An Insiders Account of the Iran-Contra Affair
VTR Date: September 24, 1988
Guest: Ledeen, Michael
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Michael Ledeen
Title: “An insider’s Account of the Iran-Contra Affair”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now there’s a totally intriguing new book about the Iran-Contra mess that we’ll talk about today. And “intriguing” is, indeed, the right word. Its very first sentence quotes Talleyrand, napoleon’s sly foreign minister concerning an assassination Bonaparte had ordered: “It is worse than a crime…it is a mistake”. Small wonder then, that Ted Koppel says about my guest today, the author of Scribner’s Perilous Statecraft, An Insider’s Account of the Iran-Contra Affair: “Mike Ledeen is a renaissance man…in the tradition of Machiavelli”. And historian Ledeen does appreciate intrigue, but not just as its chronicler. Dr. Ledeen has written widely about fascism, about West European communism and, interestingly enough, as long ago as 1981 a book entitled Debacle: the American failure in Iran. But, his hand has very much been in the pot, too. A leading authority on counterterrorism, Michael Ledeen has served as a Special Advisor to the Secretary of State, and as a consultant to the National Security Council. It was he on the telephone from the white House with Italian Prime Minister Craxi when the terrorists from the Achille Lauro were encircled by American fighter planes over Sicily. And it was he who was authorized to raise those first questions in Israel about arms for Iran that lead eventually, indeed, perhaps inexorably to Irangate. Now, Dr. Ledeen begins his book assuring us, “My own judgment is that Iron-Contra was a mistake. A terrible mistake and to understand how it happened is not to condone it”. But since even Presidential candidates use the vernacular these days, not just “how” but “why” in the world did the Iran Hostage Contra business get so badly screwed up? Or is his book’s title, Perilous Statecraft, simply a redundancy…and is all statecraft conducted in and at our peril? Dr. Ledeen?
Ledeen: No, there’s all kinds of safe statecraft. If you just get a consensus on everything before you try to do it and make sure that everybody in your government is no board before you proceed and as Caspar Weinberger once said, “Make sure you have a national consensus before you do anything” then it’s not perilous. But then it’s very unlikely to achieve anything dramatic.
Heffner: “Achieve anything dramatic”…perhaps achieve anything at all memorable.
Ledeen: perhaps achieve anything at all memorable. It’s the kind of traditional cautious “take it easy, go slow” kind of foreign policy that policy professionals typically like to practice.
Heffner: Well you say, you don’t just imply in Perilous Statecraft that you were lucky, in effect, in getting out when you did.
Heffner: Because things are bound to get screwed up?
Ledeen: I think in this case things were bound to get screwed up, given the people and given the passions that drove the people and that’s why Perilous Statecraft devotes so many pages to the people involved from the President on down. In this case, the two crucial ingredients of the Iran-Contra policies, the hostages on the Iran side and the support for the Contras on the other side both were great passions of this President. And this President not only conceived those policies, he drove them. Contrary to all of the various myths that we hear about Ronald Reagan being disengaged and even slightly ga-ga, he cared about both of these things and he drove both of these things and that is why the two lines of the policy ran as they did.
Heffner: But you never in the book put those two lines together and bring up the word “blame” or “guilt” when you refer to the President.
Ledeen: Oh, yes I do. In fact I say quite explicitly that these were Reagan’s policies…
Heffner: Blame or guilt?
Ledeen: …and it was Reagan who drove them. Guilt is something that readers will draw for themselves. My task as the only inside historian in a position to write about this thing, at least at the time being, is to try to explain how it happened. I make quite clear that I don’t agree with what happened, they were not policies with which I agreed, so to that extent, I would condemn them and have condemned them. But blame, guilt, that’s something that other people will have to work out for themselves.
Heffner: Yes, but I did read the book. And I came away obviously incorrectly with the sense that Ledeen in a sense doesn’t take the President off the spot, but makes us feel that the President, after all, wasn’t to blame and now you seem to be saying something different.
Ledeen: No, no. I think the President was definitely to blame. They were his policies, without him they wouldn’t have existed. Indeed, I think it’s clear where I deal with Shultz, of whom I’m also very critical, that the reason that Shultz did not oppose these policies very vigorously when he knew on the Iran side he was quite clearly opposed, as was Weinberger, why didn’t they fight them? After all, Shultz is a person quite capable of blocking a policy if he really wants to block it. He says he disagreed with the Iran policy, and he almost certainly did, so why didn’t he fight it more vigorously? The only answer is because he knew that the President felt very strongly and very passionately about getting the hostages out of Iran.
