The Magazine


Jun 8, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 38 • By DAVID FRUM
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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.