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Is the U.S. System Flawed?

May 27, 1987

William Pfaff writes in his article (Editorial Pages, May 14), "U.S. System Is Flawed, and Likely to Stay So," that the constitutional division of power is responsible for the great difficulty the United States has in conducting a consistent foreign policy.

Pfaff complains that our system of separation of powers is "not a system made for a nation conducting a complicated world policy" and characterizes that system as "flawed," thus laying the blame for the Iran- contra scandal on the Constitution.

I can only disagree, and with anger. Our constitutional system assigns the primary policy-making responsibility to the deliberative bodies of Congress and forces the President to submit his policy proposals to scrutiny there. The value of this system is that it exposes policy-making to critical attention from a variety of viewpoints and requires the formation of a majority consensus of support before implementation. The virtues of policies adopted in this system are that they are not (often) completely stupid and they enjoy as least a minimum of democratic support.

These virtues are superior to the consistency of which Pfaff speaks so highly.

As Pfaff notes, Iran-contra is indeed a scandal partly because the whole thing was such a stupid failure. But he makes a faulty connection between system of government and this failure. The Constitution didn't come down out of the National Archives and twist Oliver North's arm, compelling him, as Pfaff says, "to search for ways to bypass or outwit Congress." Iran-contra was a stupid failure precisely because the constitutional processes meant to minimize stupid failures were willfully circumvented.

The flaw behind the Iran-contra affair is in an Administration and a President who are unwilling to formulate workable and honorable policies on hostages and terrorism or on Central America and to implement them in conformity with U.S. and international law and the Constitution.


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