Heffner: Are we talking now about Iran, or are we talking about the Contra end of the Irangate situation?
Ledeen: No, first and foremost is Iran. Because this President felt very strongly about the hostages and in doing this he repeated a mistake which has been made by all kinds of presidents and prime ministers of Western countries for years. One of the points I make in the book is that when Reagan went for the hostage bait and instructed people like North to do everything possible to get them out, he was simply repeating the mistake that Begin and Sharon had made in Israel and both Mitterrand and Chirac had made in France.
Heffner: What about Ledeen now. Ledeen was there at the beginning.
Ledeen: Well, Ledeen was not in favor of doing hostages and I asked several times that we get out of the hostage business and didn’t think that was the right way to proceed. But I was not an elected representative and wasn’t in any position to make policy. So I put in my two cents from time to time and then was lucky enough to be fired from this project just at the right moment.
Heffner: But, but wait a minute. The two cents that you put in did have to do with some relationship between Israeli trading arms with the Iranians and the potential for the surrender or the giving back, the release of hostages?
Ledeen: Yes. I thought that was a mistake. And I would underline that I approached it not as a question of Israel selling weapons to Iran, it was the United States that was doing it; it was our policy. Israel was doing it because we instructed them to do it, and we were the ones who made the decision that these sales should take place. It was our equipment, we were going to replenish and so forth. And I thought that that was to turn the geopolitical question on its tail, because logically the important question was Iran. Iran is a terribly important country for us, and I wanted us to be players in Iran. Khomeini will not live forever, there is going to be a succession. I wanted us to deliver a blow to Khomeini early so that this whole generation of radical Shiite youths in the Middle East would see that the United States is not passive and that you cannot get your way simply by killing enough Americans or taking enough Americans hostage. And I wanted to get involved in that world and to make the United States a force so that we would have something to say about the future of Iran. And I believed that by pursuing the hostages and by saying, as North said repeatedly in his testimony, that the hostages were the obstacle to a better relationship with Iran; if only we could get the hostages out of the way we could then proceed with a better relationship that that was backwards, and that we had to deal with the Iran question and that so long as we focused on the hostages we would never get to Iran.
Heffner: but dealing with the Iran question by providing them with arms that they wanted?
Ledeen: No. dealing with the Iran question by talking to people in Iran who said they wanted to change the nature of the regime and the policies that the regime was fulfilling.
Heffner: But you can’t separate that out with what they wanted to continue talking.
Ledeen: Well, I spoke to at least some people from Iran who came to meet with us secretly in Europe, who said that not only did they want a better relationship with the United States, but they did not want the United States to sell weapons to Iran because that’s strengthened their radical opponents. And insofar as the regime was able to show that by getting weapons from us they had developed a privileged relationship with this Administration, it made them stronger; and we should have been favoring their enemies.
Heffner: What was wrong, essentially, in your estimation with seeking to achieve something of your objective, but the objective, too, of the release of the hostages by providing arms for the Iranians?
Ledeen: What was wrong with it was not so much the question of providing arms for the Iranians. At the end if you did Iran, at the end of the day, both of these two things were going to have to happen. Iran was going to have to get the hostages out and we were going to have to have normal commercial relations with Iran which would include weapons, if we had a normal relationship with Iran like with any other country. What was wrong was to put the hostage question on the table at the beginning. It logically belonged at the end. The first object to discuss with them was to see whether we could achieve a workable relationship. Or failing that, to see whether there were any other elements inside Iran with whom we could work to try to change that regime.
Heffner: How could the hostages have helped but be the number one item on the agenda? From our point of view?
Ledeen: Simply by saying to the Iranians, “we are not going to discuss hostages with you now, we’re going to discuss the relationship, and if we can work out some basis for a more normal relationship, we will then address the full range of concerns”.
Heffner: But you seem to say, too, that that more removed point of view would not have been possible for President Reagan, as indeed, it has not been possible, as you said here and as you write in the book so eloquently, for some many Western leaders.
Ledeen: It should have been possible. It should have been possible for all of them. And, indeed, I believe that the French finally, in 1988, did it right, last spring. Because they sat down and worked out a full normalization of relations with Iran and did not just do a hostage deal.
Heffner: What do you mean though “should”? That’s a strange word to use for someone our friend Ted Koppel has labeled or called or entitled a Machiavellian.
Ledeen: No, not at all because the “should” refers to the national interest of the United States, and from the standpoint of American national interest, it’s a tough thing to say. But the lives of one or two or five or six hostages are not of paramount importance, but Iran is a major strategic concern for the United States and the United States must be a player in Iran.
