwide private covert operation organization” whose “income-generating capacity came almost entirely from its access to U.S. government resources and connections” – either from trading arms to Iran or from contributions requested by administration officials. Joseph Coors and H. Ross Perot kicked in, as did the Sultan of Brunei, whose $10,000,000 gift, solicited by Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams, went missing after it was deposited into the wrong Swiss bank account.

The Democrats, now the majority in both congressional chambers, gleefully convened multiple inquiries into the scandal. From May to August 1987, TV viewers tuned in to congressional hearings on the affair. They got a rare glimpse into the cabalistic world of spooks, bagmen, and mercenaries, with their code words, encryption machines, offshore holding companies, unregistered fleets of boats and planes, and furtive cash transfers. Fawn Hall, Oliver North’s secret shredder, told of smuggling evidence out of the Old Executive Office Building in her boots, and lectured Representative Thomas Foley that “sometimes you have to go above the written law.”

Foreign enemies were not the only targets set in North’s crosshairs, as later investigations described what was in effect a covert operation run on domestic soil, with the White House mobilizing conservative grassroots organizations to plant disinformation in the press and harass legislators and reporters who opposed or criticized President Reagan’s Contra policy.

Reagan’s poll numbers plummeted and talk of impeachment was rampant. Democratics thought they had found in Iran-Contra a sequel to Watergate, another tutorial about the imperial presidency that would enable them to consolidate the power Congress had assumed over foreign policy in the 1970s.

But just a year after the hearings, Iran-Contra was a dead issue. When Congress released its final report on the matter in November 1988, Reagan breezily dismissed it. “They labored,” he said, “and brought forth a mouse.” Vice President George H.W. Bush was elected president that month, despite being implicated in the scandal.

Ollie’s Song

How could the Democrats have failed to inflict serious damage on an administration that had sold sophisticated weaponry to a sworn enemy of the United States? How could they have botched the job of transforming a conspiracy of self-righteous renegades, many of whom not only admitted their crimes but unrepentantly declared themselves to be above the law, into a defense of constitutional checks and balances in the realm of foreign affairs?

One reason is that the congressional hearings they called backfired on them. In the early months of those hearings, Congress methodically gathered damning testimony and documentary evidence of what many believed amounted to treason by high-level administration officials, if not the President himself.

But then in marched Oliver North – the crisp Marine, with his hard-rock jaw and chest full of medals. Ronald Reagan may have once been an actor, but it was North’s dramatic chops that rescued his presidency.

For six days, the Marine fended off the questions of politicians and their lawyers. His answers were contradictory and self-serving, but his performance was virtuoso. Many viewers viscerally connected with the loyalty and courage so artfully on display. “If the commander in chief tells this lieutenant colonel to go stand in the corner and stand on his head,” North said, “I will do so.” Never mind that, as Senator Daniel Inouye, a maimed WWII veteran, pointed out, the U.S. Military Code stipulates that only legal orders are to be followed. Ollie-mania swept the heartland and Hollywood. Even liberal TV producer Norman Lear admitted he couldn’t “take [his] eyes off” the colonel.

North’s luster may not have rubbed off on Reagan, but his standoff with Congress allowed the president’s defenders to take control of the storyline, reducing the scandal’s cacophony to the simple chords of patriotism and anticommunism. Conservative activist Richard Viguerie compared the hearings to a song: “Liberals are listening to the words, but the guy in the street hears the music. The music is about men and women who are prepared to die for their country.”

At the heart of the Democrats disaster was their unwillingness ever to question North’s militarism or Reagan’s support for the Contras, whose human-rights atrocities were well-documented. Rather than attacking Reagan’s restoration of anticommunism as the guiding principle of U.S. policy, they focused on procedure – such as the White House’s failure to oversee the National Security Council – or on proving that top officials had prior knowledge of the crimes.

Much as Hillary Clinton and John Kerry today focus on this administration’s “incompetence” and “mishandling” of the Iraq War, Democrats twenty years ago were scathing in their descriptions of an administration steeped in “confusion, secrecy and deception” as well as of the White House’s “pervasive dishonesty” and “disarray.” But as today, so then, these criticisms seemed like mere cavils when the security of the United States – of the “Free World” – was at stake.

In 1988, when Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, in his first debate with Vice President Bush, brought up the scandal, Bush responded that he would take “all the blame” for Iran-Contra if he got “half the credit for all the good things that have happened in world peace since Ronald Reagan and I took over.” Dukakis quietly took the deal, never again raising the issue. So, when Ollie North jibed that Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi endorsed Dukakis, there was little left for the Massachusetts governor to do but don a helmet, jump in a tank, and look famously foolish.

