Iran-Contra: A Reminder

No article about Ronald Reagan’s presidency would be complete without the obligatory reference to the Iran-Contra “scandal” that purportedly ruined his second term. Our younger readers may not know what the fuss is all about, and no contemporary account will disclose the real scandal underlying Iran-Contra: the fact that the Democrats in Congress in the 1980s were pro-Communist.
Here, in a nutshell, is what happened. Rebels called “Sandinistas” overthrew a dictator named Somoza in Nicaragua and seized power. Their leader, Daniel Ortega, was elected President of Nicaragua in 1984. In Castro-like fashion, the Sandinistas revealed after taking power their intention to institute a Communist state in Nicaragua. When their Communist leanings became clear, opponents called Contras took to the field to try to overthrow the Ortega government. This effort was supported by the Reagan administration.
Congressional Democrats, however, wanted Nicaragua to be Communist, consistent with their generally socialist world-view at that time. In December 1982, therefore, Congress adopted the Boland Amendment. The Boland Amendment to the War Powers Act prohibited the executive branch from providing any support for the purpose of overthrowing the Communist government of Nicaragua.
The Boland Amendment was plainly unconstitutional, in my opinion, but it was never tested in court. Instead, the Reagan administration circumvented Congress’s unconstitutional effort to help the Communists by providing covert assistance to the Contras. The administration raised a few million dollars–a remarkably small amount, given the furor that eventually ensued–by selling arms to Iran, and gave the cash to the Contras.
Selling arms to Iran was intended to strengthen the hand of “moderates” there. This was not a great idea, in retrospect, but it was far from the last time that our government has made policy concessions to strengthen supposed “moderates” in such countries.
Supporting the Contras, on the other hand, was a great idea. They kept up pressure on the Sandinistas, forcing an election in 1990 in which the Communists were thrown out of power, to the dismay of Jimmy Carter, Bianca Jagger, and liberals around the world. (See P.J. O’Rourke’s wonderful Holidays In Hell.) Nicaragua has remained a democracy since that time.
So that was the Iran-Contra affair. The real scandal was the Democrats’ enactment (with help from some liberal Republicans) of an unconstitutional statute enacted for the express purpose of protecting a Communist regime in Latin America.
The Sandinistas, by the way, illustrate very well the contemporary Communist-fascist alliance, or, one might say, merger. Danny Ortega, who is still on the scene, expressed his solidarity with Saddam Hussein after Saddam’s capture. This is the guy the Democrats were willing to bend the Constitution to keep in power.
UPDATE: Dafydd ab Hugh thinks I’m too tough on the Reagan administration with regard to the arms sale:

it’s not at all so cut and dried that “selling arms to ‘Iran'” was “not a great idea.” In fact, North was smart enough not to sell to or deal with the terrorist hostage-takers themselves; his dealings were with what you call the “moderates,” which in specific means Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani used the money to buy lots of weapons and heavily arm his followers.
When the Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, there was of course a mad scramble for power in Iran… but directly because of America having armed Rafsanjani, he was able to survive and indeed become Iran’s first post-Khomeini president. He was far more pro-West than were the mullahs who took over after Khomeini’s death, and indeed he was what passes for a reformer in Iran on domestic issues as well. Because of Rafsanjani — and especially because he voluntarily left office due to term limits in 1997 — Iran is actually negotiating with the IAEA (and trying to cheat, of course) rather than openly and nakedly defying the world in trying to build a nuclear arsenal; the former is certainly better than the latter… and once again, we have Reagan and his staff to thank for it.


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