Members of the Sandinista Army capture U.S. pilot Eugene Hassenfus after he was shot down during a mission over southeast Nicaragua in October 1986. The Iran-Contra affairs in Nicaragua during the 1980's was one of the more famous international political battlefields waged by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan during his presidency in the 1980s.

The summer of 1987 was unusually hot. To the Reagan White House it must have also seemed unusually long, for the Administration’s basic competence in the conduct of foreign policy was on public trial, day after day, on national television.

Hearings of the House and Senate select committees began on May 5 to investigate the secret arms sales to Iran and the diversion of profits from those sales to the Nicaraguan contras. At first the proceedings were little more than a dull exercise in detective work. Suddenly, with the appearance of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North from July 7 to 14, there came a new air of courtroom drama. Public attention was galvanized—and polarized—by North’s defense of his own actions and by his challenges to the committees.

North did little, however, to clear up the basic question of what the president knew. It was left to a subsequent witness, Rear Admiral John Poindexter, the former national security adviser, to address this: he testified that he had not briefed President Reagan about the diversion of profits to the contras, and the fateful question seemed laid to rest. But then the testimony of Secretary of State George Shultz raised still broader questions about the formulation and conduct of the Iran policy by the Reagan Administration, the practice of covert operations, the constitutional balance between the executive and legislative branches in foreign policy, and the outlook for a weakened presidency that still had 18 months left in which to govern.

The hearings—at times a sharp and heated dispute between witnesses and the committees—started narrowly, as an inquiry into the procedures followed in the conduct of two covert actions involving Iran and Nicaragua. In the mid-1970s the Congress had passed legislation (the Hughes-Ryan Act) requiring a presidential "finding" that each covert action was in the national interest; Congress was to be informed in a "timely" manner. At that time, the prevailing wisdom was that the risks of undertaking covert actions could be lessened by these congressional limits on the executive. The Iran-contra affair obviously challenged this assumption. It demonstrated that a determined administration could and did conduct a secret policy for over a year without any congressional involvement. The hearings thus left Congress to ponder how it could reestablish its controls over covert policies. For his part, President Reagan issued new and tighter guidelines on reporting of covert actions.

Nevertheless, one possibility that the hearings raised was to make the president’s staff more accountable for their actions. Since the National Security Act was passed in 1947, the White House staff has grown in importance and power, especially since the Kennedy Administration; it nevertheless remained shielded from congressional oversight by custom and by the doctrine of executive privilege. The NSC staff, however, was never thought to be an operational arm, though in the tradition of Colonel House and Harry Hopkins, this option was always implicit, as far as presidential diplomacy was concerned. What happened in the Reagan Administration was quite different: the NSC staff took operational control of a major project, the sale of arms to Iran, with general presidential approval. This was unprecedented.

Ever since the affair was exposed it was apparent that both the secretary of state and the secretary of defense had opposed the Iran initiative. Thus, the question was: How could such an unprecedented situation develop? How could the NSC staff conduct a clandestine operation over the objections of the two senior cabinet officers? An earlier inquiry into the Iran-contra affair, the Tower Commission, had concluded last February that the NSC policymaking system was still sound, but had not been properly used in the Reagan years. When he testified before the select committees, however, Secretary Shultz took issue with this conclusion, arguing in blunt terms that the NSC system itself was faulty, that its staff had amassed too much power in the policy formulation process, and that the line between intelligence analysis and policy advice had been breached too often by the CIA and its director, the late William Casey. These were serious charges, which deserve a thoughtful examination after the furor of the hearings finally ends.

It took an outside observer, Lou Cannon of The Washington Post, to define the core of the problem more sharply. "When historians assess the decline and fall of President Reagan’s credibility," he wrote, "they are likely to find that the Iran-contra affair was a disaster rooted in obsessive presidential preoccupation with secrecy."

Both Admiral Poindexter and Colonel North justified this obsessive secrecy by citing their distrust of the Congress. Both officials, however, also asserted a virtually unobstructed presidential mandate to direct foreign policy, deriving from the Constitution and 200 years of practice. Despite the president’s word to the contrary, they claimed that their own actions had been fully in accord with that mandate. Colonel North stated: "I believed, from the moment I was engaged in this activity in 1984, that this was in furtherance of the foreign policy established by the president."

A body of legal opinion supports the view, as expressed in the Supreme Court’s Curtiss-Wright decision of 1936, that the president is the "sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations." Congress has never been content with this interpretation, and for the past 20 years, the struggle over these powers has intensified. Vietnam was the catalyst, and the debate was aggravated by Watergate. The congressional role has increased accordingly, through such legislation as the War Powers Act of 1973 and the Hughes-Ryan Act of 1974. The Iran-contra hearings could thus be seen as one more round in the 200-year-old contest that began when President Washington submitted the Jay treaty with Great Britain to the Senate, but refused to submit the private papers from John Jay’s negotiations.

Today all but the most diehard advocates of legislative responsibility would concede that the Congress has repeatedly demonstrated a structural inability to manage foreign policy; the changing Boland amendments limiting aid to the Nicaraguan contras are a glaring case in point. Nevertheless the hearings seem likely to provoke additional congressional limitations on presidential powers, not just because the Congress was excluded from the policymaking process, but because it was misled and misinformed as it attempted to perform the duties already assigned to it. The committees’ co-chairman, Congressman Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) delivered a powerful statement to Colonel North at the conclusion of North’s testimony:

You acknowledge that you were "erroneous, misleading, evasive and wrong" in your testimony to the Congress. I appreciate, sir, that honesty can be hard in the conduct of government. But I am impressed that policy was driven by a series of lies—lies to the Iranians, lies to the Central Intelligence Agency, lies to the attorney general, lies to our friends and allies, lies to the Congress and lies to the American people.


