Between the years 1983 and 1986, the United States was tangled in a series of concealed operations, collectively know as the Iran-Contra Affair. History shows that this political and economic stew of events highlights the controversy behind the scandal and its illegality. Michael A. Ledeen, a former consultant to the United States National Security Council, in his book Perilous Statecraft: An Insider’s Account of the Iran Contra Affair attempts to correct the views by providing personal anecdotes of the motives of many of the government officials involved, including Oliver North and Bud McFarlane. He describes that there was a fine line between the Contra initiative and the Iran initiative and how they were intertwined through a common practice. His feelings towards the entire tragedy are, as he states, best summed up by Talleyrand’s words about Napoleon’s assassination of the Duc d’Enghien: “It was worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”[i]
The book begins with the introduction of the Reagan administration and their actions towards the Contra Initiative. Ledeen states that “American foreign policy is made less by design than by struggle, and the struggles are between people of great passion and conviction, and of driving ambition.”[ii] The Contra initiative was initiated for this reason, as the Communist threat had spread to Grenada and Nicaragua, which were closer to the U.S. Around that time, one of America’s most important allies, the shah of Iran fell to the ruthless leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. The president at the time, Ronald Reagan, who lacked in foreign policy experience, was urged by officials to take action against the expansion of Soviet influence, especially Alexandre de Marenches, who pushed Reagan to, “speak of the ‘Soviet Empire’ rather than ‘Soviet Union’.[iii] Central America was an example of the Communists attempting to oppress United States influence. To start, Fidel Castro had already brought up Cuba as a Communist threat and the Sandinistas had done the same in Nicaragua. The idea of creating a centralized Communist state would bolster Soviet influence in Latin America. This was addressed by Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who exercised presidential authority by calling for military and political pressure on Cuba. Another concern was that Reagan would create a Vietnam-like situation. For this reason, the government made it priority to keep foreign policy a secret from the public. Deep inside the administration, men such as John Kerry, Thomas O’Neil, and Christopher Dodd were opposed to the plan of creating an anti-Sandinista force in Latin America in order to combat their influence, especially Dodd who create a bill opposing aid to the Contras. Meanwhile, the Sandinista government had their KGB (the ruthless police force in Russia) type force carry out a secret reign of terror in which they assassinated their opposition. This was brought to the Reagan administration’s attention by Alvaro Baldizon, a person who infiltrated Sandinista government to acquire information and give it to the United States. Now that they had become aware of the of the true power held by the Nicaraguan government, they continued the growth of the Southern Front of Contras. They aided in the fall of Grenada thus ending the Brezhnev Doctrine which stated that none of the Communist regimes established could be overthrown. However, the growth of the Southern Front was hindered by the establishment of Bolands, which reduced aid to the Contras, leaving them unable to fend off the Sandinistas. Inside the government, “[the corridors of the executive branch] was at once the bloodiest [battlefield] and the least noted…”.[iv] Officials like Tom Enders, who was unwilling to carry out President Reagan’s proposed economic sanction against Nicaragua, was fired. Reagan, however, was indifferent to the decisions crafted and their execution. His objective was to keep the Contras alive and questioned Boland II, which further reduced money allocated to the Contras. This introduced Oliver North, a national security council member, whose motivation to organize the Contras was to defeat Communism and avenge the U.S. loss in Vietnam. He created Project Democracy to supply the Contras and keep them in the field.