Heffner: Do you think it’s possible for any man who has achieved the Presidency to approach this kind of question with this kind of, let’s call it objectivity? Somebody else might call it something else.
Ledeen: Maybe not, but it’s incumbent on his advisors to grab him by the throat and shake him until he finally comes to see that he’s got to pursue the national interest no matter how strongly he feels about a personal question.
Heffner: Yes, but you’re the first one to say, as you have so frequently written, that you’re talking here, and talking about statecraft, about reality, about what can be achieved. Politics is the science of the possible. And now, again, you’re involved in these “shoulds” and “woulds”.
Ledeen: It is possible. Most Western governments now, learning from this pattern of error, have now taken a position that the top man is not going to meet with hostage families any more. Precisely because, in that kind of setting, he always commits himself to do whatever he can to get the hostages out. There’s this heart-rending scene about Menachem Begin when the mother of one of the Israeli hostages came into his office, threw herself prostrate on the floor, crawled across the floor to his feet, grabbed him around the legs and said, “Mr. Prime Minister you are the only man who can save my boy. Save him.” It’s irresistible.
Heffner: You think it’s resistible in a country such as ours?
Ledeen: Let the Vice President do this…
Ledeen: …he’s the one who goes to all the funerals anyway. And the President simply has to be shielded from this kind of thing because it is irresponsible for the President to make that kind of commitment.
Heffner: And the Vice President, in this instance, Mr. Bush, what was his role?
Ledeen: Very little. Bush in Iran was not a player. Bush was much more involved in the Contra question, he followed it more closely. But about Iran he really was not in the loop and the proof of that is a very detailed briefing that he received in Israel in July of 1986 from the Israeli who was, at the time, the key representative for Prime Minister Peres. And that briefing is a soup-to-nuts briefing, it’s the kind of briefing you give to somebody who really doesn’t know what’s going on.
Heffner: That’s what you write in your book and as I read that explanation, that with that kind of detailed briefing it was a sign, it was a signal that you couldn’t read other than that Bush did not know what they were telling him.
Heffner: That’s the puzzle for someone who is…I’m not going to repeat the Democratic slogans, “Where was George?” that’s not my interest, but when you say before about the families of hostages, “Let the Vice President do it”. Why wasn’t the vice President in this loop? As I read your book, as I read Perilous Statecraft, which is an absolutely fascinating account of what happened in terms of the Contras, I couldn’t’ help but wonder if this was a person who was playing a major role in the Administration? This was probably the most important thing that the Administration had done in the area of foreign policy at any point. Where was he?
Ledeen: Well, he just wasn’t there. And the Vice Presidents, no matter who the Vice President is, as you know better than I, the Vice President simply is not a major figure in foreign policy making in the united states. Even a person like George Bush who was probably as well informed a Vice President on this subject as we’ve ever had. He may have made a mistake, in fact, he probably should have been better informed than he was. He made a mechanical mistake as I understand it. The early morning National Security briefings, which is the forum in which this question was typically discussed, was open to Bush, but Bush did not make provision for his Chief of Staff to attend these meetings when he, Bush, was out of town. Bush was out of town a lot. There were a lot of meetings that he went to and lot of travelling that he did for the President.
Heffner: Those funerals.
Ledeen: Funerals and other things. He did some negotiations, too, after all. And he…and no one was there for him at these meetings. So he just simply was not up to speed on this stuff. And, indeed, on Central America most of his information came, not from these high level discussion in the White House, but from people that he knew who were involved in it in other ways, like Felix Rodriguez.
Heffner: You know, over the years when you and I have done programs, couple of sessions back in Grave New World, your book about everything that’s wrong, which was generally about everything, I wondered why you have taken the position that you have in terms of the necessity, not for being sticklers for legalisms, but actually for going out and doing what needs to be done when it is so clear that nothing really works anyway and that perhaps we’re better protected, not going down any slippery slopes at all, by not trying to bend and twist in terms of what we feel we need to do or need to have accomplished at any one moment.
Ledeen: Well this turns out in practice to be a political question and not, not a moralistic or legal question.
Heffner: What do you mean?
Ledeen: IT means that if you approve of a policy and the lawyers tell you don’t do it, then you’re going to be against this kind of legalistic approach that a lot of people insist on. And if you don’t like the policy then you’re going to say, “People should have listened to the lawyers”. And the great example is Franklin Roosevelt from ’39 to ’41, where he behaved in a totally illegal way, contrary to the expressed wishes of Congress, as well as the law. And we could easily retroactively now send Franklin Roosevelt to jail, impeach him and lock him up for all of those things. But we don’t’ do that because we like what he did. And we like the results that he got.
