Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

Iran-contra scandal and the “Reagan revolution”

The affair reflects contradictions between imperialism and democracy


First Published: Unity, Vol. 10, No. 2, February 2, 1987.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The Iran-contra scandal is one of those savored moments in history when everything becomes clear yet nothing remains the same. The powerful discover their impotence, the arrogant are humiliated and the victims of both begin to find justice in the shambles left by high crimes.

Ronald Reagan’s White House has reached just such a turning point. Only a few months ago, the president took pride in being widely trusted and popular. His administration was confident in its ability to impose its will nearly everywhere. Now the president is seen as hiding the truth about the hostages, the contras and arms shipments to Iran. This in turn raises questions about his credibility in every other area – from the raids on Libya to the invasion of Grenada, from the breaking of arms accords to the launching of Star Wars.

Why has the Iran-contra scandal erupted with such force?

The contragate affair is a product of the basic contradiction between imperialism and democracy. On the one hand, imperialism requires antidemocratic bribery, corruption, fraud and criminal activity on a huge scale, especially when plundering and undermining self-determination of the third world. On the other hand, imperialism requires promotion of democratic illusions and aspirations, both to blunt the opposition and to broaden its base at home and gain acceptance abroad.

The present scandal is no accident. Every modern presidency has declared the U.S. to be the world’s champion of freedom, democracy and human rights. Yet from the Bay of Pigs to Viet Nam to the secret bombing of Cambodia to Watergate to assassination plots in Cuba to countless intrigues in the Middle East, every modern presidency, to one degree or another, has had the democratic cover blown off the reactionary substance of its policies.

Where the Iran-contra affair has stood apart is through the new heights of its hypocrisy and the new depths of its cynicism. Since Reagan’s cowboy heroes secretly sold arms to Iran and provided military intelligence to Iraq, tens of thousands more young soldiers have spilled their blood in the desert sands. Just as villages in Viet Nam had to be destroyed in order to be “saved,” so the Iran-Iraq war is being escalated in the name of being ended. The bloody profits from this death industry were then reinvested in the contras, “freedom fighters” whose main prowess is slaughtering the children of Nicaragua’s peasants.

The White House had to break at least three laws to carry out these grisly multinational transactions. First was violating the ban on arms sales to Iran – a crime for which several private arms merchants have been indicted and are now facing trials. Second was failure to inform congressional oversight committees – a violation negating the Watergate reforms and the War Powers Act. Third was defiance of the Boland Amendment forbidding military aid to the contras.

The violation of democracy abroad is an extension of the violation of democracy at home. A case in point is the fundamentally undemocratic way Reagan’s $100 million contra aid package was passed. It was “legally” voted on by Congress. But it was passed in flagrant disregard of the majority will of the people, as polls show that over 60% of the U.S. people oppose contra aid.

In turn, this conflict has caused several additional contradictions within the U.S. ruling class to sharpen and rise to the surface. These include the following:

The ideologues vs. the pragmatists. The former faction has Pat Buchanan as a champion in the White House and Richard Perle as point man in the Pentagon. Their main goals are to overthrow the Sandinistas and prevent arms control by any means necessary. Their nemesis has been George Shultz and the State Department, which has sought similar goals but with more restrained tactics. Both groups have been represented in the National Security Council, although its new head, Frank Carlucci, has begun a purge of the ideologues.

The White House vs. Congress. Even pro-Reagan senators and representatives will break with the White House when their own prerogatives are trampled on. A key test will be the vote on any future measure to aid the contras.

Yankees vs. Cowboys. This is shorthand for a long-term power shift within the U.S. bourgeoisie. At the “Yankee” pole are the older established financial groups of the Northeast, such as the Rockefellers, Fords and Harrimans. The “Cowboys” are Southern and Western “new money” conservatives rooted in aerospace and oil – John Paul Getty and Howard Hughes are archetypes. They are the main force behind the contras.

Reagan’s White House has also been haunted by the spectre of Watergate – “What did the president know and when did he know it?”

But will Reagan face Nixon’s fate? First, it is safe to assume that the president and all his top aides knew the key features of what was happening. And if the president was among those who disagreed, then the arms transfers would not have occurred.

The real question is whether or not Congress has the political will to indict the president for the high crimes committed by his operatives. At this point, Congress prefers conciliation over confrontation.

But the only way Reagan can be forthcoming is to draw Congress into a coverup with him. The forces presently willing to go that route are the new right and the neo-conservatives – both of which view the violations of the law as a kind of civil disobedience carried out for the “morally superior” end of overthrowing the Sandinistas.

But now the crimes of the Cowboys may well reach to the home front. Charges have been made that Colonel North used Iranian profits to fund pro-contra candidates in the last election. Likewise, Sen. John Kerry is pushing an investigation of charges linking the contras and their finances to the cocaine trade.

Contragate has already had some positive results for the left and progressive movements. Almost all commentators agree that the “Reagan Revolution” is stalled by the diversion of its energies to damage control. While this does not mean that the shift to the right is being reversed, it does mean greater opportunities now exist to defeat key items on the right’s agenda.

The most pressing task is to thwart any possible U.S. invasion of Central America while cutting off funds and supplies to the contras. There is a clear possibility that Reagan’s narrow majority for funding the contras can be reversed when the next authorization comes up in Congress. Until then, every new exposure of the seamy intrigues involved in maintaining the contra pipeline must be turned to maximum advantage.

At the same time vigilance is clearly required. Rather than accept defeat, Reagan and the right may decide to up the ante. More than one media commentator has warned that an invasion of Nicaragua, even without support, may be seen as a reactionary way out of the crisis. If so, the U.S. people will have to find new ways to impose their will on those who refuse to learn the lessons of history.