[This article appeared in the February 1987 issue of The St. Croix Review, pp. 14-19.] 


The Iran/Contra Affair: An Essentially Ideological Crisis 

Dwight D. Murphey 

The recent furor over the administration’s covert dealings with Iran and the Contras has been presented by the media, and accepted by most politicians and the public, as the uncovering of a scandal.  Dwight Murphey disagrees.  The crisis, he says, is almost entirely the product of liberal ideology and of a corresponding impotence and silence that afflicts America’s inarticulate majority.

            I can think of no better example historically of the power of ideology than the recent furor over the Reagan administration’s dealings with Iran and the funneling of money to the Contras in Nicaragua.  The hysteria has shown, with more immediacy than any other case that I can recall, the incredible extent to which ideology can be used as a battering ram when a single point of view is in a position to impose its own semantic and perspective.

            Day after day, press dispatches and television disclosures have stripped away successive layers of what is characterized most mildly as a “blunder,” but more often as a “scandal” or even as a “criminal conspiracy.”

            There are speculations about “implicated parties” and there are dramatic demands, by those who deliberately evoke the memory of Senator Baker’s famous inquiry during the Watergate hearings, to know “what the president knew and when he knew it.”  Investigative committees are set up, special prosecutors called for.  Public opinion polls are cited showing a growing loss of credibility on the part of the president.

            Does anyone stop to think what a sham all of this is?  What a false premise it is based on?  That the fundamental assumptions underlying the pointing-with-alarm are false?

            Who is prepared to point out that it is not a criminal conspiracy that is being spread out for all to see, but a series of covert initiatives by the government of the United States that have involved some of the most sensitive issues of international affairs?  That, indeed, the public disclosure of those initiatives is treasonable in the extreme?

            We have clearly lost our ability, as a people, to analyze anything critically.  This means that we are easy prey to ideological manipulation.

            It is commonplace today that it often seems totally out of fashion to voice even the simplest of truths.  That common sense is “out of step” has become obvious within the ideological milieu of the last quarter-century in the United States.

            We live, for example, at a time when literally tens of thousands of people are expected to die from a disease that is spread primarily by anal intercourse and drug addicts’ dirty needles.  A more incredible prospect would be hard to imagine.  Common sense dictates that people see an imperative reason to affirm, once again, the wisdom of monogamous marriage and personal morality.  But what do the current oracles in the media and our intellectual culture have to suggest?  Only that the taxpayers provide readily-available disposable needles for addicts and that those who are promiscuous engage in “responsible sex”—how?  By using more condoms!

            What is perhaps even more insane than the ideology of the oracles is the fact that people accept such nonsense without any seeming awareness of just how ludicrous it is.  We have come to live permanently within an envelope of ideas formed of sheer illusion.

            The “issues,” most of them sham, that are raised by the recent Iranian furor would require a lengthy discussion to air in full.  But here, it seems to me, are some of the more important facets that the American people should keep in mind about it:

            1.  We must start with the premise that it is imperative for the United States to take the leadership in opposing a Communist victory in Central America.  It is intolerable that there should be a Marxist-Leninist regime there at all.  An essential reality is that Mexico, our teeming neighbor to the south, is no tower of strength; those who oppose any effort to oust the Sandinistas can give no guarantee that Mexico, too, will not soon become the target of a revolutionary movement and that there will not be those who, as soon as such a movement begins, will start to scream about that country’s “oppressive regime.”

            2.  It is a related but nevertheless separate point to say that the United States must, given the present condition of the world and of domestic ideology, pursue a wide network of covert activities.  Covert initiatives are essential for at least three reasons.

            First, there is much that can be accomplished by working quietly and effectively.  There is no doubt what the administration was attempting to do, with a wisdom that I could only evaluate if I had all of the information that the administration had at the time, when it sought to rebuild ties with at least some elements within Iran.  Iran is strategically a vitally important country.  To accept permanently a relationship of avowed hostility is certainly not in the interests of the United States or the free world.

            Second, covert activities can often serve as a lower-keyed substitute for what would otherwise be open confrontation involving American forces.  This can mute the dangers inherent in the “protracted conflict” that exists between the free world and Communism.

            Third, the domestic ideological situation makes covert initiatives essential.  At the same time that it is imperative for the United States to be the leader of the free world, an adversarial media, acting according to a very different agenda, possesses a veto-power over any vigorous expression of American will.  The practical choice for presidents is often either to take covert action or to take no action at all.

            This last point tells us what is really most at stake in the recent “scandal.”  It is a question of power.  The liberal intellectual culture cannot tolerate covert activities that circumvent the veto-power that it so passionately seeks to maintain over how we think and what we do.

            3.  We need to arrive at an open realization about some basic facts that relate to the divisions within our country.  These divisions are neither shallow nor temporary.  They reflect the fundamental cleavage that has existed within Western civilization for a century and a half between the predominant middle class culture and the alienated intellectual culture.

            Since the election of 1980, the existence of the Reagan administration has given conservative Americans an impression that the country has “returned to normal.”  What has become apparent, however, is that during those same years the American people have become increasingly dominated by the ideology of fashionable liberalism.  This is the ideology that moved Amy Carter, for example, when she sought faddishly to get herself arrested during a New Left-style protest against C.I.A. recruitment on the Amherst campus.  It is the ideology that has created the drumbeat of hostility toward South Africa, calling for displacement of the Afrikaners by black majority rule despite all of the lessons that are so apparent from the experience of the rest of black Africa.

