The Magazine

WORSE THAN IRAN-CONTRA

Jun 8, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 38 • By DAVID FRUM
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President Clinton of course makes similar claims for himself. He says he considered nothing except what was good for America when he authorized the Loral satellite launches -- and, by implication, all the other technology deals with China that have been done since 1993. His words would be easier to believe if he had not been caught in so many previous lies -- and if his campaign treasury had not been stuffed with cash from the Chinese government, American aerospace companies, Charlie Trie's many mysterious friends, Al Gore's Buddhist nuns, and the Riady family. It's always possible, of course, that the money did not in the end influence him. But judging by outward appearances, this is an administration for sale on a scale that would have impressed Edward Gibbon.


Republican talking heads have been repeating with robotic unanimity the slogan that the Loral satellite deal is a national-security scandal not a financial scandal. That is less than half right. It's true that the sale to a potentially hostile power of advanced technology with nuclear-warfare applications over the objections of the State, Defense, and Justice departments and the CIA is eyebrow-raising. But it's the conjunction of this sale with massive and often illegal fund-raising from people with large interests in placating the Chinese government that transforms the Loral deal from routine Clinton foreign-policy boneheadedness into something far more disquieting.


Open trade with China is not a self-evidently idiotic policy, and sometimes it is hard to know precisely where commercial considerations must stop and security concerns take priority. Those are the determinations that Americans should be able to trust their president to make. And that is why it is so urgent that the president preserve his reputation for integrity and honor beyond question or reproach. If not for the foreign contributions, the satellite sale would be a controversy, not a scandal, because nobody could call it anything worse than an error in judgment. It's the money that taints the deal. We cannot know what is inside the president's mind. The campaign contributions from China and its friends may not really have been a quid; the presidential satellite waivers may not ultimately have been a quo. Who knows? We can only see what is visible -- and that is a dizzying flow of Chinese money into the Clinton campaign and an equally dizzying flow of potentially deadly technology out of America.


The Clinton administration appears remarkably unflustered by all this. There have been no promises to get to the bottom of the story, nothing like the Tower Commission that Ronald Reagan instantly convened in 1986. Back when the story broke of the purloined FBI files, the Clinton administration's spin-doctors smilingly argued that the administration might be a bit sloppy, but it was not crooked. They have stopped saying things like that. Perhaps a weary administration has decided it can no longer be bothered to keep up the appearance of honesty. Perhaps it has taken the Lewinsky affair as proof that Reagan was a chump: that a president does not have to answer questions if the answers are embarrassing.


So the press and Congress must decide for themselves how to react to the possibility that the flow of money in and weapons technology out was more than a coincidence. How big a scandal is this one really?


Just for comparison, imagine that Ronald Reagan had sold the Iranians not anti-tank weapons, but ballistic-missile technology. Imagine that he had accepted millions of dollars in campaign donations from the ayatollah's government, from private Iranian citizens with tight business ties to that government, and from U.S. oil companies eager to drill in Iran. How big a scandal would that have been?


Or imagine this: Suppose that Ronald Reagan had drawn large, murky benefits throughout his governorship from a pro-apartheid South African billionaire? Suppose that money from that same billionaire had been paid to an intimate Reagan associate at a time when he was supposed to testify about Reagan's involvement in a financial crime? What if Reagan had called for a tough policy against South Africa during the campaign of 1980 only to reverse himself as soon as he entered office -- and had then invited the local representative of that helpful billionaire into his Commerce Department, recruited him as a fund-raiser for his reelection campaign, and accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars of illegal contributions from South Africans?