The Reagan Administration's secret dealings with Iran, now surfacing in the news media, are plain scandalous.
They illustrate perfectly everything that is wrong with U.S. foreign policy today: strategic incoherence, bureaucratic disarray, intrusion of domestic politics and amateurism.
What is worse, senior officials do not appear to be particularly embarrassed. They continue to insist that the U.S. policy of not making concessions to terrorists remains intact. Who do they expect to fool? Certainly not the West Europeans. And especially not the French, who now have the perfect excuse for their own clandestine accommodations with Syria. Nor will the denials have much impact on Iraq and its Arab supporters, most of them friends of America.
Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger may be sincere in insisting that the Reagan Administration "has no interest in helping Iran to win" the war against Iraq. But talk in the Middle East is cheap. U.S. actions are bound to speak louder than words. And there is no question that military equipment, which the White House helped to arrange for Tehran, was bound to be used against Baghdad.
Nor will the double talk mislead the Iranians and their terrorist associates in Lebanon. They know precisely what they got from the United States in return for three released hostages. As was made clear in the public ridicule of the Reagan Administration by Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of the Iranian Parliament, the reaction is not an appreciation of Washington's flexibility but rather one of contempt for the hapless American giant. Coupled with hatred for the United States, such contempt will make more of us targets of terrorist attacks.
Was the Reagan Administration unaware of the risks involved? Hardly. Secretary of State George P. Shultz opposed secret payoffs to the Iranian terrorist masters. But his opposition--White House aides claim--did not go as far as telling the President point blank that National Security Council staffers were playing with fire.
The National Security Council staff is rich in individuals whose love for conspiracy and devotion to the political fortunes of the President are greater than their appreciation of the broad strategic context in which the United States has to function.
Henry Kissinger, when he was national security adviser, also strived in the world of conspiratorial intrigue. But he usually knew precisely what he wanted to accomplish and had a fair idea of what his counterparts were up to. His secret diplomacy vis-a-vis China was based on a careful calculation: The Peking leadership had sent definite signals regarding its willingness for reconciliation with Washington in the name of rivalry with Moscow. For the United States, the risks were negligible and potential benefits enormous.
The Reagan Administration, on the other hand, dealt with uncertain partners in Iran in pursuit of even more uncertain objectives. There was no evidence that the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini--in contrast to Mao Tse-tung--had approved accommodation with the United States. Cultivating moderates in Khomeini's government is a risky proposition. And any appearance of the United States siding with hostage-takers against Iraq and other moderate Arab states could deliver a severe blow to U.S. credibility in the region.
But what could the United States get in return? Even the greatest optimists inside the Administration do not seriously claim that Iran is ready to side with America against the Soviet Union as China was prepared to do in 1972.
Farfetched hopes of building bridges to Iranian moderates aside, Tehran was offered access to U.S. military hardware in order to get American hostages back from Lebanon and to discourage future hostage-taking.
Here Ronald Reagan acted in the worst tradition of Jimmy Carter. He authorized bribing the terrorists and put the well-being of several individuals above U.S. global interests and responsibilities. His conduct in the affair was a mixture of brave rhetoric, substantive weakness and politically popular sentimentality.
Yet great nations cannot afford to be sentimental. The freedom and prosperity of us all would suffer if everyone with a grievance against the United States concluded that capturing several of its citizens might force America to surrender to blackmail. Hostages and their families are entitled to lobby for U.S. concessions to terrorists. But America and its citizens should never be on their knees.
I know that this is easier said than done. Yet nobody promised the United States that being the leader of Western civilization was going to be a free ride.