Bush's appointments of Iran-Contra scandal alumni add insult to unhealed injuries of the Cold War
WASHINGTON - What threshold of crime or misconduct does a United States citizen have to cross to become ineligible for participation in public life? The answer may be: Startlingly low, unless your crime was committed in the service of a Cold War that the United States has not yet settled at home.
In eight of the 50 states, being convicted of any felony is enough to forfeit the very right to vote, for life. Crimes classified as felonies run the gamut from minor drug possession to capital murder; Winona Ryder's celebrated shoplifting trial, for example, resulted in two felony convictions, for grand theft and vandalism.
If Ryder lived in Florida instead of California, she would join the 31% of the black voting-age population there in being barred from enjoying the most basic of democratic rights. (Conversely, if Florida had Maine's more liberal voting laws, Al Gore would be president.)
Regardless of what you think about a system that disenfranchises more than four million Americans, the rationale is clear enough: For citizens wishing to have a say in public life, some crimes are beyond the pale of acceptable behaviour. The rule of law, and perhaps even the imperative of national self- defence, demands no less.
Unless, that is, the criminal is a Republican politician.
Take the case of Elliott Abrams, who was appointed by George W. Bush, the U.S. President, early this month as the National Security Council's top official in charge of the Arab/Israeli conflict.
In October, 1991, Abrams pleaded guilty to two counts of a misdemeanour far graver than anything Winona Ryder has inflicted upon society: "Withholding information" from the United States Congress.
Abrams' crime was much worse than its euphemistic name would indicate. During Ronald Reagan's second term, he worked with Oliver North and other Latin America specialists to deliberately and secretly circumvent the Boland Amendment, an October, 1984, piece of legislation that prohibited the administration from supplying lethal aid to Nicaragua's rebel Contras using public funds.
Abrams believed the anti-leftist cause in Central America was much more important than following the laws of his land, so he did things like travel surreptitiously to London to solicit US$10-million in Contra aid from the Sultan of Brunei.
When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence questioned Abrams in October, 1986, about North's secret Contra-supplying program, he feigned ignorance. When they asked about reports that the Reagan administration had soaked the Sultan, he called them false (the cheque hadn't been cashed yet, you see).
In his guilty plea five years later, Abrams explained he believed at the time "that disclosure of Lt. Col. North's activities in the resupply of the Contras would jeopardize final enactment" of a US$100-million Contra-funding bill then pending in Congress.
To sum up: Abrams lied to the representatives of the American people about his team subverting the law, in order to manipulate Congress to enact legislation that it probably wouldn't if it knew the truth. He violated his oath, broke the law and abused power.
So how did this confessed criminal end up as Condoleezza Rice's right-hand man in the Middle East? Thank each president named Bush. George the elder, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and vice-president under Reagan, granted full pardons to Abrams and five other Iran-contra defendants on Christmas Eve, 1992, just a month before he left office.
One of the pardonees, former defence secretary Caspar Weinberger, had been scheduled to face trial just 10 days later on charges of lying to Congress. As The New York Times reported at the time, the case "was expected to focus on Mr. Weinberger's private notes that contain references to Mr. Bush's endorsement of the secret [arms] shipments to Iran."
Independent Prosecutor Law-rence Walsh angrily accused Bush of abusing his office. "The Iran-Contra cover-up, which has continued for more than six years, has now been completed," Walsh told reporters. Bush Senior would later dismiss Walsh's investigations and multiple convictions as the "criminalization of policy differences."
Eight years later, George W. narrowly (and controversially) reclaimed the Executive Office for the Bush family, on a campaign that promised to "restore dignity to the White House." That pledge was understood as a swipe at Bill Clinton, whom Republicans had tried removing from office for lying under oath and violating the sacred "rule of law."
Within months of Bush's election, Abrams was deemed dignified enough for a taxpayer salary, and appointed to the National Security Council's office for "democracy, human rights and international operations." The posting, just like Abrams' promotion this month, did not require Congressional approval.
Bush's spokesman Ari Fleischer, when asked about Abrams' criminal record, said, "The President thinks that's a matter of the past and was dealt with at the time."
Abrams is worth mentioning at length not because his case is extraordinary, but because the opposite is true: Bush has been making a habit of appointing known liars and once-convicted Republican officials to key government positions.
Without much evident restraint, he is restoring long-forgotten indignities to the White House at a time when his administration is expanding the very powers that his new appointees once abused.
And Abrams may well be the least controversial name on a list of Bush exhumations that includes United Nations Ambassador John Negroponte, Pentagon Office of Information Awareness chief John Poindexter, recent Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich, and, until his resignation yesterday, Sept. 11 Investigative Commission Chair Henry Kissinger (who, in a move that recalled Bush Senior's timing, was appointed on the eve of Thanksgiving).
