In December 1986 the public intellectual Christopher Hitchens returned to the New Statesman as a bi-weekly columnist on US politics. His first column was a sharp judgement on just what Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy really involved. According to a 1986 New York Times/CBS News Poll, approximately half the US public thought that Reagan was “lying” when he asserted “that he had no knowledge that funds from the sale of arms to Iran were being diverted to Nicaraguan insurgents”. Lying is one thing; a president’s supposed ignorance is far worse, suggests Hitchens, who writes that if Reagan “says he didn’t know about the blood-money bank in the White House basement, he is saying that he didn’t know about his own foreign policy”. The affair most embarrassed the former Democrat politicians who had moved to stand behind Reagan. “Are they really saying, as they seem to be, that they willed the end and not the means?” asks Hitchens. “Or are they saying, as the president seems to be, that they mandated the policy and didn’t want to know the details?”
We’re delighted that we have tempted back Christopher Hitchens from our rival, the Spectator, as our regular US columnist. Hitchens is among the most incisive and elegant dissectors of US politics now writing. He joins us at a critical time for the Reagan presidency. In the first of his bi-weekly columns, Hitchens reports that below the tumult of “Irangate” we are witnessing true Reaganism abroad.
In the movie version of Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, the poor sap who plays the Joe McCarthy figure gets all confused. One day he has to say there are 50 communists in the State Department, and next day his handlers order him to name 75. He fears that he may attract ridicule. “You dummy,” says his ambitious wife, at breakfast, “don’t you realise? People aren’t asking whether there are communists in the State Department any more. They’re asking how many communists there are.” At this point, the husband’s glassy eye falls on a bottle of Heinz ketchup. Cut to the next scene, where he solemnly announces that there are 57 enemies of the state holed up at Foggy Bottom.
This sort of manic guesswork is all right if you want to conduct a witch-hunt. And an improvised version of it has seen the President himself through six years in the White House. But it’s no use if you want to make sense of a fast-breaking story. Don’t ask how many of the high command were in on the secret. Don’t get too enthralled about how many cargo planes landed in Tehran, or how many millions of dollars changed hands. All that can be left to the innumerable investigating committees. Ask instead – what is Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy?
Most presidents like to have a “doctrine” and there were no complaints from the White House when “the Reagan Doctrine” was enunciated by various tame columnists and publicists a few years ago. The chief ingredients of the doctrine can be, for convenience, numbered and placed in body bags:
1. Anti-communist subversion would no longer be distinguished from anti-Soviet resistance. Any group or movement, anywhere, that fought against the evil empire in any way, would be given military assistance. This would be open where it was admissible, and secret where it was not. Crucially, though, there were to be no discriminations. The recipients of aid did not have to be in any sense the wave of the future. (If they were like Solidarity in Poland, they got only rhetorical backing.)
2. Alliances with existing governments would be judged in the light of this test. The “human rights” litmus, which at least in theory was employed by Carter and even by Ford and Nixon, was abandoned altogether. It would be no criticism, for example, to say of a movement like UNIT A in Angola that, whatever its other merits, it was a client of South Africa. The same was to apply to the Khmer Rouge and China, the Afghan guerrillas and General Zia and (until 1982) the Nicaraguan Contras and the abattoir regime of General Galtieri in Argentina.
3. The opinion of the press, of public opinion and of Congress had to be changed. They had to be weaned from what Norman Podhoretz, the leading neo-Reaganite essayist, called “sickly inhibitions about the use of force”. This meant keeping the press out of Grenada, making a brilliant series of affirmative speeches about “standing tall”, and cowing House and Senate with the popularity of the new, guilt-free, Americanism. Here, Reagan’s symbolic politics of macho success and national renewal meshed perfectly with his objective need for a free hand overseas. It was understood in Washington that the unelected Nation Security Council would not be pestered by a clutch of whining bleeding-hearts.
4. Terrorism was to become the keyword. Not everyone feels immediately threatened by the Red Army, but every citizen gets on an aeroplane one day. There is every reason to think that the choice of “terrorism” as the psychological theme was very carefully worked out. (After all, it has 57 varieties.)
5. Since there would have to be dirty work, there would have to be surrogates. The chosen surrogate was the state of Israel, which Pioneered “terrorism” as a keyword and which has an immense store of military and intelligence expertise as well as some debts to pay.
Look at the Iran-Nicaragua collusion and to what do you find? You find arms and money going to extremist forces in Central America and the Middle East (in the latter case even despite their hostility to the United States and Israel) for no other reason than their anti-communism. You find that not only Congress but the State Department are excluded from any real knowledge of the deal. You find that Israel is the surrogate in both cases.
It might all have worked except for point (4) above. The White House overdid terrorism as a subject, and made Iran into a demon as a result. It could have survived (has survived) the revelation of being in bed with South Africa, Chile and Saudi Arabia. But to be caught in the sack with Iran was to violate its own propaganda, dismay its own staff and appal its most trusting supporters. It will be a cold day in hell before we get another in the rousing series of “united front against terror” speeches from the Oval Office.
Look at it this way, and you see the triviality of this week’s “urgent questions”. If Ronald Reagan says that he didn’t know about the blood-money bank in the White House basement, he is saying that he didn’t know about his own foreign policy. What has been exposed to view is the Reagan Doctrine in its purest form. He’ll be hard put to disown that.
This explains the livid fury of the Reaganite true believers this week. For them, Colonel Oliver North is a hero on the scale of General Douglas MacArthur, and George Shultz a traitor on a par with Alger Hiss. (I do not exaggerate the way they talk.) Here they had a policy which achieved the impossible – an alliance between Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia, directed at the Soviet Union and keeping the price of oil within American reach. Not only did this collusion give promise of solving the hostage crisis, but it was even paying for the counter-revolution in Nicaragua while the lily-livered Congress made up its mind. Not bad for the allegedly incompetent Reaganites. In fact, if put in that way to the public, it might have won considerable support. But that is just what the President lacked the nerve to do. By saying that he didn’t know about the collusion, he has doomed himself as a liar and trickster and thrown away the stock of credit that he had built up with that decisive group of voters who, quite deliberately, don’t want to know.
So, forget all the talk about “aberrations” and “embarrassing disclosures”. The essence of the operation, like its secrecy, was its absolute consistency with announced White House goals and methods. The authentic right concede this with their howls at George Shultz for his “disloyalty”. The only truly “embarrassed” people are the ex-liberals and ex-Democrats who have formed such a large part of the Reagan smokescreen through one and a half administrations. The policy of covert support for the Nicaraguan Contras, in particular, was their policy. So was the idea of giving a clear run to the Israeli right. Now Jeane Kirkpatrick, Elliott Abrams, Norman Podhoretz and the rest are bleating that they knew nothing, and that the policy should survive its shabby implementation. Are they really saying, as they seem to be, that they willed the end and not the means? Or are they saying, as the President seems to be, that they mandated the policy and didn’t want to know the details? Either way, it is a cruel judgement on those who abandoned the Democratic Party because of its unfitness to conduct American foreign policy.
A few days ago, the United States violated the arms control policy of the last three presidents by deploying another B-52 bomber with cruise missile capacity and busting SALT II The “moderates” were shocked again. What difference would it have made if the B-52 had been accidentally painted in Iranian colours? The point is that Reagan’s people mean what they say.
Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)