Irangate: The Larger Issues
VTR Date: September 12, 1987
Guest: Ledeen, Michael
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Michael Ledeen
Title: “Irangate: The Larger Issues”
Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now I’m quick, of course, to concede that ours is far from being the only program to respond quite as we do today to that extraordinary Wall Street Journal lead editorial during the televised Summer, 1987 Irangate Congressional hearings. An editorial headlined: “Subpoena Mike Ledeen”, our guest today. Indeed, though Dr. Ledeen is an acerbic critic of the American press, he also seems to have become something of a media fixture, too … though that probably is because when he does appear, he speaks with such great authority on international relations. Having served as a consultant to the Secretaries of State and Defense, and to the National Security Council, Dr. Ledeen played a key early role in initiating this controversial phase of America’s relations with Iran, a role based presumably upon his knowledge of the Mid-East, on his close connections in Israel, on his real expertness on terrorism, and, no doubt, on his flair for real politique. In fact, it was only four years ago that I invited Dr. Ledeen to THE OPEN MIND to discuss an intriguing Op Ed piece of his that The New York Times entitled: “When Security Pre-empts the Rule of Law”. In it, he enthusiastically quoted Winston Churchill’s comment that, “It would not be right or rational that the aggressor powers should gain one set of advantages by tearing up all laws, and another set by sheltering behind the innate respect for law of their opponents. Humanity, rather than legality, must be our guide”. And today I would ask Dr. Ledeen today the extent to which this presumably realistic approach to world politics may have informed our arms to Iran venture. “Humanity rather than legality must be our guide.”
Ledeen: It may have. It’s a perfectly legitimate point. Errors stem from all kinds of roots and this may be yet one other root of the errors that were made in the Iran Affair. For that you’d really have to talk to the President. I think the basic thing that drove the President to make the mistakes that he made was humanity. Because it’s the same error that Mitterand and Chirac have both made in France and that Begin and company has previously made in Israel. And that is when a Chief Executive gets in front of him the hostage families and they say to him, “Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister, only you can save my man, my husband, my son. Do something”. They always turn to their people, their Ollie North’s and say, “Do something. Get those people out”. And when an order like that comes down from a President, people strive very hard, by whatever means, to save these lives. And that’s at the root of it. That is what drove it.
Heffner: Yet you’re taking the arms to Iran one step further and believing that I’m referring to arms to Iran for the hostages. And I really wasn’t, Dr. Ledeen. I was beginning at the point at which I presumed there were those who said, “We must not be that tied to the niceties of international relations. We must make some efforts to strike up a new relationship with Iran. Therefore, arms … not for hostages, but for other reasons”. Didn’t you approve of that approach?
Ledeen: I approved of the original transfer of TOWs from Israel to Iran, on exactly that basis. But I don’t think that’s a mistake. 1 thought that was worthwhile trying, although I think it’s a photo-finish. It’s a very close call.
Heffner: You know I realized that that had been your point of view. I did follow what was said about you and your thinking and during the televised hearings, I know you wanted very much to be a witness, publicly, and that you weren’t invited by the Committee. And so the Journal said, “Subpoena Mike Ledeen”.
Heffner: Why? Why did they want you subpoenaed? Why did they want you there so much? Why did you want to be there so much?
Ledeen: Oh, I wanted to be there so much for several reasons. First, people had said some nasty things about me publicly and 1 thought that I was entitled to respond to them publicly in the same forum in which the statements had been made in the first place. Secondly and more to the point, I wanted to be there because I was the only American present in the room when the first contacts and discussions with the Israelis and the Iranians took place. And so many people had said so many things which I thought were wrong, about how the initiative began and what we thought we were doing and what the real alternatives were. That I felt the Committee should have wanted to hear how it all began and what was actually involved in it. Because after all, their mandate seemed to be at the beginning, to investigate the policy issues. As it turned out, they were much more interested in issues of criminality and wrong – doing. And this would have tied them up in a whole series of very complicated questions, gray areas, not black and white. And probably would have required them to call even more witnesses after me to explore those issues. And I think they just didn’t want to get into that.
Heffner: Well, that’s what I want to get into here, the gray areas. And I’d like to go back to this notion of arms to Iran. Not arms to Iran for hostages, but why did you feel that the initial approach was legitimate? Now, maybe not legitimate in terms of laws, but serving humanity.