Thus began the Iran initiative. Iran’s foreign policy was dictated by other countries in their dealing with Russia in the north and the east. Unfortunately, with the overthrow of the shah and the establishment of the anti-United States ruler Ayatollah Khomeini “the president of the United States became the Great Satan.”[v] However, Israel had an interest in keeping Iran as a strategic buffer state. This fact and the launch of Operation Staunch on Iran, which limited Iran’s purchase of arms in the open market, prompted arms sales between them and Israel. Therefore, Israel’s intelligence on the Iranians was more accurate than ours. Manucher Ghorbanifar became the person to relay this info to the U.S. After coming to the U.S., Ghorbanifar was put on a burn notice, which meant he was an unreliable source of intelligence. Despite this fact, the U.S. tried to continue their relations in Iran, through which they agreed to a deal, where the U.S. would sell tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided (TOW) missiles to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages that were being held in Lebanon, which the president consented to. The first 100 TOW’s were sent to Iran, but no hostages were released. Israel refused to send the missiles to the Iranians until they were paid. The Iranians wouldn’t pay without acquiring the missiles. The above situation was relayed to the U.S. by Mir-Hossein Mousavi. This debacle prompted the firing of Ledeen as a consultant to the National Security Council (NSC). We then tried using Israeli hawk missiles and sent those to Iran. Even though no hostages were released, the U.S. was not at a loss.
Project Democracy still needed a source of money, and the Iran initiative seemed like a promising source of money. Ledeen stated, “North took steps in the second half of January 1986 to arrange for the sale of one thousand TOWs to Iran.”[vi] This, in North’s vision, would settle the release of the hostages and provide enough money to support the Contra effort in Latin America. In a series of meetings in Iran, the Iranians stated that they felt betrayed because of the non-delivery of hawks, bad intelligence, and not complying with their demands. After the trip to Tehran, spare parts for the hawks were to be sent to Iran in exchange for hostages. Sometimes, the money made by selling the hawks never made it to the Contras because government officials kept it for personal gain. Another reason for insufficient funding for the Contras was that Ghorbanifar gave the Iranians a so-called discount price on the hawks of 8.1 million dollars rather than 18 million dollars. This evidence was used to discredit Ghorbanifar and led to the nine-point plan. The big idea of the plan was that 500 TOW’s would be sold to Iran.
Ledeen states, “So it was with Iran-Contra, and it was ironic indeed that [Arthur] Liman, who had worried so deeply about congressional aggrandizement and the abuse of individual rights during the McCarthy hearings, should become one of the chief instruments of a similar investigation thirty-three years later.”[vii] The basis of these trials was the issue of deceiving Congress. Ledeen’s reasoning was based on a concern about the importance of secrecy in foreign affairs. Nevertheless, he was questioned on the basis that he was Jewish and was a part of the Israeli Conspiracy in which Israeli officials were thought to have told the U.S. to sell arms to Iran. A substantial amount of papers leaked from the White House were given to Judge Walsh of the Supreme Court. North and McFarlane acquired non-political jobs, whereas Ghorbanifar continued to play a role in Israeli foreign policy.
In his book, Ledeen tries to “correct the record, both on major events and personalities in the Iran-Contra affair, and on the issues that have motivated the leading figures.”[viii] He also tries to present his own perspective on issues in the affair as if he were to use them in a court case on the issue. He does not critique the actions of these members. He conveys the message that the affair was beneficial to the fight against Communism, but the way it was handled was controversial.
Ledeen’s bias comes from his work as a consultant in the NSC during the time of the Reagan administration. Because the book is from his point of view and he is involved in the affair, he tends not to be very critical of the administration by reiterating, “that Iran-Contra was a mistake, a terrible mistake, and to understand how it happened is not to condone it.”[ix] He claims that the covert operations were not crimes and tries to justify the actions of Oliver North, stating that, “North did not get enough careful supervision during Iran-Contra, and was forced to make decisions for which he lacked sufficient experience and understanding.”[x]
Ledeen wrote the book about two years after the Iran-Contra Affair occurred. The trials of men such as Oliver North and Bud McFarlane occurred at the time, demonizing them. This was also a low point for Reagan who tried to convince the American people that the government had no involvement in the affair. Only 14 percent believed him. Ledeen tries to clear up what investigators truly need to search for such as, “several crucial elements that help in understanding the affair.”[xi] Although not explicitly stated, he clears it up by stating that they need to focus on the motives, and questions that remain to be answered.