Along with political timidity, there was another factor that led to the Democratic collapse on Iran-Contra – careerism. Far more so than today, Washington was then a clubby, small, inbred world. One of the reasons why the anger over George H.W. Bush’s Christmas Eve 1992 pardon of six indicted Iran-Contra figures was so short-lived is that the move was quietly blessed by ranking Congressional Democrats, including Wisconsin Representative Les Aspin, who huffed and puffed but let the matter die. Aspin, who had supported aid to the Contras, was later tapped by Bill Clinton to be Secretary of Defense, easily winning confirmation with significant Republican support.

Careerism naturally leads to back-room deals. There were rumors that Democratic House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill, who unlike Aspin was an outspoken critic of Contra funding, toned down his opposition as a quid pro quo to secure federal funds for Boston’s Big Dig construction project – another disaster from the 1980s that we are still living with.

Unleashing the Imperial Presidency

But if the Democrats failed to gain political traction with the scandal, or wring a parable out of it, others did far better. Dick Cheney today points to Iran-Contra not as a cautionary tale against unchecked executive power but as a blueprint for how to obtain it.

It turns out that it was Dick Cheney’s current chief of staff David Addington – the man the press calls “Cheney’s Cheney” for his defense of unchecked presidential power in matters of foreign policy – who, as a counsel to the Republicans serving on the congressional Iran-Contra committee, wrote the controversial 1988 “Minority Report” on the scandal.

At the time, the report, which condemned not the National Security Council for its secret dealings but Congress for its “legislative hostage taking,” was considered out of the mainstream. Today, it reads like a run-of-the-mill Justice Department memo outlining the legal basis for any of the Bush Administration’s wartime power grabs. It was this report that Cheney referenced when asked last December about his role in strengthening the executive branch. The report, he said, was “very good in laying out a robust view of the President’s prerogatives” to wage war and defend national security.

Cheney and Addington are not the only veterans of the scandal to have found a home in the current White House. Other Iran-Contra notables who have resurfaced in recent years include Elliot Abrams, John Bolton, Otto Reich, John Negroponte, John Poindexter, neoconservative Michael Ledeen, and even Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian arms dealer who brokered one of the first missile sales to the Khomeini regime.

This recycling of Iran-Contra personnel to fight the War on Terror points to the most important reason it has been so difficult to transform the scandal into a parable: Iran-Contra wasn’t just a crime and a cover-up – as Watergate was – or a misdemeanor like Monica-Gate. It was rather the first battle in the neoconservative campaign against Congress and in defense of the imperial presidency.

Iran-Contra field-tested many of the tactics used by the Bush administration to build support for the invasion of Iraq by manipulating intelligence, spinning public opinion, and riding roughshod over experts in the CIA and the State Department who counseled restraint. While the original Iran-Contra battle might be termed a draw – the eleven convicted conspirators won on appeal or were pardoned by George H.W. Bush – the backlash has become the establishment.

That 80s Show

Today, with that establishment shackled to the most ruinous war in recent U.S. history, the Republicans, taking a page out of Oliver North’s songbook, decided that the best defense was to go on the offensive, to turn the upcoming midterm vote into a debate on Iraq and national security. Up until the eve of the recent Foley IM-sex scandal, the strategy seemed like it just might be working once again. The Democrats were losing momentum in the run-up to next month’s elections, unanimously consenting to a distended military budget, and watching silently as Republicans, with significant Democratic support, revoked habeas corpus and gave the President the right to torture at will.

Foley-gate, along with a cascade of other scandals, controversies, and bad war news, may indeed now give the Democrats the House, and perhaps even the Senate. But already there are reports that, if they do take over Congress, their agenda will have a remarkably 1986-ish look to it: hearings and calls for more congressional “oversight” of foreign policy that leave uncontested the crusading premises driving the President’s extremist foreign policy.

If the Democratic Party wants to halt, or even reverse, its long decline and avoid yet again snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, it will need to do more than investigate the six-year reign of corruption, incompetence, and arrogance presided over by Cheney and company. Progressive politicians who protest the war in Iraq will have to do more than criticize the way it has been fought or demand to have more of a say in how it is waged. They must challenge the militarism that justified the invasion and that has made war the option of first resort for too many of our foreign-policy makers. Otherwise, no matter how many tanks they drive or veterans they nominate – or congressional seats they pick up – the Democrats will always be dancing to Ollie’s tune.

Greg Grandin is the author of the other book endorsed by Hugo Chávez on his recent New York visit: Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (Metropolitan).