Ledeen: Oh, I think it’s legitimate in terms of laws. I think all of it was legal. I think a lot of it was erroneous. I think that what’s going on here and why the Congressional Committees have had so much trouble dealing with these issues is that they are not questions of legality, they’re questions of policy. This is the right policy or the wrong policy. These are the issues. But as far as my part was concerned, at the beginning we received a demarche from Iran through Ghorbanifar. And people in Iran said to us, “Look we see our country going down the rat-hole. The country is in a shambles”. Regardless of what the military intelligence people now say, the Iranians with whom we were in contact knew that their cities were being evacuated every night because Iraq could bomb them at will. Iran has no night radar and no night anti-aircraft defense. And Iraqi planes were coming over Tehran, etc. and so forth and tens of thousands of people were going out to the countryside at night because they didn’t want to be bombed. Now this kind of thing is terrible for morale and the social fabric. And they saw their country being driven increasingly into isolation because of the radical policies of Khomeini and unable to sustain itself under this kind of assault from Iraq. And what they saw their options were was “a” Iran could become a bigger and better Lebanon, torn apart by internal strife or it would have to be saved. And in Persian history, when the country gets into trouble, it has traditionally been saved, either by the British, and we are the new British, or by the Russians, which is today the Soviet Union. And as between being saved by the Soviet Union and us, they prefer us. So they reached out to us.
Ledeen: And they said, “Look, we think we can moderate the policies of this government. We think we can get a change in the attitude of the people here. We are prepared to make certain concrete steps to show you that we have the good-will and the power to achieve these changes. And these steps are a series of speeches which did take place in early September 1985 by the President and the Prime Minister. Second, an end to all terrorist attacks against Americans and American targets around the world and that held until almost the very end. And third, we will try to get as many of your hostages as possible out of southern Lebanon. From you, we ask in return a gesture which will show that the channel through which we are dealing with the United States goes to the very top and that on your part, too, there will be a willingness to demonstrate real change”. And the one thing which would best demonstrate that to them was to enable them to obtain arms which they couldn’t otherwise get because of our arms embargo. And that was the deal, the reciprocal tests that were proposed to us in the summer of 1985 by Iran.
Heffner: You say, “They”. And, if I remember correctly and one remembers in terms of television these days, toward the end … at the very end of the televised hearings what one had from Secretary Weinberger was the notion that this is nonsense. Just as there is no “there” there, there were no “they” there.
Heffner: They weren’t there, the people that you’re referring to in Secretary Weinberger’s terms seem not to have existed. Is that a fair statement on my part of what I heard from him?
Ledeen: That’s what he said. He said that there couldn’t be any moderates left alive in Iran after all that they’ve been through. Well, we have a real difference. It is possible that the people that I spoke and remember, some of them I spoke to directly, it wasn’t just a matter of receiving messages from them, it is possible that the people I spoke to were lying, trying to fool us or deceive us and that it was all an attempt to lay their hands on American weapons all along and nothing more than that. The real tragedy of this whole affair, however, is that neither he or nor anybody else knows if they were in good faith because the contacts that were established in the summer and autumn of 1985 were never followed up and all the way through 1986 the question was never explored. So we don’t know the answer to that question. And what I wrote in the Wall Street Journal and what I argued all the way through 1986 was that was the only question that really mattered. Because that was the question that we had to be able to answer. And that we cannot answer it today is really the fundamental error of it all.
Heffner: Have the Israelis answered that question to their own satisfaction?
Ledeen: Well, they had tried. They thought it was promising. And they thought it was interesting and exciting. And they, too, thought that it should be explored. And for all I know, they have explored it themselves and come to their own conclusions by now. All I know is that from our side, it was not followed up.
Heffner: You know, this does raise the question, again. I couldn’t help but think, Dr. Ledeen, when I knew you were coming here that this related to your quotation from Churchill.
Heffner: Real politique, going beyond what the press knows, what the people know. How can a democracy … how can a free country with a free press function behind the scenes that way? How can we, feeling as we do, and did, about Iran in terms of what it did to us, how can we possibly play the game that you felt should be played?
Ledeen: Well I think there’s no question that if this had succeeded it would have been enormously popular. And, indeed, I have not heard challenged anywhere, in any form, the notion that we have to deal with Iran. And that we must either come to terms with it one way or another or try to subvert it and overthrow it or declare war against it or something. But we need a coherent Iran policy. Whatever that may be. And the notion of sitting down and talking to Iranians to try to see whether that kind of policy could succeed is one which I think most American people approve. And by its nature, it can’t be done openly because the sorts of people that we were meeting with, remember, were people who told us they wanted to change the regime. So it wasn’t the same thing as sending a diplomat off to Tehran to discuss the future relationship with the Khomeini regime. We were talking about something quite different.
Heffner: Had your evaluation of our ability to evaluate the situation in terms of intelligence sources?
