For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.

—Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

Never mind the inexactitude of the analogy, or the fact that a character of the performing arts may seem to be an odd point of departure for an examination of U.S. foreign policy and the crisis of confidence and competence that began to engulf the Reagan presidency in the fall of 1986, threatening to leave it dead in the water for the next two years. Ronald Reagan, after all, has his own odd point of departure; he is a unique president, the first to make the passage to politics and the presidency from a career in the performing arts.

It is arguable whether, for Mr. Reagan, the world ever ceases to be a stage. Perhaps it doesn’t, and perhaps that is the point; Mr. Reagan’s approach to foreign policy over the years, and his performance in the first six years of his presidency in particular, have defied conventional or orthodox tests and standards applied by foreign policy practitioners, historians and academics. Experts in domestic politics and the American psyche may be the more reliable guides. The criteria for statecraft do not apply when what is being practiced more often than not is stagecraft, when dreaming impossible dreams is seen as something that "comes with the territory."

It is in this sense that Arthur Miller’s salesman, Willy Loman, becomes an appropriate metaphor for Mr. Reagan’s extraordinary mastery of the American political scene and for his Administration’s collapsed condition at the turn of the year. There was no "rock bottom" to his political power in foreign policy: it rested almost wholly on public faith in the image of the President and on all the good things he symbolized ("America Standing Tall"), rather than on the firm foundation of unsentimental support for his policies, his programs and his performance, or a popular demand for substantive accomplishment. He had no time for fitting bolts to nuts. He was, indeed, "way out there in the blue," and he was, in fact, largely held blameless. (His most bitter critics, for the most part, have been his own true believers, sensing betrayals of their conservative beliefs.)

Then came the revelations of arms dealings with the tyrant Americans most love to hate, the man who held America hostage for more than a year, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. That was the earthquake: the American public started "not smiling back" at their President.

Could everything go wrong so fast—and, if so, how and why? Where does this leave the conduct of foreign policy for the remainder of Mr. Reagan’s presidency? Was the earthquake a passing thing, albeit unsettling? Or does it mark the end of a "tottering" presidency, as Senator Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) put it, signaling in turn the end of the Reagan Administration’s capacity to govern and the opening up of a scandal with all of the destructive potential, if not the same character, as Watergate?

II

The initial tremors were surely ominous. The President’s approval ratings in the polls plummeted: almost half of the American public believed that Ronald Reagan was lying when he said he knew nothing of the diversion of the profits from the arms sales to Iran to the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries or "contras." The damage assessments varied widely between those who clung to their confidence in Mr. Reagan’s proven resilience and those who believed he had doomed himself to two years of reactive, defensive, unproductive foreign policy.

This latter scenario is not easy to dismiss. But neither can it be easily reconciled with the Reagan record over the years and the essential character of the Reagan presidency.

Unless one believes that the Administration, before the Iran revelations, was poised for a triumphant foreign policy finale (a hard proposition to defend), the current "Reagan Crisis" has much more the look of the natural consequence of an almost incredibly loose and unstructured way of going about the nation’s business, carried along by a fierce ideology far more than careful calculation, and by the lift of Ronald Reagan’s driving dreams. If that is so, what comes out of this crisis may be no worse—and may be even better—than what we had before.

The thought that things may never be the same again with the Reagan Administration, in short, is not such an awful thought. It is not, after all, as if a cohesive foreign policy making team, actively pursuing sound and successful policies, has been cruelly crippled through no fault of its own, or as if an able, activist president will now be unfairly robbed of his capacity to protect national security and project American power and influence.

Not surprisingly, this is not the view of those Reagan supporters inside and outside the government who would call off the hunt, abbreviate the congressional investigations, accelerate the judicial inquiries, cause a few heads to roll and get swiftly on to business as usual—which is to say the Reagan Revolution, the Reagan Doctrine, the Conservative Agenda. Put the crisis behind us, this reasoning goes, and the Reagan Administration will reemerge in an entirely different light—as a success story, by and large.

