SCIENTISTS TELL US that a human embryo recapitulates in only nine months the entire evolution of life, from single-celled molecule to Homo sapiens. Something similar seems to be going on over at the Clinton White House: It appears bent on cramming a reenactment of every presidential scandal in modern American history into just two terms. In short order, we have seen JFK's sexual adventuring, Lyndon Johnson's mysterious business maneuvers, and Watergate stonewalling. Now, with its China dealings, the Clinton White House is mimicking Iran-contra. And this time, it has completely outdone the original.

The Iran-contra scandal exploded in November 1986. At the beginning of that month, a Lebanese newspaper reported that Ronald Reagan's national security adviser, Bud McFarlane, had visited Tehran in an attempt to obtain the release of American hostages in Lebanon. The Reagan administration briefly struggled to contain the story but soon was obliged to admit that it had been shipping arms to the Iranian side of the Iran-Iraq war. A few days later, President Reagan and attorney general Ed Meese called a televised news conference to make an amazing confession: Profits from the Iranian arms sales had been diverted to the contras, in violation of a law passed by Congress barring aid to the anti-Communist Nicaraguan resistance. The administration promptly ordered an internal probe to determine how the diversion had happened, vowed full cooperation with Congress, and waived all claims of executive and attorney-client privilege.

Iran-contra was immediately and almost unanimously assessed as the most serious political scandal since Watergate. There was no handwringing then about invasions of privacy or the power of the independent counsel's office. The mood of the day was instead an eager Go get 'em! And in fact an important principle was at stake. By circumventing the congressional ban on aid to the contras, the architects of Iran-contra were circumventing Article I of the Constitution, which vests all control over public moneys in Congress. But with the news of Johnny Chung's confession to the Justice Department that at least $ 80,000 of the soft money he delivered to the 1996 Clinton campaign had been donated by the daughter of a Chinese general, we can begin to see Iran-contra in a strange new light.

The essence of the Iran-contra scandal was the charge that the Reagan administration had sold weapons to an unfriendly regime to raise money for illegal purposes. It now looks disturbingly plausible that the Clinton administration has over the past six years been engaged in something very similar: authorizing the sale of advanced military technology to China in exchange for dubious domestic and illegal foreign campaign contributions. The Reaganites, though, could at least offer this defense: However misguided, or even foolish their project was, it did not put the national security of the United States at risk.

Barring a U.S. tank invasion of Iran, the weapons the Reagan administration shipped to the ayatollah -- some 1,504 antitank missiles plus 18 anti-aircraft missiles that the dissatisfied Iranians returned -- were never likely to be used against Americans. Better still, once used (and the Iranians were waging a desperate war against Saddam Hussein at the time), the missiles would be gone for good. Iran after Iran-contra was not one iota stronger than it had been before. The Clinton administration, on the other hand, in the spirit of "give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime," has been selling the Chinese the technology for making weapons -- super-computers to simulate nuclear tests, satellite technology that might help aim ballistic missiles more accurately -- that could easily be used against the United States and its allies.

And there was something else the authors of Iran-contra could say for themselves: Even if they erred, even if they broke laws, nobody ever accused them of being motivated by anything other than their understanding of the national interest. Some Iranian middlemen made money out of Iran-contra, and former general Richard Secord was paid a fee for his part in the transaction. But with the sole exception of Oliver North -- who took $ 16,000 from one of the middlemen to pay for a security fence around his house -- none of the Reagan administration officials derived or expected to derive any personal benefit from the sale of arms to Iran, from the aid to the contras, or from the cash link between the two.

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?

But I am asking you to imagine the unimaginable. The mind cannot encompass it. The scandal that would have been uncorked by such revelations about the Reagan administration, like Godzilla, would have been too colossal to fit onto even the largest screen. And for good reason. Since the first days of the Republic, Americans have looked upon the threat of foreign bribery with horror. This menace preoccupied the authors of the Federalist Papers, who returned to it again and again. "[C]abal, intrigue and corruption [are the] most deadly adversaries of republican government," they wrote. These evils "might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils." It was a whiff of this sort of corruption that energized Lawrence Walsh's inquiry into Iran-contra. He found no evidence of this type of wrongdoing, and in his strange and bitter final report could muster only sly insinuations against the targets of his investigation.

The threat of foreign corruption was an illusion in 1986. Is it real in 1998? It is imperative that we learn the truth. In the end, the security of the American people is safeguarded by the judgment and integrity of the man they choose as president. To quote the Federalist Papers again: "[A] man raised from the station of a private citizen to the rank of chief magistrate, possessed of but a moderate or slender fortune, and looking forward to a period not very remote, when he may probably be obliged to return to the station from which he was taken, might sometimes be under temptations to sacrifice his duty to his interest. . . . An avaricious man might be tempted to betray the interests of the state to the acquisition of wealth. An ambitious man might make his own aggrandizement, by the aid of a foreign power, the price of treachery to his constituents."

Nobody doubts that Bill Clinton is an ambitious man. The deeply, deeply disquieting question raised by his latest scandal is: exactly how ambitious? What price has he paid? And at what cost to the American people?

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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