You never can be too early when it comes to an anniversary. It’s barely June, but a quick look down the road reminds us that the twentieth anniversary of the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra Affair lies just ahead this November. As Greg Grandin reminds us, Irangate (as it came to be known in the wake of Nixon’s Watergate fiasco) was a kind of coming attractions, right down to its cast of characters, for our own era of right-wing domination, carnage, and now — finally — full-blown corruption scandals. From Vice President Cheney to the new Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, so many of the Iran-Contra era scoundrels returned to the political stage these last years for a grim second bow and, perhaps not so strangely, similar results — though this time not on the relatively parochial stage of Central America, but in the oil heartlands of our planet.
The question Grandin’s piece raises is this: Is a look into the past also a look into the future? As the Iran-Contra moment seeded our own second age of Bush, what will this Bush moment bequeath us? What cast of characters, another decade or two down the line will emerge to take that grim second bow? For those who care for some deeper background on that 1980s moment and our own, don’t miss Grandin’s superb new book, Empire’s Workshop, a history of the American imperial presence in Latin America; but even more compellingly, a history of how, in relation to that region, the New Right first was stirred into a combustible political brew. ~ Tom
The Swift Boating of America
By Greg Grandin
An illegal war, torture rooms, warrantless wiretapping, manipulated intelligence, secret prisons, disinformation planted in the press, graft, and billions of reconstruction dollars gone missing: just when it seemed that the Bush administration had reached its corruption quota comes a new scandal. This one is a bribery case involving defense contractors, Republican congressmen, prostitutes, secret Hawaiian getaways, Scottish castles, and — wait for it — the Watergate Hotel. At its center is the just ex-Executive Director of the CIA, Kyle “Dusty” Foggo, whose sole qualification for being appointed to that post by just ex-Director Porter Goss seems to have been his ability, while head of the Agency’s Frankfurt post, to hand out bottled-water contracts to friends and show junketing politicians a good time.
Don’t fret though if you are having trouble separating this particular crime from other Republican offenses. There’s a good reason — they’re all one scandal, part of the same wave of militarism, fraud, and ideology that has swamped American politics of late. While this wave of scandal seems now to be heading for tsunami proportions, its first swells date back decades. Just take a look at Dusty’s rsum.
After his zealotry got him booted from Sears’ security and the San Diego police department, Foggo drew on his collegiate Young Republican connections to land a job in the early 1980s with the CIA. His first mission was in Honduras, then the staging ground for Ronald Reagan’s secret paramilitary war against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. In addition to his official duties, Foggo helped his old college buddy Brent Wilkes — the defense contractor now implicated in the ongoing bribery case involving former Republican Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham — bring conservative cadres down to Central America. There, he introduced them to anti-Sandinista rebels, better known as Contras. It seems that, even then, a lot more than anti-Communist solidarity was on the agenda. Three of Wilkes’ former friends now claim that these trips included partying with prostitutes.
A New Right Mecca
Dusty, of course, is not the only veteran of Reagan’s Central American policy who has resurfaced to help fight George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror.” The list includes John Negroponte, Elliot Abrams, Otto Reich, John Poindexter, John Bolton, Oliver North, Robert Kagan, and Michael Ledeen. They can also be found in the highest levels of the White House: Dick Cheney cut his political teeth in Congress in the 1980s plumping for Reagan’s Nicaragua policy, thundering that any attempt to prohibit Contra aid was a legislative “abuse of power.” And on the frontlines, James Steele, who led the Special Forces mission in El Salvador and worked with North to run weapons and supplies to the Contras, was sent to Iraq to help train a ruthless counterinsurgency force made up of ex-Baathist thugs. (Steele is batting two for two: As in El Salvador, such training has produced not security but widespread death-squad atrocities.)
Just as progressives from the United States traveled to Nicaragua in the 1980s to support the Sandinistas, militants of the ascendant Reagan Revolution flocked to Honduras as well as El Salvador and Guatemala, where staunchly anti-Communist regimes were waging ruthless counterinsurgencies that resulted in the murder of over 260,000 people. Dig a bit into the past of any of the thousands of religious or secular movement conservatives who came up in those years and odds are, as with Dusty, you’ll find they played some role in Central America.
Central America became a New Right mecca because it was the one place where conservatives could match words to deeds. Reagan swept into office promising to restore America’s pride and purpose in the post-Vietnam world. But the complexities of the Cold War often forced a more equivocating diplomacy on him than he had promised his followers. There was unexpected conciliation (he befriended Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev) and deep humiliation (the withdrawal of American troops from Lebanon after a devastating car bombing). By midpoint in his second term, the Right had had enough of what they considered Reagan’s timidity, condemning their President as an appeaser and a “useful idiot” for his evident willingness to negotiate nuclear-arms reductions with Moscow.
But on Central America, of little geopolitical importance in itself, there would be no conciliation or humiliation. Based on policies designed and executed by the hardest of hardliners in his administration, Reagan’s unwavering patronage of death-squad states in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and his backing of anti-Communist “freedom fighters” in Nicaragua gathered the disparate passions of the conservative movement — of all those obscure Dusty Foggos — into a single mission. It also turned Central America into a sinkhole of fanaticism and murder.