And that, in fact, is how many saw it after the first five years of the Administration’s foreign policy. Writing in last year’s issue of America and the World, Michael Mandelbaum argued that "Ronald Reagan has been a lucky president." He had passed the tests that Mandelbaum thought counted most: America’s standing in the world had improved since 1981; war had been avoided; geopolitical setbacks had been averted. There had been no Vietnam or Iran, he noted, speaking just a year too soon. By those standards, Mandelbaum wrote, "the President has conducted what is perhaps the most successful American foreign policy of the last 25 years."

Perhaps, by those standards. But Mandelbaum went on to argue:

The success that the United States has enjoyed since 1981 has been due in large part to circumstances having little direct connection with the efforts of the Reagan Administration. It has been the result of forces and trends outside the control of the United States and of measures undertaken by others and occasionally even opposed by Mr. Reagan. He owes his success abroad at least as much to good fortune as to good policies.

By this reasoning, it could be said, the Reagan Administration owes its Iran/contra debacle at least as much to bad fortune as to bad policies, and it is here that the "luck of the President" analysis of Mr. Reagan’s performance breaks down.

To see Mr. Reagan’s Iran problem as an isolated, minor mishap, or to write it off to misfortune, is to ignore the record and to misread the man himself. As a consequence, it is to misperceive the implications of the current crisis for the conduct of foreign policy over the next two years.

The inadequacy of the "minor accident" theory of the Iran case is well demonstrated by the Administration’s own hapless efforts to sweep the debris under the nearest rug. The President accepted the resignation of his national security adviser (his fourth in six years), Vice Admiral John M. Poindexter, and relieved the ubiquitous Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North from his frenetic White House duties. The Administration licensed a special prosecutor, and established a commission to review the Administration’s misuse and abuse of the National Security Council system and to recommend more orderly procedures. The commander in chief of the armed forces begged a vice admiral and a lieutenant colonel to forgo their Fifth Amendment protections against self-incrimination for the sake of clearing the President, the vice president and the White House chief of staff, at the very least, of complicity.

The transparency of the effort was evident in the President’s own disclaimer of a deal—"We did not, repeat, did not trade weapons or anything else for hostages"—even as he was, seemingly unwittingly, confirming in the same carefully crafted television address to the nation that a "trade" was precisely what had taken place: "Those with whom we were in contact . . . needed a signal of our serious intent," the President said. The "signal" was the furnishing of arms. "At the same time we undertook this initiative, we made clear that Iran must oppose all forms of international terrorism as a condition of progress in our relationship. The most significant step which Iran could take, we indicated, would be to use its influence in Lebanon to secure the release of all hostages held there."

The "condition" for the arms sales, then, was the release of the hostages—and that, somehow, is not a "trade"? All of this, in addition, was supposed to be a way of encouraging Iran to make peace with Iraq; in reality it added significantly to Iran’s ability to intensify and perhaps even win the war and present itself as an important new threat to U.S. interests in the region. A further, seemingly contradictory purpose supposedly was to prepare the ground for a more stable relationship with Iran in the post-Khomeini era.

The futility of the effort to make sense out of what was clearly a covert departure from established and accepted public policy was evident in the public response. Not only did the President’s general approval ratings plunge, the polls came up with the astonishing finding that roughly half the citizenry did not believe that the most trusted president in memory was telling the truth. Those who did believe Mr. Reagan, of course, had to accept the implication that the President’s most intimate aides had spun out of his control. This was not a state of affairs that could quickly be fixed in the manner suggested by the demeaning image offered by Chief of Staff Donald Regan, of a White House "shovel brigade" tidying up after a parade.

We will never know whether Mr. Reagan might have restored the unprecedented public trust that stood him in such good stead for the first six years if he had dispensed with the double-talk, conceded that the Iran caper had done gross violence to stated principles and solemn promises, resisted the impulse to anoint Oliver North as a "national hero," and frankly admitted that he had made serious mistakes. Instead, the authentic voice of Ronald Reagan was to be found in a series of public outbursts by Patrick Buchanan, who from his position as White House communications director extolled the resort to lawlessness in pursuit of noble causes as a principled act and an entirely acceptable public policy.

