TEN years from now, what will be thought of the Tower report? Chiefly that it confirmed the basic outlines of the Iran arms affair nearly four months after the original disclosures were made: An arms-for-hostages swap was the leading motivation, not building a relationship with Iran ``moderates.''
President Reagan himself had authorized the series of arms shipments and had been kept more abreast of the operation than his lieutenants had wanted to admit.
The diversion of Iran arms receipts to the Nicaragua contras might have been carried on without the President's express direction, but administrators in his National Security Council and the Central Intelligence Agency recklessly ran away with things - with covert operations, back-channel communications, Swiss bank accounts.
Institutionally, the purpose of NSC as a policy coordinating agency was reaffirmed, but its managers, and top White House staff, merited sharp rebuke.
Once the scandal broke, the White House correctly appointed the bipartisan Tower Commission. Overall the White House response was mixed. ``Cover-up'' is too strong, but candor was stretched and memos altered, despite avowals of full disclosure.
Societies must learn from their leaders' experience. Political support for the President's contra war in Nicaragua has been undermined. The White House impulse to be headstrong and to disregard congressional and allied reservations has been cut short. Muddy thinking about the Iran-Iraq war and hostage policy has been exposed, along with an authoritarian chief-of-staff leadership style, and the regrettable distancing of themselves from unsound policies by the secretaries of state and defense. The country is better off having this known.
The American system provides no interim exit for a president in trouble, short of resignation or impeachment, neither called for here. No parliamentary vote of ``no confidence'' can start up a new election. Partly because Americans are stuck with their presidents, they tend to want them to succeed, or at least to make it competently to the finish line. Even at this point, the latest surveys show Ronald Reagan retains the support of half the American public, an asset not to be discounted.
An administration is more than a president. Even the ``presidency'' should be viewed as hundreds of people, at a minimum, all with ideas, strengths, weaknesses, ambitions, loyalties. The executive branch consists of many thousands of personnel. This apparatus makes demands of its own for leadership. A government cannot be shut down like some out-of-date factory.
The President and the White House must take their Iran affair rebuke and get on with things. Mr. Reagan says he intends to do this. Time will tell how well he does.