If the U.S. two-party system could ever produce a real Truth Commission to sort out past foreign policy crimes, these five men would be among the first on the witness stand. And part of that process, one would hope, would be a brutally honest accounting of how some of their political opponents were soft on Communism to the point of embracing or abetting it.
Absent that, we still have previous investigations and declassified information to go on, most of which reveal common themes of misleading Congress, using secrecy to prevent the American people from watchdogging their own government, and using noble far-off ends to justify ignoble present-day means.
Poindexter, Reagan's national security advisor, was convicted in 1990 of five felony counts of lying to Congress, obstructing Iran-Contra investigators, destroying evidence and so on. An appeals court overturned the conviction on the grounds that it had relied partially on testimony Poindexter gave under immunity. He was appointed this February to run the Pentagon's much-maligned Total Information Awareness program.
Reich, who headed a pro-Contra public relations program for the State Department from 1983-86, "engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities," such as leaking false stories to the press, according to a 1987 report by the U.S. Comptroller General. He was a recess appointment this January, meaning Bush selected him when Congress was out of session in order to avoid a confirmation battle.
Reich's term ended early this month, and he has been shuffled to a less-prominent role while the President decides where he should go next.
Negroponte was the Ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, when the United States was funneling illegal aid to the Contras through the Honduran border. Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, a Washington organization specializing in declassified government documents, said at the time of Negroponte's confirmation that his "activities in support of the illicit Contra war operations and disregard for repression by the Honduran military run directly counter to the purposes and principles of the United Nations."
Kissinger was by far the most controversial of the bunch. He was the dominant figure behind U.S. foreign policy from 1969-76, during which time he masterminded the secret bombing of the sovereign countries of Laos and Cambodia without duly informing Congress, authorized payments to the assassins of Chilean general Rene Schneider, helped encourage the September, 1973, coup toppling Chilean leader Salvador Allende, targeted opposition journalists for surveillance, complained to the repressive dictators he supported about the intrusive U.S. Congress and media, and so on.
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Outrage at the appointments of these men has so far been mostly a partisan affair, with the left-wing press going ballistic while such mainstream liberal outlets as The New York Times and Salon.com focus more on such things as Elliot Abrams' pro- Israel views, or Henry Kissinger's disclosure issues, which were substantial enough that he finally stepped down late Friday rather than shine a light on his secretive consultancy that specializes in helping multinationals do business in repressive countries such as China.
But abuse of power is by definition a non-partisan concept, even if opposition to it falls along the same tired old battle lines of the Cold War. Republicans, who tried convincing us in 1998-99 that "truth-telling is the heart and soul of our justice system," should be howling at Bush's pack of proven liars, just as Democrats who wail at Attorney-General John Ashcroft should have been (but weren't) protesting Bill Clinton's assault on the Constitution's search-and-seizure protections.
The partisan divide illustrates something else: The Cold War, and all the divisions it exacerbated, never properly ended inside the United States. After Communism fell, the left didn't search its soul and admit its mistakes (such as mocking Ronald Reagan for making his "tear down that wall" speech). Likewise, the right didn't confront the murderous excesses of realpolitik. Self-examination on social issues may have evolved greatly -- witness the widespread revulsion expressed by right-leaning commentators this week at Republican Trent Lott's nostalgia for segregationalist politicians -- but we haven't yet got around to sorting out who did what during the Cold War.
So the old wounds have been left to fester, even while the geopolitical situation has transformed beyond what would have been recognizable in 1989. And outrage at government misconduct continues to rely more on positioning along the political spectrum, than on principle.
To cite one completely unscientific example: A few months ago, I asked the non-Democrat readers of my Web site who they would have voted for in the 1972 presidential election, had they known everything we know now about Richard Nixon's unprecedented abuse of power, as opposed to Democrat George McGovern's famous decency and even more famous leftist politics. By a ratio of 4 to 1 they selected ... Nixon. "McGovern just never passed the 'wince' test for me," one reader explained.
George W. Bush is asking Americans of all parties to rally around his leadership in the war on terrorism and a possible war against Saddam Hussein.
The opposition left has been criticized, with occasional merit, for trotting out the same tired anti-war slogans they first memorized three decades ago. If Bush is serious about convincing those scarred by Cold War-era excesses, and mollifying those who worry about the side effects of sucking up to unpleasant regimes, his appointment of hoary realpolitik veterans has been less than productive.
But that's really the least of it. The appointments amount to a declaration that the "rule of law" is no more than a political slogan, hardly worth heeding as long as the government believes its crusade is noble. The American public, and soon the Congress, is being deemed unfit to monitor its own representatives and policies.
Bush is grinding salt into an open wound, and it hurts.
Matt Welch is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. His work is archived at www.mattwelch.com