That it should fall to Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Regan to serve as the point men in the President’s damage-limitation efforts was almost enough in itself to disprove the "minor accident" theory. It was, after all, Mr. Reagan’s decision to ignore the original counsel of the State Department, and of the secretary of defense as well—and to stand down, in effect, the battalions of established bureaucracies that ordinarily conduct national security affairs, transferring the conduct of his "closet" Iran policy to a corporal’s guard of White House confidants. He was, accordingly, in no position to muster the full resources at his command when it came time to work his way out of the Iran mess. He stood very nearly alone.

If the President recognized the recklessness of doing business in so unorthodox a fashion, he gave no sign of it. On the contrary, perhaps the most reliable expression of his true feelings is to be found in an interview with Hugh Sidey of Time magazine that the President apparently initiated with a telephone call. The President unburdened himself of a bitter sense of having been unjustly victimized and attributed his plight in large, if not quite full, measure to "a great irresponsibility" on the part of "the media." That the President should have such a slim grasp of the dimensions of what has befallen him only reinforces the conclusion that the "minor accident" reading of the affair will not work.

III

Must we then accept the alternative theory of the "fatal accident," the end of a "tottering" presidency? Ironically, this has been propounded by many of the President’s sympathizers (more in sorrow than in anger). It is reasonably founded on the Administration’s multiple demonstrations of genuine—and perhaps irremediable—managerial disarray. It is further strengthened by the collapse of public confidence and the rush to judgment by seasoned Reaganologists, that the Reagan presidency has for all practical purposes come to an end.

Thus, The Washington Post’s Lou Cannon, who has covered Mr. Reagan since his days as governor of California, recalled in December a July cover story in Time magazine describing Mr. Reagan as "a Prospero of American memories, a magician who carries a bright, ideal America like a holograph in his mind and projects its image in the air." A little less than six months after this panegyric, and six weeks into the ravages of the Iran affair, Cannon came to the melancholy conclusion that "all the glitter is gone now, all the magic lost." The President had spent 50 years "insinuating himself into the national consciousness as a believable character who was America’s best version of itself," Cannon continued. "Then the symbolmaster threw it all away in an escapade so preposterous in its premises and implications that Hollywood would never have accepted the script."

The fatal act of betrayal, Cannon argued, was the spectacle of a President who had promised "never again" to bow to dictators or yield to terrorism, suddenly "revealed as doing secret business with representatives of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini." Most polls bore out this analysis; it was the dealing with Khomeini, more than the flimflam with the profits and the contras, that gave Mr. Reagan’s followers such deep distress.

Fred Barnes, The New Republic’s White House watcher, saw it otherwise: the "de facto end of the Reagan presidency," he believed, came at the precise moment it was revealed that proceeds from the arms sales to Iran had been "laundered and funneled" to the contras. That, Barnes contended, had turned a question of policy into a criminal case and a full-blown scandal. If Barnes dissented on which aspect of the crisis most offended the American public, he shared Cannon’s conclusion: "For Reagan, the worst is at hand. The Administration has lost control of events. Suddenly it is no longer the dominant force in American politics and government."

One trouble with these calamitous conclusions is their suggestion that if the reel could simply be run back to the day before the dealings with Iran were laid bare, we would have a Reagan Administration "in control of events" and "the dominant force in American politics and government." But the day of the Iran disclosures, of course, was also the day that Mr. Reagan and the Republicans lost control of the U.S. Senate. In the weeks immediately preceding that setback, there was the disclosure of "disinformation" about Libya as an accepted Administration practice of which the President insisted he was unaware. There was the President’s loss of control over his policy for South Africa when the Senate overrode his veto of economic sanctions. And, finally, if the Iceland summit proved anything, it proved that the President was not even in control of his own Administration’s arms control policy, let alone in control of U.S. relations with the Soviet Union.