Larry Bensky wrote in his 1988 review that “the Iran-Contra morass seems destined to receive both additional intriguing details and less comprehensive definition as time goes by.”[xii]. He states that Ledeen was never high up enough in government to a personally know people such as Reagan and North and what their motives were. He then goes on to state that Ledeen is not very self critical, although this book is partially a personal reflection on the mistakes he made during the scandal. Bensky also states Ledeen is not very critical of the Reagan administration considering that the book was to highlight the mistakes and motives of the officials in order to better understand the affair.
Scribners, who reviewed the book around the same time as Bensky, dives straight into the fact that this account comes from, “a sometime insider who misses few opportunities to assert the innocence and greater good of his involvement.”[xiii] They address his shortcomings from the start stating that Ledeen is a low-level official in the NSC, therefore having some bias. They state how the Iran-Contra Affair was the selling of arms to Iran to not only free the hostages in Lebanon, but also to fund the contras in their fight against the Sandinistas. They show Ledeen’s struggle to get to Tehran in order to try and negotiate for the hostages. Overall, Scribner’s shows the shortcomings of Ledeen’s book and how his perspective waters down the subject.
Hostages to Hostages is one of the chapter titles in Ledeen’s personal account of the Iran-Contra Affair, as the American government had become willing to give up whatever they wanted in exchange for the hostages in Lebanon. From this, they were trapped in the black hole of Iran’s greed for missiles. Manucher Ghorbanifar, “was in favor of concentrating our energies on efforts to change the nature of the Iranian regime.”[xiv] He thought acquiring the hostages was as simple as overthrowing a regime. Oliver North, who is on the American side of affairs, had a different view of the Iran-Contra Affair. He felt as though he could siphon the money that the U.S. received from the arms sales and use that to support the Contra effort in Latin America. However, Ledeen defends North, stating he, “was forced to make decisions for which he lacked sufficient experience and understanding.”[xv] Ledeen develops the president’s character as well, and points out his inexperience in making foreign policy, eventually developing him into someone worthy of facing any challenge posed to him. However, he does create a version of the affair in which he has over justified the actions of the members involved. Overall, by giving the perspectives of all the people involved in the affair, Ledeen creates a more personal, clearer version of the Iran-Contra Affair.
Ledeen’s novel supports the idea that the 1980s were a time of movement to conservatism because the Reagan administration wanted to, “strike a blow at the Soviet Empire as soon as possible.”[xvi] This is similar to Richard Nixon and the presidents of the 1960s who all believed in the policy of containment. On the contrary, Ledeen does not believe that the 1980s were a period of progressivism. The government controlled the economic aspects of the affair including the dealing of arms to Iran.
Overall, Ledeen, provides the reader with a better understanding of the Iran-Contra Affair by showing the personal motives of the officials involved. The affair serves as the backdrop to a more deep seated political issue which the Contras were trying to address: “to contain the seemingly irresistible expansion of the Soviet Union.”
1. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. Perilous Statecraft: An Insider’s Account of the Iran-Contra Affair. New York: Scribner, 1988. Print. vii.
2. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. 2.
3. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. 5.
4. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. 66.
5. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. 91.
6. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. 200.
7. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. 245.
8. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. ix
9. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. ix.
10. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. 292.
11. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. viii.
12. Bensky, Larry. “The Iran
Contra Saga Continues: PERILOUS STATECRAFT An Insider’s Account of the Iran-Contra Affair by Michael Ledeen (Charles Scribner’s Sons: $19.95; 307 Pp. 0-684-18994-1 : THE IRANIAN TRIANGLE The Untold Story of Israel’s Role in the Iran-Contra Affair by Samuel Segev (The Free Press: $22.50; 304 Pp.; 0-02-928341-8).” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 18 Dec. 1988. Web. 23 May 2016.
13. Scribners. “PERILOUS STATECRAFT: AN INSIDER’S ACCOUNT OF THE IRANCONTRA AFFAIR.” Kirkus Review, 12 Oct. 1988. Web. 23 May 2016.
14. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. 138.
15. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. 292.
16. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. 2.
17. Ledeen, Michael Arthur. 3.