            Although it is almost never commented upon, who among us does not sense the implicit threat that this ideology makes to “tear the country apart,” even more explosively than it did during the Vietnam War, if anything more than half-measures are taken in Nicaragua or against any Communist movement?

            Distinct from this ideology, there exists the great bulk of the American people.  Unfortunately, we as a people are so absorbed in the daily round of practical affairs that we take little interest in forming and articulating general ideas.  In this, we repeat the historic weakness of the “bourgeoisie” with respect to intellectual culture.  We resign to an alienated intellectual culture and to its associated adversarial media the essential intellectual and spiritual tasks of our civilization.

            Those who champion the values of the American majority find themselves chronically consigned to an ineffectual and muted role.  This is why we now stand by with only the most impotent frustration while an ideological wolf-pack seeks to destroy not just yet another American president but a man as decent and capable as Ronald Reagan.

            4.  The potential for a constitutional crisis every bit as severe as that which occurred immediately following the Civil War between the “radical Republicans” in Congress and President Andrew Johnson is created when Congress, reacting to the pressures created by fashionable liberalism, legislates a limit on the president’s conduct of foreign policy, as it did when the Boland Amendment barred American support for the anti-Communist insurgents in Nicaragua.

            We recall that after Lincoln was assassinated the Congress enacted a law to the effect that the president could not discharge a member of his cabinet without the consent of the Senate.  When President Andrew Johnson fired Secretary of War Stanton, impeachment charges were brought by the House.  The impeachment failed by only one vote when it was tried in the Senate.

            In the United States today, we have a situation in which presidents will feel it imperative to take action in many parts of the world.  At the same time, liberal ideology forbids it.  When the Congress legislates in conformity with that ideology, it sets the stage for a constitutional crisis unless the president becomes passive.

            No doubt the executive branch, as an overall generalization, should conform its actions to the law.  But things aren’t that simple.  We need to realize the disastrous abandonment of responsibility that occurs when Congress succumbs to the demands of liberal ideology in foreign affairs.  And we need to realize, too, that the role of the Congress in legislating mandates of foreign policy, which of necessity is very much a responsibility of the president, other than for a declaration of war, raises extremely difficult and subtle Constitutional issues that have never been fully resolved.  It is by no means a foregone conclusion that the Boland Amendment was Constitutional and hence lawful.

            5.  There are a number of points of a less sweeping nature, but that bear on the current crisis:

            As I suggested earlier, what has been conducted is a “trial by semantics.”  President Reagan’s original statement said that the administration had sought a connection with Iran for four important reasons of policy.  But the media has brushed aside the premise that the operation was undertaken in good faith in pursuit of valid, even though quite obviously arguable, policy objectives.

            Both the media and the many petty politicians who have scurried around in the crisis have insisted on characterizations that are, but that ought not to be, implicitly accepted.  At the mildest, they have referred to a “blunder” and have insisted that “to get all of this behind him” the president “must admit to having made mistakes,” as though that were some generally recognized universal solvent.   Beyond that, the media has unfolded the drama as though it were revealing a criminal conspiracy, with calls for special prosecutors, frequent references to “the scandal,” and speculations about the “implicated parties.”

            We need to understand that the whole frame of reference is fashioned by the manner in which the revelations are presented.  Even the administration itself has been forced into a “bunker mentality” that accepts the characterizations.

            It should be readily apparent that there is enormous hypocrisy in the media’s hue and cry about criminal misconduct.  We recall the cries of anguish that were raised a few years ago when President Nixon inadvertently spoke about Charles Manson as though he were guilty before he had been tried and convicted.  Where is that sensibility today, that over-weening solicitude that no one be other than “allegedly” guilty before trial?

            Americans should be conscious of the fact that they have come to accept an enormous change about the public revelation of government secrets.  There was a time, indeed within the memory of some of us now living, when it was considered treasonable to do what the media is now doing with such alacrity.  A few years ago, the prevailing liberal ideology considered Daniel Ellsberg and the New York Times heroes for having published the Pentagon Papers.  We are paying the price today.

            It is ironic that one of the changes in public attitudes that the Left has insisted upon is now serving as an unintended shield for Admiral Poindexter and Lt. Col. North.  There was a time when everyone knew that a person had a Constitutional right to “take the Fifth,” but when everyone also felt that it was not a respectable thing to do and knew that inferences of guilt could quite logically be drawn for every purpose except formal conviction in court.

            The Left succeeded thirty years ago in wiping away this “prejudice.”  If there is any humor to be had in the current situation, it is the surprising turning of the tables that today allows administration officials to invoke the Fifth Amendment without the media thereby being able to make much out of it.

            If somehow out of all the furor the American public could come to learn these lessons and come to see the structural forces at work, the “crisis of the Reagan presidency” will have served a most useful purpose.  But for that to happen, countless people will have to speak up from a perspective that is very different from that in which the “scandal” has so far been cast.  Politicians will have to find some backbone; the adversarial media will have to be overridden by a chorus of common sense.

            That this will indeed happen seems impossible.  But I would have us reflect on the implications if it does not.  It will mean, in effect, that the optimism that Ronald Reagan articulated about America in his first inaugural address and that he has repeated throughout his presidency has itself been an illusion, a bit of wishful thinking by a man of profound decency.  It will suggest that in the long run the Reagan presidency will have been no more than a temporary respite from the slide away from traditional American values.  It will mean that the chaos formed out of the interplay between an alienated intellectual culture and a silent, inarticulate majority will prevail.

            To those who sense the dangers, far more is at stake in the current crisis than many people imagine.