THE United States last week was introduced to Lt. Col. Oliver North. The attitudes and the world he portrayed are familiar to those of us who have worked on national-security affairs. We have met other Oliver Norths. Whether civilian or military, they are personable, clean cut, hardworking, and patriotic. They ``get things done.'' The qualities they possess are admired by Americans; Colonel North in his testimony has generated wide respect and admiration.
But they are also zealots. They believe the world is truly dangerous for the United States and they are out to save the nation. For them the Soviet Union is the implacable enemy, yet they are fascinated by Soviet methods. Personally honest, they believe deception is justified for a higher purpose. Their true adversaries are the experts, the diplomats, the legislators who, in their deliberate ways, block actions deemed essential by the Norths. These ``foot draggers'' and ``wimps'' create the frustrations with the system that lead the Norths to undertake hidden projects.
Such men and women seek out superiors who share their views. North found such a person in William Casey, late director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Whether or not President Reagan knew all that was going on, his administration created an atmosphere ready made for the actions and attitudes of Mr. Casey and North.
In the minds of many Americans, North scored successes in Grenada, the Achille Lauro case, and in the bombing of Libya. These actions were unilateral. They could be planned and carried out within the US and executed by US forces. Congress and the American people generally applauded the actions. The possibilities of premature disclosure were relatively low. Disaster struck when North and his like-minded colleagues attempted to operate in an environment not under their control and to undertake activities without a consensus in the nation, the Congress, or the executive.
As the evidence of the hearings has clearly indicated, they placed themselves and the interests of the US in the hands of foreigners who had less influence than they claimed, had motives of their own, and gave a misleading picture of a complex situation in Iran. In such circumstances the risks of failure and of disclosure were high. Having bypassed recognized experts and the established system of analysis within both the State Department and the intelligence community and having rejected any consultation with the Congress, they were flying blind.
Nevertheless, North's personality, his uniform, and his earnestness have won him support personally and have undoubtedly increased support for the Nicaraguan contras. Fewer in Congress will want to challenge the cause of so popular a figure. Fewer will ask the tough questions about the ultimate objectives, character, and success of the movement.
Beyond the immediate, however, North's testimony raises an even more disturbing issue. The Caseys and Norths of this world, certain of their view of the national interest, have long dreamed of establishing a secret unit that could carry out operations away from the cautious hands of the State Department and the prying eyes of the press and the Congress. As the testimony in the hearings revealed, this was apparently one of the longer-range objectives of the late William Casey.
The full implications of such an idea are - or should be - deeply troubling. It means that a small group within an administration, using US and foreign contractors of their own choosing, would be making commitments on behalf of the US and encouraging men and governments to take risks on the assumption that the full faith of the US is behind the encouragement. Those being approached abroad are not likely to know how fragile is the authority of the intermediary. The possibilities of disclosure, disillusionment, and embarrassment are greater than any nation should tolerate. We have not yet finished adding up the true costs of the arms-to-Iran caper in terms of the present complications in the Gulf and our diminished diplomatic credibility.
For the first time in recent history, a zealot such as North has been given wide scope for his actions. Many will applaud him. The rest of us can only hope that, upon further reflection, Americans will learn that the Colonel Norths of the world, however attractive and patriotic they may seem, pose serious threats to our security and our democratic system.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.