To suggest, then, that the Iran/contra revelations cost the Reagan presidency its command of events is to forget what these revelations were all about: the President had lost command and control of the levers of the National Security Council machinery. If he, the vice president and the White House chief of staff are to be taken at their word, they had lost control over the White House national security adviser, who in turn only loosely controlled his overenthusiastic subordinate. The President, moreover, had lost the support of both his secretary of state and his secretary of defense for a significant foreign policy initiative.

This brings us to the more fundamental problem with the "fatal accident" theory: from the judgment that Ronald Reagan has lost his "magic," it does not necessarily follow that we are condemned for the next two years to exceptional immobility in foreign policy—that we will be at the mercy of who-knows-what hostile threats and forces and untoward events. Immobility is more likely to result if the Iran affair is seen as a freaking-out from normal procedures, a one-of-a-kind exception to the rule; for then one could believe that everything will be fine once we simply "get out all the facts." Immobility is much less likely, however, if the crisis is recognized for what it is: the logical consequence of an inherently flawed way of handling national security matters, as an accident only in the strict sense of one that was waiting to happen, and as the inevitable price that would have to be paid, sooner or later, for what one shrewd observer recently called the "sentimentalization of foreign policy."

Leon Wieseltier has made the connection between the President’s fantasy of a perfect defense against ballistic missiles and the "exaggerated humanitarianism" of his efforts to free the remaining American hostages in Lebanon. "The derelictions in Iceland and Iran mark nothing less than the breakdown of the Administration’s idealism, the shipwreck of its moral vanity, the refutation of its case for a statecraft of dreams," Wieseltier wrote in The New York Times Magazine in December, adding: "A foreign policy based not on facts but on moods; not on prudence, but on vision; not on candor, but on enthusiasm; not on calculation, but on initiation—it is not hard to see how [Robert] McFarlane, the former national security adviser, came to his hotel in Teheran."

Mr. Reagan, then, has effectively stood policymaking on its head. A more conventional process would build from the ground up, based on the realities of situations and on what can reasonably be achieved, with prudent consideration of the wider consequences for related security interests. It would strive for at least minimal consensus among the big bureaucracies, in advance, on the soundness of presidential objectives. In the formative stage, precedence would be given to the substance and the merits of the matter, as distinct from its political marketability. It would be left to the President and his political advisers to decide how much of the end product he can sell and how to sell it. Mr. Reagan starts the process at the top, with the advertisement of utopian policies which find a ready market with the American public but which cannot, as a practical matter, be delivered.

His sincerity is not the issue. There is no reason to doubt, for example, that he believes that he thought up his Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") "all by myself"; that the Sandinista government in Nicaragua can be pressured by suitably armed and supported contra forces into "saying uncle" and abandoning its Marxist-Leninist ways without being physically overthrown; that he did not "swap" Nicholas Daniloff for a Soviet spy, and still less offered arms to Iran as "ransom" for American hostages.

The point is not whether Mr. Reagan believes the things he says but that he propounds them both publicly and privately, and that he is cosseted by courtiers who, like Oliver North, not only share the President’s generally unworldly view but are prepared to take presidential wishes as commands.

IV

Here lies the most useful lesson of the Iran mess, however harsh. It is a useful lesson because the Reagan presidency has not so much been unmade as it has been unmasked. That there are fundamental failings in the policymaking process can no longer be denied; on the contrary, for the first time, they can be more or less clearly identified. This offers at least a hope that ways can be found to deal with them over what promise to be, in any event, a difficult and demanding last two years of Mr. Reagan’s Administration.

