"Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." This proclamation, issued in 1798 in response to bribery demands by French revolutionaries preying on American ships on the high seas, captured almost perfectly the mood of the American people in the aftermath of their humiliation during the Iranian hostage crisis, and it could have served as the slogan for President Reagan's successful 1980 appeal for funds to rebuild America's military strength. In the past six years Americans have spent not just millions, but billions upon billions for defense.
It's no wonder then that they feel betrayed by revelations that even after these enormous sacrifices, their leaders still found it necessary to pay tribute to those who continue to prey on Americans abroad. And to make matters even worse, the tribute was paid to those very Iranians who had humiliated America in the first place.
The public knew that something was definitely wrong when the first response from the White House was that the Administration was not doing anything illegal, for a resort to legalisms is a sure sign that the morality of the case is indefensible. Most lawyers would argue that getting murderers and kidnapers free on legal technicalities is "not doing anything illegal." Legal or not, such practices outrage the moral sensibilities of most Americans.
Paying bribes to members of the Iranian government--the same government that the United States has condemned for aiding and abetting terrorism and for being accessories to the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, the hijacking of American aircraft and the kidnapping and murder of innocent Americans--may not technically be a crime. But it is worse than a crime; it is a folly, for most Americans see it as morally reprehensible. The folly and the moral taint were made even worse by the President's disingenuous insistance, in his television speech Friday night, that there was nothing "illegal" in his dealings with Iran.
The absence of morality--the common-sense distinction between right and wrong--on the agenda of those concocting this latest White House adventure is not a new failing. Almost 30 years ago, one of the most prominent of the academic limited-war theorists preached that even though the American people would find his strategies repugnant, they must nevertheless be adopted.
The elitist notion that somehow the U.S. government can act as a kind of American version of the "Vanguard of the Proletariat"--can figure out by itself what is best for the American people, and then give it to them good and hard--was one of the primary reasons American policy came to such grief during the war in Vietnam. The most disturbing aspect of the latest Iranian fiasco is that this mind-set appears once again to be reasserting itself.
One reason for its reappearance has to do with one of the lasting legacies of the Vietnam War: the indiscriminate use of "leaks" by Washington bureaucrats as a way of influencing policy, and the consequent inability of the government to plan operations in secret.
As a result, the detailed scrub of operational plans by the experts in the State and Defense departments and the Central Intelligence Agency, which in earlier times exposed flaws and shortcomings in proposed plans, does not take place for fear that the operation will be compromised in advance. Instead plans are devised and executed by a tight inner circle of back-room wheeler-dealers. That was one of the fundamental causes of the hostage rescue fiasco in 1980, and it appears to be the cause of the latest American misadventure in Iran as well.
Not only are such back-room operators out of touch with national security experts who could have warned them of the folly of their ways, they are too often out of touch with the American people as well. As Edward G. Lansdale, one of America's premier covert operations specialists (the real-life model for the "Ugly American," who, it must be emphasized for those who have not read the book, was the hero of the piece) commented in 1972, in words that appear to fit the current situation all too accurately:
"The back rooms of Washington policy-makers are too full of articulate and persuasive practitioners of the expedient solution to daily problems, of the hoary art of power politics, and of the brute usages of our physical and material means. They can scarcely comprehend the pragmatism of sticking to the ideal of having a government 'of the people, by the people, for the people' as the strongest defense any country could have.
"If we are to succeed," Lansdale concluded, "impatient Americans will have to remember our own heritage."
An important part of that heritage is that from the beginning of the Republic, Americans have had strong convictions on how their foreign policy should be conducted. "Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute" is more than just a slogan. It is a statement of principle.
Ronald Reagan, whose great strength as President has been his ability to personify the principles and ideals of the American people, should have known that instinctively. That he did not is more cause for concern than the imbroglio itself.