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The Iran-contra affair is no Watergate

SOME of Ronald Reagan's critics are trying to draw parallels between the Iran-contra affair and Watergate, even hinting that impeachment is a possibility. At this point, such an outcome isn't remotely possible; it is no more than wishful thinking by a very few. At core, Watergate was illegal activity and its coverup was done by the President. Richard Nixon cited national security as his defense. But when it became clear that the Nixon people had broken the law for political rather than national security reasons and that he was involved in trying to keep this wrongdoing secret, the door was opened to possible impeachment.

Mr. Reagan is not involved in any burglary. The worst that could come out of these congressional hearings or the probe by the special prosecutor is that the President actually knew about and, perhaps, even ordered the transfer to Nicaragua's contras of the profits from arms sales to Iran. Reagan has specifically denied knowledge of this. To find that he lied would have a devastating effect on his credibility. But even that development wouldn't likely lead to impeachment.

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The fact is that Reagan's uninterrupted policy position of shoring up the rebels in Nicaragua is not based on partisan politics or self-gain. It is a legitimate foreign policy position well within the authority of a president. He can legitimately describe his reasons as national security. Indeed, even those critics who think his position is dead wrong do not doubt Reagan's sincerity in believing that help for the contras is the best way to stop the incursion of Marxist communism into Latin America.

Did Reagan go too far in encouraging this aid for the contras while Congress's Boland amendment was in effect? It banned ``direct or indirect'' aid to these rebels by ``any agency or entity involved in intelligence activities.'' Many in Congress contend that the President may have violated this amendment. But White House officials say that if the amendment is construed as applying to the president, it may well be unconstitutional.

New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis calls such an assertion ``a radical constitutional claim. It is that the President has plenary power in foreign policy, not subject to limitation by law.'' Lewis challenges this ``divine-right'' position for a president and describes it as most forcefully represented on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Lewis says Congress has this power to restrain a president: ``The power of the purse is the fundamental power of the legislative branch.''

Pitted against this argument is the view of Washington Post columnist Mr. George Will, a frequent supporter of the President: ``Either the President has powers or he does not. If his actions in foreign policy can be micro-managed by Congress, then he does not have significant power regarding foreign policy. But the language and structure of the Constitution say he has those powers.'' Thus, says Will, the Boland amendment is a ``non-law.''

These opposing views reflect the nature of the debate developing both inside and outside the Washington beltway. I have just come back from a visit to the American heartland, where I never once heard the word ``impeachment.'' But I did hear a lot of talk about whether the President had overstepped his authority - and whether Congress had gone too far in trying to keep him from shaping foreign policy.

I was on the campus of the University of Illinois, where it is not unusual to hear the complexities of such issues debated. I also spent time with interested and informed farmers. So I have come back to Washington convinced we are in the midst of a new Great Debate.

I had heard one aspect of this debate put forward this way by Democrats: That when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was outflanking Congress in order to bring about his social revolution, it was the conservatives who yelled ``foul'' - and now it's the conservatives who are defending the President as he flouts a congressional curb.

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Republicans counter that it is the liberals who cheered on Roosevelt back in those days but who now want to restrict this Republican President.

An old political axiom seems to apply: ``It depends on whose ox is being gored.''

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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