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The costs of zealotry in foreign policy

THE Iran-contra fiasco vividly shows the results of zealotry in foreign policy. President Reagan's role appears to have been much more central and active than depicted in the Tower Commission report. Secretary of State George Shultz called him ``decisive,'' but ``willful'' would seem more accurate. He was determined to get the hostages released and supply the contras at the cost of disregarding his own policies toward Iran and terrorism and of congressional constraints on contra aid.

That the policymaking was chaotic and stupid and the execution bumbling hardly needs saying. But fascination with the details of the activities should not divert us from the grave damage they have done both to constitutional processes and to United States foreign policy.

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The contempt for Congress and for legal restraints was blatant. The contra program was covert, not to deceive an enemy, but to evade congressional and popular resistance. Under the Constitution, the control of foreign policy is explicitly shared by the president, who clearly must conduct it, and the Congress, with powers over legislation, funding, approval of treaties and appointments, and the declaring of war. These checks were intended to ensure that the president could be held accountable by requiring him to convince the Congress of the soundness of major policies to get its support.

To make this system work, the president must accept Congress as a partner with which he must cooperate. And, of course, Congress must reciprocate. Cooperation depends on mutual trust and genuine effort to find consensus. Attempts to short-cut the process inevitably breed distrust and legislative restrictions.

On controversial issues, the necessary consensus requires serious debate about what interests are at stake, what goals are realistic, what means will be effective and acceptable, and where to strike the balance among these factors.

In proposing a policy, a president has a responsibility to be honest about the interests involved, the ends sought, and the requisite means for achieving them. President Reagan has not met that responsibility regarding Nicaragua and the contras. He has presented broad slogans rather than analysis of US interests. He has frequently dissembled as to his real aim of overthrowing the Sandinista regime. And he offers no convincing grounds for believing that the contras are able to reach that goal, even with major US aid.

Inevitably, many in Congress and the public are not satisfied as to the interests, the goal, or reliance on contra aid as the means. Nor would most approve using US forces to achieve a Sandinista overthrow. The result has been a negative but confused response from Congress, which cannot produce a realistic alternative. A consensus could probably be formed on the need to prevent a Soviet base or subversion of Nicaragua's neighbors while letting Nicaraguans settle their own domestic order. But any such resolution will probably have to await a new administration.

The Iran-contra folly has also been costly to the US role in international affairs. US leadership, still essential for international economic progress and security, depends heavily on the respect of friends and adversaries for its competence and reliability. Unfortunately, for 15 years or more, confidence in the US has suffered a steady decline, largely because of doubts about US leaders. Under Mr. Reagan, credibility has been further eroded by such things as the mishandling of the huge budget deficit, the muddled Middle East policy, the internal splits on arms control, and the Iceland summit meeting.

The President's standing has also suffered badly. But he could still salvage it by success on the two major issues before him: the budget deficit and an arms control agreement cutting strategic offensive weapons. Both would require him to modify existing rigid positions. To cut the budget deficit, he could readily work out with Congress a balanced package by accepting moderate tax increases along with spending cuts. And for a strategic arms agreement, he would have to return to the traditional interpretation of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty and accept an orderly but serious ``star wars'' research program, while postponing any deployment until the options could be evaluated objectively in the light of such research.

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The time for a change is short but still adequate. Success would help to restore not only Reagan's image, but also respect for the US.

Robert R. Bowie has been concerned with foreign affairs for over 40 years on the Harvard faculty, in government posts, and as a consultant.

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