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Tuesday, April 12, 2022

April 12, 2022: Presidential Scandals: Iran-Contra

[On April 14, 1922, the Wall Street Journal published a story breaking the news of a crooked deal that became known as the Teapot Dome scandal. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that history and four other presidential scandals, leaving aside the Grant administration as we’ll get to them in a couple weeks and the Trump administration because ugh. Share your thoughts on these & other histories, including Grant or Trump if you’d like of course, for a scandalous crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On three foreign policy contexts for the 80s scandal, and one crucial lingering question.

Compared to yesterday’s presidential scandal, which focused entirely on American domestic politics, the 1980s Iran-Contra Affair was driven by a trio of complex international issues. The first two were both tied to the Reagan Administration’s support for Nicaragua’s violent far-right insurgent group the Contras in their ongoing battle with the nation’s Communist Sandinista government. Of course longstanding Cold War conflicts between the U.S. and the Soviet Union (and proxy states like Cuba, which supported the Sandinistas), and more specifically American fears of the spread of Communism around the globe, offer one context for that specific Central American connection. But at the same time, I would argue that we can’t separate this invasive (and eventually illegal) U.S. involvement with another Western Hemisphere nation’s politics and affairs from the multi-century history of such interventions (including in Nicaragua itself), interventions driven at least in part by the foundational concept known as the Monroe Doctrine. To my mind, much of that history is at least as scandalous as what went down with the U.S. and the Contras in the mid-1980s, just much less well-publicized and –known.

Partly this 80s scandal became better-known because of the recent rise of new media such as 24/7 cable news networks, but partly that infamy was due to its third international context: the longstanding and highly complicated relationship between the U.S. and Iran. I wrote about the long 20th century histories of that relationship in that hyperlinked Saturday Evening Post, but would add here that the Reagan Administration in particular came to embody two seemingly contradictory ends to the spectrum of U.S-Iran dynamics. This was a president, after all, who was first elected at least in part because of his hard-line on the Iranian hostage crisis, itself a controversial and potentially scandalous story given the immediacy with which Iran released those hostages after his election. And while that latter question, of whether Reagan had backroom dealings with Iran during that hostage crisis (and thus was far less opposed to Iran than his public statements and policies would suggest), remains an open-ended one, there’s no doubt whatsoever that high-ranking members of his administration were selling weapons to the Iranian government under the table during the Iran-Contra Affair.

No doubt whatsoever about those high-ranking administration figures—not only National Security Council member Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who became the public face of the scandal; but also National Security Advisor Admiral John Poindexter, as well as National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane and CIA Director William Casey (these latter two were definitely aware of the illicit arms sales to Iran, at least). That list would suggest, of course, that the one figure who links all of them, their boss Ronald Reagan, had to have known about the multiple layers of the Iran-Contra Affair as well. But I use “suggest” and “had to have” purposefully, because the questions of Reagan’s awareness and involvement in this scandal remain just that, questions, and likely always will. I don’t want to minimize the importance of that distinction—if Reagan genuinely didn’t know, he’s (at least in this way) more like Ulysses S. Grant, burdened with a stunning presidential scandal that seems nonetheless separate from his own actions and presidency. But at the same time, I don’t think there’s any way to truly separate a national scandal like this one from the president it engulfed, and on whose administration it reflects profoundly and disturbingly.

Next scandal tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Takes on this scandal or other ideas you’d share for the weekend post?

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