The Larger Lessons of Iran-Contra

JOHN POINDEXTER'S sentencing to six months in prison for his crimes relating to the Iran-contra affair will send a strong signal throughout government that the president and his men must deal truthfully with Congress. That is a vital precedent, even if it strikes the average citizen as a point that shouldn't have had to be made. But will the court's action affect the deeper issues raised by the worst foreign policy scandal of the past decade?

Admiral Poindexter, a former national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, was convicted April 7 on all five counts of conspiracy, obstruction, and making false statements to Congress about the affair. He was sentenced on Monday to five six-month terms to be served concurrently; he is the first defendant in the affair to be given jail time.

Although far less than the maximum 25 years and $1.25 million in fines he could have received, the sentence is a victory for independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, who called for incarceration in order to deter similar crimes in the future. It was Poindexter's conviction two months ago that gave Walsh the impetus to press on with his investigation, focusing on what he called a ``pattern of deceit'' at the highest levels of the Reagan administration.

One of the avenues Walsh has said he will explore is the role of former President Reagan and former Vice President Bush. Poindexter is expected to be a key witness before a new grand jury.

But Walsh can only go so far. His primary role has been to bring to justice those involved with criminal wrongdoing in the matter. He is also expected to make a complete report to Congress on his findings, which will render a service to history regardless of whether any new charges are filed.

But it is up to Congress to act on the more fundamental problems raised by the scandal. The Iran-contra affair amounted to more than a few instances of individual malfeasance, as serious as those are. The scandal was rather a symbol of the growing imbalance between the executive and legislative branches in the field of foreign affairs - an imbalance that carries serious constitutional implications.

Throughout, the affair was characterized by administration attempts to bypass Congress when it could not get lawmakers to go along with White House policy. In a memo written in May 1986, for example, Poindexter recounted a conversation with Reagan in which the president expressed his impatience with legislators deliberating a contra aid bill. ``I am really serious,'' Poindexter quoted Reagan. ``If we can't move the contra package before June 9, I want to figure out a way to take action unilaterally to provide assistance.''

The sentiment of many top Reagan aides - and the president himself - was that Congress was simply an obstacle rather than an equal partner in the policymaking process. At its worst, this attitude led to covert arms deals with the ``terrorist'' regime of Ayatollah Khomeini - swapping arms for hostages - and the subcontracting of US foreign policy to third countries and hired guns.

After the scandal broke, a wave of indignation swept over Capitol Hill. But in the end, the select committees that were created to get out all the facts fell far short of their stated goal. For a variety of political and policy reasons, they circumscribed their investigation, leaving major questions unanswered, notably the role of then-Vice President Bush.

In the period since the investigation, Congress has passed into law only one of the 27 recommendations for legislative reform put forward by the committees' majority members. A second bill came close to passage, but early last year Speaker of the House Jim Wright decided to table the measure, in part as a gesture of bipartisan goodwill toward the incoming Bush administration.

Clearly, Congress failed to draw the main lesson of the Iran-contra affair - that it was a problem of process, not just people. Poindexter's sentence is a salutary step, but until lawmakers muster the political will to address the tough constitutional issues raised by this affair, the temptation for the executive branch - under any administration - to try again may be irresistible.

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