Ledeen: I don’t know. I’m disappointed in our intelligence. I only existed in this story at all because our intelligence was poor and we
Heffner: What do you mean?
Ledeen: Well, we said quite explicitly that we didn’t know anything about Iran.
Ledeen: I was sent out by McFarland in the Spring of 85 to go to Israel and talk to Perez about what Israel knew about Iran. Because we didn’t know anything about Iran. Our intelligence on Iran was admittedly terrible. And then later on the Central Intelligence Agency did a special estimate on Iran and when you read, because I’m sure it, along with everything else is going to be declassified, you will see that every other paragraph says, “We have heard this from an untested, unknown source. We don’t know if it’s accurate, we don’t have a good picture of what’s going on there. We don’t know what the main political groupings are”. They were really groping around. So I was sent to talk to the Israelis because we’d heard that the Israelis knew more about it than we had. And, in fact, Perez thought that they probably did, but he, himself, said that Iran was a great mystery to them. So we undertook to work together to try to develop a better picture of Iran. It was a research project.
Heffner: Had Israel been supplying anything by way of weaponry to Iran?
Ledeen: Well, everybody says they were. I don’t know it myself. But it’s certainly a conventional wisdom if they were.
Heffner: Do you think they were?
Ledeen: I think they probably were. But again, I don’t know it. And I’m very leery of conventional wisdom after everything I’ve been through. So much conventional wisdom turns out to be wrong. I do know that when I first talked to Prime Minister Perez in May of 1985, he asked me to ask McFarland if Israel could respond positively to an Iranian request for artillery shells. And McFarland said, “Yes, this once, but nothing else”. And that was communicated back to Israel. So I do know it took place on that one occasion.
Heffner: To what extent is Israel, in your estimation, our client state?
Ledeen: Well, any country that gets, what is it now … three or four billion dollars a year from the United States … certainly has to mind its “p’s” and “q’s” when it deals with the United States, whether its totally a client, I would doubt. Anyone who’s been to Israel finds it very hard to manage them. And when I worked for Secretary Haig, he was desperately trying to get them to do certain things and they did none of those. So, if they are a client, they’re quite a recalcitrant client.
Heffner: But, of course, that is the feeling. You talk about conventional wisdom. That is the feeling you do find on the part of a great many people in this country.
Ledeen: Yes, I know. But the relationship between puppets and puppet masters isn’t nearly what it used to be.
Heffner: Well nobody talks about which is which.
Ledeen: You know, it’s interesting. There is no end of people in the country, both in the media and in the Congress, which thinks that it is Israel that really controls the United States instead of the other way around. As if they were the ones who were lending us money and we were the country that depended on Israel for our survival.
Heffner: And at which point would you smile most broadly? At the thought that we were the client? Or they were the client?
Ledeen: No, at the thought that we were the client. That they are the clients in a way is true. Because right now, they wrecked their own economy to the point where they really do depend upon us for their survival. It would be a terrible task for them to try to make it without American largesse and American aid. We would do very nicely without Israel. Not so nicely in the Middle East, to be sure. But our own existence and our own success is not threatened by the existence or non-existence of Israel.
Heffner: It’s so interesting coming back to this question of the legitimacy of dealing with a nation toward which so many Americans have so many negative feelings.
Ledeen: Indeed. Iran is number one on the hate list. If you look at public opinion polls, you will find that American antipathy to Iran is far greater than American antipathy to, say, the Soviet Union.
Heffner: Of course, I couldn’t help but think, too, knowing that, that in 194 American antipathy toward the Germans and the Japanese was probably equal.
Heffner: And yet, very soon thereafter, we were supporting both countries and building both countries in an extraordinary way. Yet in the hearings, to my knowledge, at least that didn’t surface. The notion that when conflict has been somewhat muted, in the history of the world, former enemies do hold hands again.
Ledeen: Countries don’t have constant allies, they have constant interests. And our interest is in a stable Iran, which serves its historic function as the geographic block between Russia and the Persian Gulf. That is the role that it has played for the past thousand years.
Heffner: But is it a contradiction in terms today?
Ledeen: Not at all. And if you went to the Kremlin and were able to sit down and interview Gorbachev and Gromyko and those gentlemen and they spoke candidly to you. They would tell you how frustrated they are that Iran sits there, astride those mountain passes leading down into the Persian Gulf. They would love to get Iran out of the way. They would love to see it disintegrate or they would love to get their hands on a greater degree of control over it.
Heffner: Be a prophet. What do you think will happen?
