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The no-fault presidency

GOVERNMENTS, like other organizations, adopt protocols and procedures to keep partisans from tearing one another apart. A healthy commitment to communication is needed to bring disputants aboard. Secrecy, deception, unilateralism, undermine trust; they bring the system down; they result in proceedings like today's Iran-contra hearings, which are needed to clear the air and reconfirm Washington's operative rules so trust can be restored. Agreement on where the buck stops is crucial. Rear Adm. John Poindexter's assertion that ``the buck stops here with me,'' in the decision to divert Iranian arms funds to the Nicaragua contras, is disturbing. His assertion that he ``was convinced that the President would, in the end, think it was a good idea'' has been contradicted by the President himself, who has said he would never have approved such a transfer. Admiral Poindexter's statement that he ``did not want [President Reagan] to be associated with the decision'' reflected a troubling assumption of accountability by the National Security Council chief. Deniability appeared as important as presidential responsibility.

Poindexter testified that Mr. Reagan had indeed signed a memorandum authorizing the arms-for-hostages swap, but that Poindexter destroyed the memorandum, again to protect the President. Reagan at first denied any such deal - one stoutly disapproved by the secretaries of defense and of state; Reagan then said what was an attempt to reach Iranian moderates had been corrupted into a swap; he now says he cannot remember the memo but does not dispute Poindexter's account.

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The ``buck'' does not wander around like some Odysseus looking for a place to rest. It stops with the President.

Reagan's presidency is not coming apart at the seams. His popularity holds. But at some point Mr. Reagan will want to assess publicly what went on during his watch, for what part he bears responsibility, and what should be the agreed-on rules of the game.

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