The hearings gave the American public an unprecedented opportunity to examine the inner workings of the policy process. Rarely has there been such a detailed public exposure of policymaking within the executive branch. The president made a deliberate decision not to withhold documents from the committees, even policy documents of the type that previous presidents had fought to protect; it was also clear that all of his subordinates were free to testify about their own advice to him and to report presidential conversations and meetings. Both Secretary of State Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger felt compelled to warn that such a sweeping exposure could not be a precedent. Yet the precedent was established, and therein may lie a source of future conflict between the Congress and the White House.

Although new colorful detail emerged, the main conclusions still seemed to be those reached by the Tower Commission: namely, that this Administration’s faulty process—the lack of a clear and organized system for making policy—significantly increased the opportunity for misjudgments and errors. The testimony of the senior officials confirmed this somber evaluation; they told of an increasingly chaotic process, in which senior cabinet officers were overruled and then deceived, and of how, in the end, NSC officials chose to exclude the president himself from their confidences.

Even if the procedures had been more meticulous, the real issue was the policy itself. "Two policies brought us here," said Representative Hamilton, "the arms sales to Iran and the diversion of funds from those sales to the contras. The first began with a document the president forgot and you [Poindexter] considered inoperative. The second began without the president’s knowledge."

It was also the burden of Secretary Shultz’s remarks that the Iran policy, no matter how well conceived as a broad strategic initiative, became nothing more than a swap of arms for hostages, just the step that President Reagan argued he would never take. And the hearings as a whole reinforced this conclusion. It was the president’s compassion for the hostages that seemed to drive him again and again back to one more effort to free them through the opening to Iran. This made him vulnerable to strong advocates of covert programs, who became mesmerized by the means and lost sight of the ends.

Students of decision-making would do well to analyze the crucial period between early December 1985 and mid-January 1986. Despite advice to the contrary from both the secretary of state and the secretary of defense, and despite the similarly negative view of Robert McFarlane, Poindexter’s predecessor as national security adviser, the president signed the decisive document that authorized the direct sales of American arms to Iran. As Secretary Shultz commented, this happened during a traumatic period and, indeed, during a battle within the highest policymaking circles of government. But whatever the explanation, the result was severe damage to the presidency and to American foreign policy.

The summer of 1987 seemed to be a premature prelude to the election process that engulfs the United States every four years. But this time there were many who welcomed the prospect. A veteran of countless battles and campaigns, James Reston, commented in The New York Times: "One thing the Iran-contra hearings have demonstrated is that this country needs a presidential election." The long hot summer is leading to a long and heated fall and winter, until in Iowa and New Hampshire the American people will begin to pronounce their verdict on the last eight years, and expectations for the next four.


In a summer filled with talk of "ultimate ironies," the effect of the investigations on the actual policy toward the contras and Iran was surely ironic. At the beginning of the summer it had been a nearly unanimous opinion among Washington observers that the cause of the contras was all but dead in the Congress. Then opinion began to turn, but after the signing of a peace plan in Guatemala, the situation was even more confused.

If the contra issue took an ironic turn, consider events in the Persian Gulf. In the hearings the Administration was under attack for its clandestine arms sales to Iran, but as the hearings proceeded the U.S. Navy was assembling a formidable armada to protect Kuwaiti shipping in the Gulf against Iranian attacks. As the hearings aired the question of congressional controls over foreign policy, in the halls of the same Congress a fierce debate broke out over the reflagging policy. Even though there seemed to be a consensus that there was a clear American interest in keeping open the shipping lines through the Gulf, the Administration’s chosen formula of putting the American flag on Kuwaiti tankers and providing them with naval escorts was challenged. Despite efforts in the Congress to block the White House and to apply the War Powers legislation, after several weeks of debate and parliamentary maneuvering Congress failed to take action.

On July 21 the first reflagged Kuwaiti vessels set sail under American escort for the Persian Gulf. The United States was on a collision course with Iran, less than a year after trying to placate that country through arms sales and secret diplomacy. The nagging question was whether the covert Iran initiative could have worked, had it been handled more skillfully and professionally, or whether it was, as critics charged, a less than clever deception all along.

This will be debated long after the hearings have ended and the final reports are delivered. Yet as summer ended it seemed that the most important event in the Reagan Administration’s final months might turn out to be a third Reagan-Gorbachev meeting and a new arms control agreement, which could overshadow even the damage done by the Iran-contra scandal.

If there is a summit meeting this fall, it will occur near the 25th anniversary of one of the most dramatic and dangerous international confrontations in American history: the Cuban missile crisis. In the spring of 1987 a group of scholars at Harvard invited some of the major participants in the crisis to reassemble to refresh their recollections and comment on the lessons learned. An analysis appears in this issue of Foreign Affairs. The lessons drawn by Robert Kennedy at the time remain apt today: successful policymaking in a crisis requires three deliberate and parallel stages: careful consideration of alternatives, sober weighing of risks, and meticulous management of the events as they unfold.

Conduct along those lines is no guarantee against failure, but the disregard of such lessons, as manifested by the Iran-contra affair, leads inevitably to disaster.

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