Ledeen: I don’t know. Because what we’re doing now in the Gulf seems to me to be so crazy and so confused that it’s impossible to predict the outcome from one day to the next. We’re pursuing a policy which is ostensibly an anti-Iranian policy. It’s announced in terms of “Iran had better watch it”. And yet what we’re doing, guaranteeing the safe shipment of oil in the Gulf is precisely the thing that Iran needs the most. And, in the name of defending Iraq against Iran and attacking Iran, we are acting in Iran’s own best interests. On the other hand, we responded to an Iraqi attack against the A Navy by declaring war against Iran. And that doesn’t make much sense either. So I don’t know what we’re doing or why we’re doing it there because it doesn’t all add up to me.
Heffner: Well, I should say, if you don’t know, who does know? Because I guess the last time you were here was when your book, Grave New World came out. And you felt at the time, and I’m sure you still do, that our greatest lack is of the ability to develop a consistent, thoughtful foreign policy. You also feel that the media help make it impossible to develop such a policy.
Heffner: Therefore, what do you think is going to happen? I know you’re going to say, “I don’t know”. But, the question is your guess is … the point is, your guess is a heck of a lot better than mine. And I wonder what it is?
Ledeen: Well, you have to tell me a couple of things first. And that is, when is Khomeini going to die? Because if Khomeini dies in the near term, then you’re going to get a terrible internal struggle inside Iran. And as things stand right now, I don’t think we have many cards to play in that internal struggle. Basically what we were trying to do in Iran was to establish enough contacts with people who improve Iran’s policy after the death of Khomeini that we would have some degree of leverage over that situation. Right now, I think we don’t have any.
Heffner: But that’s what I meant, Dr. Ledeen, when you were talking about “they”. Talking about “they” in Iran. If “they” existed then, “they” must exist now.
Ledeen: Oh, I’m sure they do exist now. But put yourself in “their” position right now. “They” risked their lives, let us say. “They” took a terrible chance. “They” met secretly with representatives of the American government, “they” made certain promises and guarantees, “they” thought they had the beginning, at least, of a working relationship. Then all of a sudden this American government packs up and walks away and “they” never hear another word from it again. Would you trust the United States a second time around? Would you reach out again to this American government which had treated you so shabbily? And how would you feel about seeing your name and the names of your friends printed in the Tower Report and in the newspapers every day after you had taken such chances? These are people, who would be very poorly advised, in my opinion, within their own society, with all the dark suspicions that characterize them, to look to us again for help. Where are they going to go?
Heffner: And you would feel, I gather, that its not possible to be truly Machiavellian, if you can’t, don’t injure the enemy, slaughter him. I gather you feel that we have too little power in that area of the world.
Ledeen: Oh, we’ve got all the power we need in the case of an armed conflict between us and Iran. It would be a very easy affair. We would never fight a land war with them, but we could destroy the country. In a matter of hours. And they’re quite impotent to defend themselves against that kind of attack. They can’t even defend themselves against the Iraqi Air Force which took six and a half years to figure out a way to hit “Cark” Island. They could not defend themselves against the American Air Force, no way on earth.
Heffner: Then this prophecy that I’m trying to draw from you. You say, “If Khomeini dies soon …“
Ledeen: There’ll be a terrible internal struggle inside Iran with an outcome very hard to predict. Let’s take more interesting scenarios. What happens if a boatload of people wearing black paddles up along side of an American ship and throws a bomb on board? Will we know who it is? Is it really Iranian radicals? Is it Iraqis pretending to be Iranian radicals? And all the rest of it. The way things are set up right now in the Gulf, if something like that happens, we are virtually obliged to respond violently to Iran. Do we know the political consequences of that? My guess is that a vicious attack against Iran right now would strengthen the most radical elements in the society.
Heffner: But you’re saying that we put ourselves in a potential war situation.
Ledeen: Oh, absolutely.
Heffner: Do you think the President, therefore, should be going to Congress with the kind of information and the kind of request for approval that is required?
Ledeen: Well, it doesn’t have to be a formal process. I must say that I … that all these legalities strike me as crazier and crazier the more I learn about the way the world actually works. Congress knows everything about what we’re doing in the Persian Gulf today. They express their views on it all the time. If they don’t want him to do it, all they have to do is cut the money off.
Heffner: Dr. Ledeen, I have to pick up this business, “all these legalities”. That’s what I got out of this piece in which you quoted Churchill to this effect and that’s a good tradition to be in. But to say, “All these legalities”, you might even have said at least have said, “All these legalisms”. But it’s the same thought. Are you really satisfied that we can’t live in a nation of laws and still survive.