Enter Ollie North
Many of those who traveled down to Central America were Young Turk Republicans who would preside over the right-wing radicalization and corruption of the House of Representatives under Reagan in the 1980s and during the Gingrich insurgency of the 1990s. San Diego Representative Bill Lowery, for example, first elected to the House in 1980 at the tender age of thirty-three, traveled in the Foggo and Wilkes Honduran road show, part of a Republican task force organized to help sell Reagan’s Contra war against the Sandinistas to a skeptical Congress and public. After leaving office, Lowery, who has floated around the edges of every Republican scandal from the Savings and Loan collapse of the 1980s to the recent Jack Abramoff lobbying case, and is now reportedly under investigation by the Justice Department, went on to become a top lobbyist, skilled in the art of “earmarking.”
The corruption represented by Foggo, Wilkes, and Duke Cunningham is an integral part of what President Dwight Eisenhower termed the “military-industrial complex.” And it goes hand-in-hand with war-making. If we didn’t have an enemy to fight, how could we justify spending all that money on defense, not to mention on the hookers and poker that went with the lobbying parties?
But in the wake of Vietnam, just as Foggo’s generation of conservatives was beginning to taste power, the Democratic Congress, along with the State Department and even much of the Pentagon, was not in a fighting mood. Congress had enacted a slew of laws, set up oversight committees, and designed prohibitions to limit the White House’s ability to wage war and execute covert actions. Congress now claimed the power to regulate presidential decisions related to military aid, arms sales, and the sending of troops abroad; it also demanded that the CIA inform up to eight committees of its activities. Banned were peacetime assassinations of foreign leaders, as were covert operations against American citizens at home. Worse yet, the USSR, the “evil empire,” was proving to be an uncooperative opponent — or rather, it was being too cooperative, willing to negotiate on a range of security issues. In order to implement a policy of “rollback,” as the neocons and militarists wanted to do, one needed an enemy to rollback.
Enter Colonel Ollie North, then an aide to the National Security Council — and the rest of the Iran-Contra gang. It was twenty years ago this November that a story broke in the press revealing a secret sale, brokered by North, of thousands of high-tech missiles to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran at a greatly inflated price, with the profits laundered through a rogue’s gallery of unsavory middlemen — Iranian expatriates, Israeli-arms dealers, right-wing mercenaries, anti-Communist client states like Saudi Arabia, Moonies, and drug runners — to bypass a congressional prohibition on military aid to the Contras.
No One Left Behind
What became known as “Iran-Contra,” however, was much more than an illegal arms deal. It was the New Right’s first concerted campaign to restore to the executive branch the power to wage unaccountable war, to override congressional scrutiny, and go on the ideological and military offensive in a place where, unlike in Vietnam, there was no major power to get in the way.
Democratic and public opposition to the Contras, which was strong, proved to be a blessing in disguise for the conservative movement. It forced the White House to rely on its social base to execute its “off-the-books” Nicaraguan war, thus thickening the connections between diverse New Right groups. It created a dense network of intellectuals, action groups, and social movements, uniting mainstream conservatives with militants from the carnivalesque Right. Urbane sophisticates like Ambassador to the UN Jeanne Kirkpatrick and businessmen like Rite-Aid heir Lewis Lehrman (today a member of the infamous neocon Project for the New American Century) made common cause with Soldier of Fortune wet-op lunatics, Sunbelt evangelical capitalists like Pat Robertson, and end-timers like Tim LaHaye (who, long before he hit the best-seller lists with his Left Behind series, was hawking Reagan’s Central American crusade to the evangelical rank-and-file).
In Washington, the first generation of neoconservatives, in alliance with politicized Vietnam vets like North who took second-tier positions in the Reagan administration, created an inter-agency war party that allowed them to move forward with support for the Contras despite congressional opposition. The shadowy infrastructure of Iran-Contra, designed to override more cautious area experts in the State Department and the CIA, who opposed Contra funding, foreshadowed Douglas Feith’s scheming Office of Special Plans, which cooked the intelligence and helped manipulate the media to make the case for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In fact, a key Feith advisor, neocon intellectual Michael Ledeen, who in the 1980s worked the Israeli angle of the Iran-Contra affair, has recently helped to rehabilitate his old buddy and fellow Iran-Contra luminary, the habitual liar Manucher Ghorbanifar, as a credible proponent of “regime change” in Iran. (There are even reports that the Pentagon, with Dick Cheney’s backing, has just put Ghorbanifar on the U.S. payroll.)
It was over Central America that New Right ideologues first began to junk multilateralism. When the International Court of Justice ordered that the United States pay Nicaragua billions of dollars in reparations for mining the country’s principle port and for conducting an illegal war of aggression, Washington balked and withdrew from the Court’s jurisdiction. It was a “watershed moment,” according to legal scholar Eric Posner, in the U.S. relationship with the international community, one that Bush’s Ambassador to the UN John Bolton has cited as evidence for why the U.S. should not support the new International Criminal Court.
