Watergate and Contragate
March 1, 1987        

Noam Chomsky once observed that Watergate was “equivalent to the disclosure that the directors of Murder Incorporated were cheating on their income tax. Reprehensible, to be sure, but hardly the main point.” The crimes for which Richard Nixon was forced from office were insignificant compared with those which did not appear in the bill of impeachment drawn by the House Judiciary Committee. COINTLPRO, the FBI ‘s extensive program of infiltration and sabotage directed at the antiwar movement, dwarfed the Watergate operation. The bombing of Cambodia and Laos violated the sovereignty of neutral countries. American participation in the Vietnam War, which cost more than a million lives during Nixon’s first term, flatly contravened the UN Charter -- the supreme law of the United States -- notwithstanding flimsy legal justifications offered by the State Department. All these, Nixon’s real crimes, were carried off with impunity. But with the “enemies list” and the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters, he made the grave mistake of attacking people with power, who, unlike Indochinese peasants or American antiwar activists, were capable of defending themselves, and did.

The moral structure of the present Iran-contra scandal is much the same. The Reagan administration stands accused of lying to Congress and supplying arms to terrorists. The astonished outrage with which these charges are generally voiced is itself astonishing and outrageous. For six years this administration has been openly lying to Congress and the public and supplying arms to terrorists, with minimal protest from Congressional leaders or the media. The semi-annual human-rights certifications presented by the State Department to satisfy Congressional requirements for continued military aid to El Salvador have been lies. The Presidential finding, required by law to justify imposition of a trade embargo, that Nicaragua constitutes “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the security ... of the United States” was a lie. Assistant Secretaries of State Thomas Enders, Langhorne Motley, and Elliott Abrams have regularly lied in Congressional testimony about Central America. The State Department’s invariable pulic response to documented reports by human rights groups of atrocities committed by the contras and the Salvadoran military has been to lie. The CIA lied about: its involvement in the mining of Nicaraguan harbors. The President lied in accusing the Sandinistas of anti-Semitism, in initially assuring Congress that the sole purpose of contra aid was interdiction of arms to Salvadoran guerrillas, in denouncing the 1984 Nicaraguan elections as “sham” and “Soviet-style,” and in claiming “direct, precise, irrefutable evidence” of Libyan involvement in the West Berlin discotheque bombing, which led to the American attack on Tripoli. And so on and on.

Similarly, supplying arms to terrorists has been a staple of American foreign policy in the Reagan years, as before. The United States has organized and equipped the Salvadoran security forces since the 1960s, thus sharing responsibility for 40,000 civilian deaths. The Reagan Administration has pressed for renewed military aid to Guatemala, where more than 60,000 civilians have been killed by the security forces since the US-sponsored military coup in 1954. The contras, now as always entirely dependent on US support, have killed thousands of Nicaraguan civilians. The near-genocidal Indonesian assault on East Timor has been (and continues to be) carried out primarily with US-supplied weapons. Israel receives vast American military aid, though many times more Arab civilians have been killed by the Israeli Defense Forces than Israeli civilians by Iran, Libya, Syria, the Lebanese Shiites, and the Palestinians combined.

It is not the Reagan Administration’s deceit, but its announced policies, that are the real scandal. The United Nations Charter requires that its members “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” and from “intervention in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state,” including domestic insurgency and civil war. It also requires members to “settle their international disputes by peaceful means,” i.e., negotiations, and gives the Security Council sole responsibility to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression,” as well as to determine what measures should be taken. Us policy toward Nicaragua violates every one of these provisions. And the UN Charter, under American law, is of equal binding force with the Constitution itself, outweighing even Congressional enactments like the Boland Amendment or notification requirements for covert operations.

As for making contact with Iranian “moderates”-- this is by no means as self-evidently praiseworthy a goal as its near-universal acceptance (at least in principle) suggests. Addressing American diplomats after World War II, George Kennan urged then to keep watch for “moderate” military officers, whom he defined as those “willing to take over from civilians when the latter act contrary to the national interest.” In Indonesia in the early 1960s and Chile in the early 1970s, the US used arms shipments to establish close contacts with the military, who thereupon “took over” from their respective civilian governments and carried out a bloodbath. The United States used its relationship with the Iranian military to overthrow a popular democratic government in 1953, and sent a mission to Teheran in January 1979 to determine whether another military coup was feasible. Whatever the character of the Khomeini regime, to instigate its overthrow by military “moderates” is (assuming anyone cares) illegal.

Exactly as in Watergate, Congress and the media have cooperated to narrow the focus of inquiry from substantive to procedural questions. The infringement of Congressional prerogatives -- serious though that is-- pales beside US support for terror in Central America and elsewhere and persistent disregard of international law. But unlike the World Court or the victims of American foreign policy, Congress is sufficiently powerful to insist that its prerogatives be respected. That the rights of the powerful are vindicated -- this is the precise sense in which, as we were assured again and again after Watergate and will doubtless be assured after the present scandal has run its carefully circumscribed course, “the system works.”