Ledeen: Look, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about this. No American official strives to break the law. And the number of times that the law is broken in this country is probably smaller than any other country in the history of the world. But what happens in the foreign policy debate is that critics of a policy, or people who don’t want things done, can always find one technicality or another to wave and brandish without really taking full responsibility for their political position. Look at the Boland Amendment. The Boland Amendment went through all these various versions and the upshot of it was that Congress wanted to express its sentiment that it felt uncomfortable about what was going on in Central America. If the Congress did not want the President to do anything in Central America, all it had to do was say so, explicitly. But they drafted this legislation in such an ambiguous and crazy way, smothered in … I keep on saying “legalities” … I guess legalisms is probably the right word … that nobody really, in good faith, could tell one way or the other what they really wanted. And anyway, that’s not the issue. The issue is not the language in the bill. The issue is what should the policy be. And I’ll give you another one. Because if you start observing letters of the law all the time, it turns out that you’re impeded from doing all kinds of rational things. My own field … terrorism. There is an executive order on the books which prohibits American officials to be involved in assassination. We can’t assassinate anybody, we can’t cause anybody to be assassinated, we can’t encourage assassins and we can’t deal with assassins in any way, shape or manner. Now that sounds wonderful. Except if you’re in the business of trying to find out what terrorists are doing and what they are preparing to do next, you have to talk to them. And if you talk to a terrorist, you are, by definition, talking to an assassin. And you can’t do that the way these idiot laws are written right now. And so the intent of this law and these executive orders was clearly to prevent the Americans from doing terrible things … murdering people. And that’s fine. Except smothering us in all these legalities … I keep on saying, ends up by preventing us from doing things which have to be done, which we want to do and which in the end, even the sponsors of the legislation and the executive orders would now, reluctantly agree, ought to be done.
Heffner: Am I talking to my friend, the eminent scholar Michael Ledeen? Or am I talking to Colonel North?
Ledeen: No, no. Look, I think that Colonel North made enough mistakes to fill an encyclopedia in all of this thing. But the fact of the matter is that we don’t violate the executive order and we don’t deal with assassins and therefore, we don’t have good information about terrorism. And that’s the position that we’ve gotten ourselves in.
Heffner: How would you … in the three minutes we have remaining … how would you rewrite the book?
Ledeen: I would abolish the executive order. I would make it illegal for an American official to be involved in assassination or to encourage assassination. And that’s the end of it.
Ledeen: But as for all the rest of it, you don’t have to write the full nine yards of every last stipulation and degree because the world does not always conform to the vision of some person writing these laws in the United States. At a certain point you have to sit down and deal with the real issues. And the country has to be able to be flexible enough and imaginative enough to deal with it. And there, you see, is the real issue of the relationship between the Executive Branch and the Congress, with the media thrown in. Because if these people cannot work together and if one cannot trust the other to keep secrets, whether they like what’s being done or not, and to deal with each other openly and rationally, then no amount of writing rules and regulations is going to save us from our own folly.
Heffner: What would?
Ledeen: Nothing will. Either we’re going to have mature and serious people making these decisions or the only thing that’s going to help us is good luck.
Heffner: Or a parliamentary system, perhaps? That diminishes to some extent the ingrown conflict between the legislator and the Executive?
Ledeen: I wouldn’t say that the history of parliaments is such to give us total confidence in that as a solution. This system is probably better than most, provided that the people who are working it are working it rationally and in good faith.
Heffner: What a provision. What a provision.
Ledeen: Yes. But remember the Pounding Fathers believed in that. They believed that there was going to be an awful lot of good faith, on the one hand. But then they built the thing very carefully so that you could never get enough power, in any branch of the government to really drive anything through to conclusion.
Heffner: Come on, Mike, that’s the important point. Isn’t it. They believed in checking and balancing and checking and checking and balancing, so I don’t think you can attribute to them the kind of insight that you have. It was different. They were afraid of what you want to accomplish.
Ledeen: Yes, but they were living in a world where they didn’t have the kind of foreign threat that we have. And I remember Jefferson passing all kinds of emergency legislation when he had a threat, which came as close to tyranny as anything we’ve seen since. So that when emergencies do strike and if you do come to be convinced that you’re living in a dangerous world, you’re simply going to have to deal with those realities.
Heffner: Do you think in this 200th Anniversary year that we’re going to be able to?
Ledeen: I don’t know. I keep coming back to
Heffner: In ten seconds.
Ledeen: In ten seconds. The issue is not the laws or the Constitution or the system. The issue is the kind of people that we have running our system and their preparation or lack of it. That’s the basic problem.
Heffner: And I know what you think about that. Dr. Ledeen, thank you so much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.
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, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P. 0. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: the Rosa P. Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; and the New York Times Company Foundation.