In the field, Reagan’s Central American wars provided a way to reactivate CIA and Pentagon counterinsurgency operatives, desk-bound since the U.S. was kicked out of Southeast Asia, coordinating their work with private mercenaries, conservative (often evangelical) financiers, and a rising Christian fundamentalist movement.
So even as the military high command was taking steps to prevent another Vietnam from happening by attempting to limit the use of American troops to clearly defined objectives with clearly defined exit strategies, civilian ideologues and militarists in Central America were pushing in the opposite direction. In El Salvador, they were funding the largest nation-building counterinsurgency since Vietnam; while in Nicaragua — where they were hailing rapists, torturers, and murderers as “the moral equivalents of our founding fathers” — they were advancing a vision of military power used not for specific ends but to launch what they today call a “democratic global revolution.”
Watch Out, John Murtha
As does today’s “War on Terror,” Iran-Contra had a domestic front, which helped to normalize the kind of media manipulation, political harassment, and domestic surveillance that has since become commonplace in Bush’s America.
Staffed with psych warfare operatives from the CIA and the Army’s Fourth Psychological Operations Group, the Office of Public Diplomacy, set up in 1983 and headed by Otto Reich, carried out a massive campaign of media deception. Working with polls conducted by Madison-Avenue PR firms, the office provided emotive talking points to government officials, pundits, and scholars, linking the Sandinistas to any number of world evils: terrorism, Soviet nuclear submarines, religious and ethnic persecution, Cuba’s Castro, East Germans, Bulgarians, PLO leader Arafat, Libyan dictator Qadhafi, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, even Germany’s Baader-Meinhof Gang — claims as false as, yet no less effective than, those now famous sixteen words in Bush’s State of the Union Address of 2003 that pinned the yellowcake tail on the Iraqi donkey.
It was through Reich’s Office of Public Diplomacy that the White House mobilized grassroots conservative organizations not just to supply anti-Communist rebels with arms, bibles, medicine, and food, but to go after congressional and media critics. Here began the “swift boating” of American politics — distinct from 1950s McCarthyism in that it was actually orchestrated and funded by the executive branch.
For instance, New Right militants, advised by PR experts under government contract, focused much of their work on unseating the congressional anti-militarists elected in the wake of the Vietnam disaster, particularly those who opposed Reagan’s Central American policy. If you “cross” Reagan, said a Republican aide, “they’re going to carve you up publicly.” That’s what happened to Maryland Democratic Congressman Michael Barnes during a failed Senatorial bid. He fell victim to a smear campaign organized by International Business Communication, a Republican PR firm that worked closely with Public Diplomacy and the independent Anti-Terrorism American Committee. “Destroy Barnes,” said the notes of one of the Committee’s operatives. Watch out, John Murtha.
It was also in defense of Reagan’s Central American policies that the various branches of the country’s intelligence agencies joined forces to intimidate domestic dissenters, anticipating many of the practices — FBI and CIA file-sharing, for instance — that would be institutionalized by the Patriot Act and the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (filled by John Negroponte, who presided over the Contra war as ambassador to Honduras, where he reportedly covered-up death-squad murders). And the logic that today justifies Gitmo contains more than a whiff of Oliver North’s plan to suspend the Constitution and place domestic opponents of the Contra War in concentration camps.
The Swamp of Militarism and Corruption
Like the Watergate scandal, Iran-Contra started out as a small, back-page newspaper story only to explode into a major constitutional crisis. Yet unlike Watergate, which yielded a broad consensus regarding the dangers of unchecked executive power, Iran-Contra produced no closure. The Tower Commission, appointed by Reagan, focused on procedural issues related to presidential control over the NSA; Congress’s investigation turned out to be a mess; and the Special Prosecutor’s inquiry dragged on for years, stonewalled by the Department of Justice, with none other than John Bolton taking the lead in playing defense.
reason neither the public, nor the press, nor the political system
ever successfully came to terms with Iran-Contra was the tendency
of reporters and government investigators to get lost in a thicket
of conspiracy, to waste their energy tracing the tangle of branches
that they always hoped would provide a clear map of the crime. Aspects
of Iran-Contra were certainly criminal — illegal arms sales to
an enemy nation to fund an illegal war; the use of drug traffickers
to run supplies to the Contras; money laundering; the deployment of
CIA operatives to influence domestic opinion.
Yet, in a sense, the investigators were all barking up the wrong tree. It wasn’t a conspiracy at all, but part of a larger storm of ideological passion, entwining economic interests and political ambition, that delivered the American system to the New Right. Iran-Contra — and Reagan’s Central American policy more broadly — broke down the tottering levees of a foreign policy already discredited from failure in Vietnam, creating the swamp in which militarism and corruption thrive. Until it is recognized as such, it will continue to suck us down, even as odd pieces of flotsam like Foggo, Wilkes, and Cunningham continue to rise to the surface.
Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture. Greg Grandin teaches Latin American history at New York University and is the author of Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, The United States, and The Rise of the New Imperialism.