Iran-contra lessons lost, experts fear

January 19, 1994|By Sara Fritz and Doyle McManus | Sara Fritz and Doyle McManus,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- While some details of the Iran-contra scandal may still be in dispute, independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh's findings in no way alter the dark tale of a secret foreign policy gone wrong.

Indeed, the plot has proven too thick for any fiction writer to concoct:

First, President Reagan made a secret decision to sell arms to Iran in opposition to his own policy to remain neutral in the Iran-Iraq war.

Second, Mr. Reagan's aides usurped the constitutional role of Congress by using the arms sales profits and money from third countries to fund a civil war in Nicaragua.

Third, there was a systematic cover-up that ensnared top Cabinet members, including the nation's chief law officer, then Attorney General Edwin Meese.

"The complexity of Iran-contra should not obscure the facts of what happened," said Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., who co-chaired the congressional investigation. "A small group of government officials decided they knew what was right for the United States, they kept it secret from the Congress, they showed disdain for the law and acted totally in conflict with the Constitution."

Yet even though the story may now be familiar, many experts fear the lessons of the Iran-contra affair have been lost during many years of investigations, partisan wrangling over details, repeated denials on the part of key figures and an outcome that did not involve either the impeachment of the president or the imprisonment of his top aides.

Former Sen. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., who also played a leading role in the congressional investigation, said that while the Iran-contra scandal is likely to cause presidents to think twice before they defy the Constitution, there is no guarantee.

Harold Hungju Koh, Yale professor of international law and author of a book on the subject, said the nation has mistakenly seen Iran-contra as a typical White House scandal -- similar to Watergate -- instead of a crisis brought on by an antiquated system of shared foreign policy making by the president and the Congress.

"We have a 21st century foreign policy operating with a 19th century apparatus," Mr. Koh observed. "As a result, we have these cycles. First, the president does anything he wants in foreign policy. Then there is an attempt by Congress to rein in his power. That leads to a period of micro-management by Congress. And then we return to the president acting unilaterally."

By failing to develop a post-Cold War mechanism allowing the president and Congress to develop a foreign policy consensus, Mr. Koh said, the government has ignored the principle lesson of Iran-contra.

Unlike the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Nixon, the conviction of many top White House aides and the enactment of many new legal safeguards, Iran-contra had limited fallout.

As Mr. Walsh's report states, while Mr. Reagan may have been guilty of violating the separation of powers, there was never any evidence he engaged in criminal wrongdoing. Mr. Hamilton observed, "You cannot pass a law that makes sure that a president cannot subvert the Constitution."

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