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Irangate: the larger lesson

AS President Reagan rides the rapids of the Iran arms affair, he has some benefit of the experience of his predecessors working on his behalf. He has taken on water. His sharp drop in the opinion polls, hardly unexpected, is one sign of that. His laying blame on the news media, no doubt out of frustration, can only waste energy and time needed for pulling his leadership to a safe cove.

Still, his administration has not withdrawn psychologically to a Nixon-like bunker, at war with Congress, the judiciary, and the media. Nor has it retreated, Carter-like, to a Camp David seclusion, leaving the nation to wonder whether the President had kept his senses.

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The President has endorsed the request, by the attorney general, for the appointment of a special or independent prosecutor by a three-judge panel. He has convened a special inquiry into the National Security Council's operations, headed by three estimable men with military, national-security, congressional, and State Department experience. Since they lack subpoena powers, their charge is dependent on White House cooperation; none of the three, however, is likely to accept obstruction without the sharpest protest and resignation. And he has appointed a new National Security Council director, Frank Carlucci, a respected veteran of both Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency service.

This is a start. More must be done.

The White House staff needs a fresh team. The President's own allies on the Hill and his longtime supporters are telling him this. The issue is not whether Donald Regan has been telling the truth about what he knew or did not know. It is that he has a self-interest to protect in the forthcoming inquiries. Under such circumstances, one steps aside. Mr. Regan has served the President for six years. The final two years of the President's second term, to begin shortly, is a discrete unit. It offers an opportunity for another chief of staff to establish new working procedures and lines of control, and to revamp policies, programs, and communications. The President must have a fresh administrative start, aided by individuals untainted by the Iran affair.

Next, the Cabinet. Revelations will have their impact. It may follow too that some of those now holding the store may best move on by the time of the President's State of the Union message in late January. That message itself offers an opportunity for the President and his administration to make a fresh start.

There is no escaping what the facts will say about the double-dealing, the willful or ignorant obliviousness that permitted the Iran arms mess to develop.

American democracy is resilient enough to sustain another bout of disappointment in official performance.

But it would be too bad to let matters rest on human culpability alone.

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Foreign policy precepts: Behind the Iran-hostages-contra affair lies a world-wide traffic in arms that is immoral to the core. Where there is so much money to be made, influence to seek on such a scale, even good motives can be overwhelmed.

Arms sales are no longer the purview of the Defense Department alone. They have become instruments of foreign policy - inducements, alas, even to ``peace'' efforts and hostage release. Look not just at the Persian Gulf, but at Lebanon, the crossroads of the world arms trade, where other nations who now hoot at Washington's turmoil also contribute to human devastation with their arms sales. Or Nicaragua.

The policies of US unilateralism, and of a free world market in weapons, should be examined, and not just the failures of those who served these policies.

Out of the Iran mess will come the issues for the next American election.

Let's learn the right lessons well.

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