WHATEVER else the Iran-contra hearings may have demonstrated to the American public, they have opened a window on another culture. Patterns of individual dealing, payoffs, and financial manipulation are not unknown in the United States, but they are generally not considered either appropriate or central to the affairs of government. When Albert Hakim sat before the Congressional select committee recently and spoke of setting up a security fund for the North family, he probably considered it an acceptable favor for circumstances that had helped him to benefit financially. In the Middle East - and, in fact, in much of the rest of the world - those who perform a service expect a reward. Many an American diplomat in Iran and the lands next to Iran has faced the problem of disposing of a valuable gift sent in appreciation for a service rendered by the diplomat in the line of duty.
At times, such gifts are even more embarrassing because they seem clearly to be in anticipation of future favors. Those who send them seem puzzled that the cultural pattern of such rewards is frowned upon in the United States.
Whatever may be the ostensible constitutional framework, governance in such lands centers on individuals. Kings and ayatollahs rule through accepting and balancing favors from subjects. The path to influence is often paved either by gifts or by services rendered. The line between official responsibility and personal gain is, in large measure, obscure.
Few who know that part of the world are surprised when middlemen mix offers of service to the US with the anticipation of personal gain. Although wheeling and dealing has become a part of life in Washington, the nation is still essentially governed on the basis of institutions and laws.
The public outcry over the Iran-contra affair is not only against dealing with unfriendly, revolutionary Iran, but is also against the manipulation of official relations for private profit. As this mercenary element becomes more and more a part of the Iran-contra picture, the public sympathy for those involved declines. The claim that laws and standard practices have been circumvented to achieve a higher national purpose becomes less credible.
Many who have spent careers in government believe our system can work only if those within it have respect for the institutions of the Constitution and the laws that are made within that framework. Neither frustration with the slowness of the process nor doubts regarding the wisdom of policies and actions are considered sufficient grounds for independent action.
The activities of a Colonel North, however justified by the objectives, serve only to undermine the fundamentals of a system that has served the United States well for two hundred years.
In some countries in the Middle East and Asia this conscientious attachment to laws and to a formal structure of government is not understood; the manipulative and financial power of individuals may have greater influence on official actions than the more deliberate acts of an official process.
There are many, like the Ghorbanifars and the Hakims of the current drama, who have in the past approached foreign diplomats and offered to be of service in the resolution of official problems. Their hope of increasing their own influence or personal profit has been only thinly disguised.
In the Iran affair the Americans involved seemed either unprepared for the complex motives of this alien cultural pattern or too ready to accept it as an avenue for resolving serious problems of US foreign policy. Certainly there are times in diplomacy when one must employ an intermediary or deal indirectly with a foreign authority. In such cases, however, it is important to determine that the intermediary truly has influence with the authority involved and to ascertain, so far as possible, that no hidden motive or expectation of personal gain exists.
The US cannot work effectively in another area of the world without understanding the realities of that culture. To be drawn into the more shadowy and manipulative aspects of a foreign society risks the kind of political embarrassment now facing the administration, and undermines, both at home and abroad, the strong principles on which the American democracy has been founded.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.