Heffner: Now wait a minute, Mike. There are scholars and historians, with all due respect to your rank in both fields, who would say otherwise. Who wouldn’t deny that Franklin Roosevelt took liberties, but who would deny that this was quite as clear cut a case of totally ignoring the law and when we’ve talked here before, I’ve taken an op ed piece that you did for The New York Times in which you quoted, with approval, Winston Churchill’s feeling that we brought upon ourselves World War II, in a sense by being sticklers for international law. But over the past couple of years, Iran and the Contras seem to me to have presented us with a picture of what happens when you aren’t sticklers that way and what has happened as a consequence, isn’t all that good.
Ledeen: The central theme of Perilous Statecraft is that you cannot understand what happened if you insist on looking at it through the lens of legality and look for criminal activities. So far as I know, there were no criminal acts committed in the Iran-Contra affair. What happens in the Iran-Contra affair was people made mistakes, it was worse. But to date, no one has demonstrated any criminal activity of any sort by anyone. It’s not a question of legality, it’s a question of good policy. What happened there was a series of policy errors. First it was wrong to do the hostages instead of Iran. Secondly, it was wrong to support the Contras covertly, rather than taking it to the country and making it an issue of national debate.
Heffner: But you see, that’s the sort of thing that I mean. You say “wrong”, you’re simply saying it was a mistake. And what I’m asking is whether more mistakes aren’t made when you cut corners that way. It wasn’t just a matter of a mistake, it was a mistake in doing what, technically speaking, shouldn’t have been done. And I’m not talking about anybody going to jail, that’s not what I’m talking about.
Ledeen: I can’t think of any way in which this Administration could have been saved from these mistakes, given the people who were there and the way they felt about it. You know, people say…Congress, for example, love to say during the hearings, “If only…they told us what was going on, we’d have gone over the White House and told them what a ridiculous idea this all was”. But Ronald Reagan didn’t suffer from a lack of people telling him that this was wrong or that it was stupid or that he shouldn’t do it, he heard it all the time. On the Iran matter, when he authorized this program to try to get the hostages out, both Shultz and Weinberger came and argued against it very vigorously. And he said, “Look, I’ve heard you. But I want to do this. I want the hostages out and I don’t care if I have to go to Leavenworth.”
Heffner: But, Mike, there were, and that item in your book which has been quoted elsewhere, the President saying…what…visiting days are on Thursdays?
Ledeen: Thursdays, yes.
Heffner: Laugh. Laugh.
Heffner: “I’ll go to Leavenworth if I have to.” He was talking about the people who reported to him. He was talking about people in his own Administration. Are you saying it would not have made a difference if this information had gone to those who were not beholden to him?
Ledeen: Well, the only way it might have made a difference is if they had threatened to do something illegal, namely to go public with the information if he didn’t stop doing it, or if he didn’t listen to what they had to say. And one of the things that guarantees nowadays in Washington that sensitive decisions are made in the smallest possible audience is because lots of people on the Hill, when they hear about a program that they don’t’ like, if they lose a vote on it, say “Listen I don’t like this, I’m going to leak it”. And consequently, people in the White House of the Executive Branch, generally who tend to have to make these hard decisions say, “Look, don’t tell these people about it because they’ll just leak it if they don’t like it”. And that’s the illegal act, paradoxically. Because the leakage is officially illegal.
Heffner: Now, there’s something about the smile on your face that tells me that you kind of like that, you’re bemused and amused and a little bit approving of that, more than a little bit approving.
Ledeen: I’m amused at it because it’s yet another case in which people set out to do the morally correct thing and end up by driving us to do the immoral things or dubious things or questionable things. And, we’ve talked about this before, the terrorism field is just chock full of these because when they wrote, for example, the anti-assassination act, and President Ford issued his anti-assassination Executive Order, the result of that was to make it impossible for the united states to collect good information about terrorism because to get good information about terrorism you have to deal with terrorists and they are, by nature, assassins. But the Act says you can’t deal with assassins in any way, and so that worked against its own proclaimed purpose. What amuses me is this constant effect, constant belief, that you can somehow save people from error if you can just write the rules carefully enough. But there are no rules that can save people from error and what you had in Iran-Contra was people making mistakes and they are always going to make mistakes.