Longtime associates keep reminding us that Mr. Reagan learned in Sacramento to set aside ideology and idealism and abandon or temper objectives when it became self-evident that they were unattainable, and it has to be noted that in the presidency he has demonstrated a similar readiness to confront reality—as a last resort. His actions have rarely come close to matching his rhetoric as a presidential candidate: he would have bombed North Vietnam into a "parking lot"; blockaded Cuba as a way of forcing the Soviets out of Afghanistan; settled for nothing less than offensive nuclear "superiority." The same may be said of his White House rhetoric and reveries: he gave up his goal of punishing the "evil empire" with sanctions against the Euro-Siberian natural gas pipeline; backed out of the ill-fated intervention in Lebanon; and regularly reneged on his unqualified commitment to "swift and effective retribution" against terrorism when he found the reach to be beyond his grasp. But his devotion to the Strategic Defense Initiative at Reykjavik and his multipurpose Iran venture are recent reminders that he has by no means shaken the habit of entertaining visions and lines of action on which the orthodox machinery of government cannot (or will not) deliver.

If the doomsayers are right, and Mr. Reagan no longer has the magic touch that gives substance to visions, where is the basis for believing that the Reagan presidency has not been crippled beyond repair? Or that it will be, at the very least, in poorer shape to deal with the demands of national security in its last two years than it would have been had there been no Iran exposé?

The only apparent basis rests in part on the premise that the President and the vice president will not themselves be caught up in various investigations and judicial inquiries over the coming months, and in part on a matter of preferences. It comes down to a choice between ills we know and ills we can only imagine. But surely the ones that we can only imagine need not necessarily be worse than the ones we know.

As a direct result of the Iran crisis, for example, we know a lot more than we did about the Administration’s policymaking process. The President was pursuing a course of action out of the White House basement that Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger thought "absurd" and that Secretary of State George Shultz adamantly, but ineffectively, opposed. What Shultz described as "ambiguity" in his position could well be described in harsher terms. He did not resign in protest (as did his predecessor in the Carter Administration, Cyrus Vance), but neither did he support the President’s decision once it had been made. Rather, he objected when it was disclosed that the White House had dealt directly with the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, instead of working through the facilities of a State Department whose chief was hostile to the whole idea and had consciously made little effort to keep himself informed. The CIA apparently engaged in activities that the secretaries of state and defense knew nothing about—let alone Congress, which not only was not consulted under established procedures but whose stated will was flouted.

Is it too much to hope that there will be a good deal less of this sort of thing in the next two years, with an Administration on a tighter rein and under stricter scrutiny of one sort or another? If the President’s magic is gone, so too are Poindexter and North, and with them all manner of public and congressional illusions and presumptions of a certain regularity. A trusted new national security adviser, Frank Carlucci, has conducted a wholesale housecleaning of the National Security Council staff. The President’s commission for reviewing the National Security Council system, consisting of former Senator John Tower, Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft and former Senator and Secretary of State Edmund Muskie—men who know their way around the national security scene—can be counted on to give Mr. Reagan a constructive nudge in the direction of common sense and more traditional procedures. This will help him (if he wants help) to control the unorthodoxy of the zealots in his immediate entourage.

Question marks of all kinds outnumber the available answers, the largest being Mr. Reagan himself. If the magic no longer works, will he now be forced to recognize the need to take into account a broader diversity of opinion before deciding, for example, how to proceed to salvage arms control or his contra aid program, and how to reconcile the inevitable differences he will have with a House and Senate both under Democratic control? It will not be easy for him to conduct a coherent and consistent foreign policy as a doubly lame-duck president, with only a year to go before 1988, when presidential politics will have begun in any case to condition the performance of both Republicans and Democrats in ways that are unlikely to foster a helpful bipartisan spirit.

So the United States government will inevitably be more than ever at the mercy of events and incapable of organizing itself forcefully and credibly behind new initiatives. But when the uncertainties of what lies ahead are weighed against the certainties of where the Reagan Administration was going, and of the way it was proceeding before the Iran affair blew up, the uncertainties of the Iran fallout in the coming months become easier to contemplate. The American public might even begin to ask itself, as it comes to comprehend what went wrong in Iran, whether it is enough to ask nothing more of a president than that he be "out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine."

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  • Philip Geyelin is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and Editor-in-Residence at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
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