GEORGE SHULTZ last week described an administration whose top officials engaged in bureaucratic guerrilla warfare over the Iran-contra issues. The tale must baffle Washington's friends abroad; that it would be told in full view of all the world must be even more astonishing. Yet the purgative hearings endeavor is consistent with the American system of political accountability. A remarkable idealism moves that system, a confidence that democratic discussion will eventually right even the worst mistakes.
We are grateful that Mr. Shultz's resignation was not accepted by the President on any of the three occasions he offered it. Shultz probably would never say so, but he had to consider who might replace him - someone more likely to play to the Reagan presidency's more obstreperous side. We have differed with the secretary of state on matters like the White House's tendency to rely overmuch on force; but we also have appreciated his moderating intelligence.
Shultz described his department as an enormous haystack of activity, the Iran-contra details being pieced together needle by needle. He told how top officials wielded bureaucratic knives to cut each other out of the loop. How he went toe to toe with the President over the hostages-for-arms deal and over details in the President's public explanations. How he was deceived by top White House aides.
Shultz made three useful suggestions: Separate intelligence gathering from policymaking; let accountable officials, i.e., the president and Cabinet officials, run things; and have Cabinet members work directly with the president, leaving top deputies to run the agencies.
These institutional changes would help. They point, however, to a simple question: Why did not President Reagan get all the relevant actors together, grill them, and himself get to the bottom of what was going on?
As it was, the President apparently went ahead with the Iran dealings despite protests from the secretaries of state and defense. He followed the advice he preferred to hear, some of it offered in private - not in open debate - by the Central Intelligence Agency's William Casey.