I HAVE to confess, despite the obvious pain in Lt. Col. Oliver North's voice when he was taking the Fifth Amendment before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, my sympathy for his predicament was limited. Refusing to testify on the grounds of possible self-incrimination is an important constitutional right. Yet nobody is obliged to use it. Certainly not a man who began his statement by emphasizing his devotion to the public service. And certainly not an active-duty officer who had the bad taste to take the Fifth while wearing his uniform with an impressive collection of decorations on his chest.
In the moment of trial both Colonel North and his former boss, Vice-Adm. John Poindexter, appeared to put their personal well-being above the interests of President Reagan and indeed the interests of the republic. The last thing the nation needs is the agony of endless new disclosures about the Iran-contra affair.
North and Admiral Poindexter are perfectly entitled to the normal protection provided by the Constitution to all Americans. And Rep. Dante Fascell (D) of Florida, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was right not to pressure these two witnesses appearing before his body. But I was most disturbed to see several members of the committee delivering what amounted to glorifications of the two celebrated officers, who - regardless even of the propriety of their previous actions - were hardly an example of self-sacrificing patriotism.
My problem is not with the individuals in question. Whether prosecuted under law or not, they and their families will go through a terrible ordeal. There is no way their careers and reputations will remain intact. And nobody can demand that military officers in peacetime act like heroes. Still, President Reagan notwithstanding, heroes these men are not.
The casual manner with which most in the Congress and in the media treated Poindexter and North's performance tells a lot about how low our expectations about the conduct of public officials have been. Too often we confuse legality and morality. Too often we refuse to see that not everything that is legal is also honorable. No wonder so many Americans lack basic trust in their government.
When is the last time anybody of top rank in Washington resigned on a matter of principle or simply because of policy failures? No one comes to mind since Secretary of State Cyrus Vance left office in 1980 because of differences with President Carter over the Iranian hostage rescue mission.
Take central intelligence Director William Casey. During his watch, Central Intelligence Agency operatives were engaged in the ill-fated mining of Nicaraguan waters. Edward Lee Howard betrayed key US spy operations to Moscow. KGB Col. Vitaly Yurchenko, whom Mr. Casey met personally, managed to fool his CIA handlers and to redefect to the Soviet Union. And now it appears that Casey was either not in full control of his agency or less than forthright with the US Congress in explaining the CIA involvement in the Iran-contra affair. Casey has become a clear liability to the President. Nevertheless, there is no sign that he intends to resign unless specifically requested to do so by Mr. Reagan or compelled by public and congressional pressure.
And what about Secretary of State George Shultz? There are good reasons that the President should not fire him. He was one Cabinet member who opposed the Iranian adventure. NATO allies have a good working relationship with him. He is widely perceived in the Congress as a person of basic competence and integrity. And there is a fear that his successor would be much worse.
But what Mr. Reagan cannot compel Mr. Shultz to do, the secretary of state may do on his own. During the toughest test encountered by the administration he has pointedly dissociated himself from the President. True, Shultz may have difficulty supporting policies that he had initially argued against and later was not informed about. But there was enough smoke to allow the secretary to smell the fire. Instead, he turned his antennas elsewhere at the wrong time and at the wrong place. The question is whether people in his position have the right not to know and still claim that they can be effective on the job.
Coming on top of Shultz's failure to prepare the President for and to guide him through the summit in Reykjavik, the current scandal should give the secretary an inkling that there are some fundamental problems with his ability to direct US diplomacy.
As for White House chief of staff Donald Regan: If he does not see that every day of his presence next to the Oval Office magnifies problems for Reagan, either his political judgment or his loyalty to the President should be seriously suspect.
When in 1982 Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, the British foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, immediately submitted his resignation. His only fault: an inability to anticipate the Argentine move. That was an act of integrity to which we in Washington have grown less and less accustomed. Yet the standards of honor should be the same.
Dimitri K. Simes is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.