Heffner: You know, I’m, I’m enormously impressed a) by the book and b) by the attention that it has received, the approving attention by everyone from President Nixon to…well, Midge Decter says “An absolutely riveting adventure story about a national mess. A story in which nobody, but nobody, comes off well. You will never really understand the Iran-Contra fiasco without reading this book”. And then David Brinkley says, “Perilous Statecraft is one of the most persuasive accounts I’ve ever read of how high level decisions are reached and how policies are conceived, delivered and then led astray”. And it was “and then led astray” that led me to want to ask you whether it all just doesn’t, isn’t bound to get screwed up anyway? And your answer to that first question was, “Well, not if the right people are there. Not if they understand what they’re doing.” But, are the right people ever there all in sufficient numbers, in your estimation?
Ledeen: Well, what I said was, “We shouldn’t have done it. It shouldn’t have happened that way.”
Heffner: What would you have done, by the way, had you been “in charge”?
Ledeen: Well, there are two things I wouldn’t have done. I wouldn’t have pursued the hostage question, I world have pursued the Iranian issue and seen if there was anything there. I don’t know if there was anything there. I’m not sure that there was any great thing to do, there were probably some little things that one could have done to try to increase our influence in Iran and our contacts in Iran and so forth. And the other huge mistake was I would not have permitted the linkage of the Iran initiative and the Contra operation to take place because that was a real tragedy.
Heffner: Did you know about it, Mike?
Heffner: While it was going on?
Heffner: If you had, would you have blown a whistle?
Ledeen: I’d have gone to people and complained inside the government. That’s what I did about…what I did know about, I did go to people and complain. I went to Weinberger and complained. I went to Casey and complained. I went to lots of other people and complained.
Heffner: But you wouldn’t have blown a whistle publicly?
Ledeen: I had signed an oath not to disclose classified information at the time that I signed up to work for the government. And I…
Heffner: So really, no one’s to blame. Everyone was…had signed an oath, no one was blowing a whistle. Isn’t that when we start to go down the slippery slope?
Ledeen: The whistle-blowing is not necessarily to be a public whistle-blowing. There are times, people inside governments are obliged to take their case within the forum in which policy is made. Nobody elected me I was not entitled to make policy for the United States. They elected Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan had the full range of advice. He heard it, he listened to it, he thought about it and he made his decisions. That’s why we elect Presidents. The fact that you disagree with the policy does not entitle you in the world, in which I live anyway, to go public and say, look what these idiots are doing”. They may be right. I don’t regard myself as any more infallible than anybody else. You know I lived the better part of eleven years in Italy. At the end of which time I became convinced that god in his infinite wisdom put man on earth to screw up. And we do it all the time. And we will continue to do it. And I’ll do whatever I can to try save people from error and do the right things myself. But I’m sure people are going to make mistakes. But I’m also sure that no one person is really entitled to make that decision for a whole Administration, and if they’re going to make a mistake then they will eventually pay a political price for it. What is outrageous to me, is not that they paid a political price for it, which they certainly should have done and did, but that the hearings and the investigations and the analysis of Iran-Contra that was done, first by the Tower Commission, then by the Congress and now by Judge Walsh, has been so terribly short-sighted and politicized so that the public, in my opinion, really does not understand yet what happened.
Heffner: We have less than a minute. What would you want to have the public come to know now?
Ledeen: I would want the public to understand that the Iran initiative began as a serious political enterprise aimed at achieving a worthwhile objective for the United States. That it then became sabotaged because of the thoroughly understandable, albeit misguided passions of the American president, and no one inside the Administration felt strong enough to hector him to death and get him off that wicket.
Heffner: Didn’t feel strongly enough, or didn’t have enough moxie with that President?
Ledeen: Exactly. Didn’t feel strongly enough, didn’t have enough moxie with that President. Kissinger once said to me that if Nixon had some idea with which he, Kissinger, disagreed, he would just sit at the President’s door and hector himself…hector the President until he finally stopped. That’s what George Shultz should have done about the Iran affair.
Heffner: And Weinberger?
Ledeen: Weinberger too. And Case, too. The whole lot of them.
Heffner: Why not Ledeen?
Ledeen: Ledeen couldn’t get to the President’s door, so there was no hectoring possible in that case.
Heffner: Mike Ledeen thanks so much for joining me today. Perilous Statecraft: An Insider’s Account of the Iran-Contra Affair as all these people have said, is fascinating. I wish I could say I agreed thoroughly with you. Thanks again for joining me today.
Ledeen: Thank you.
Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, and it’s a controversial one, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
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