IN May 1986, the current top challenger for Virginia's United States Senate seat helped plan and carry out a foreign-policy escapade that brought disgrace and embarrassment to the US. As a marine lieutenant colonel working in the National Security Council, Oliver North cobbled together a plan that unnecessarily threatened human lives and compromised the dignity of his country.
Given Mr. North's desire to obtain national political power, it is worth examining some of the details of this strange adventure.
Early on the morning of May 25, 1986, North and five others boarded a Boeing 707 aircraft in Tel Aviv. They were bound for Tehran, the capital of revolutionary Iran, to exchange Hawk missile parts for American hostages held in Lebanon. North had already spent several months working secretly to provide missiles to Iran to secure funds for illegally bankrolling the Nicaraguan contras.
Despite North's cocky enthusiasm and assurance that the operation would go ``peachy keen,'' the May 1986 foreign-policy gamble was a disaster from the beginning. After three days of bluffing and bickering with low-level Iranians in Tehran, North and colleagues shamefacedly returned to Washington. The pallet of missile parts remained in Iran. The hostages remained in Lebanon. North remained convinced of his diplomatic skills.
In fact, the venture never stood a chance. North's operation was flawed by faulty assumptions and by the clumsy tactics of an ambitious amateur. North and his colleagues put their trust in a middleman named Ghorbanifar, an individual whom the CIA described as a ``guy who lies with zest.'' It is embarrassing to note that North apparently believed that his group would meet with the highest authorities in Iran, including Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of the Majlis (parliament), and President Ali Khamenei.
All six adventurers carried Irish passports. Oliver North, who had chosen the pseudonyms ``Blood and Guts'' and ``Steelhammer,'' took the code name ``Mr. Goode'' for this operation.
To ingratiate his colleagues and himself with the Iranians, North brought along a chocolate cake fresh from a kosher bakery in Tel Aviv. During the flight, he dramatically opened the cake box and placed a brass key on the middle of the cake. This, he later told the Iranians, was the key to opening Iranian-American relations.
North thought that he could con the Iranians. He has said, ``I lied every time that I met the Iranians.'' As the unfortunate outcome of the Iran overture indicates, North's admitted lying and his attempt to con the Iranians failed miserably.
False passports, colorful pseudonyms, and chocolate cakes are not the essence of prudent diplomacy. Long before May 1986, North had been working hard to cut deals with the Islamic Republic, and the lieutenant colonel considered himself an expert on Iran. In fact, his ignorance of Iran was profound. As part of his secret Iranian-American arrangement whereby Iran was to receive over 1,000 TOW missiles, North confidently predicted that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini would voluntarily ``step down''!
Four months after the Tehran flight, undaunted by his trail of consistent failure, North was still blindly struggling to make secret deals. In the process, he became ever more deeply enmeshed in his own deceits. In September 1986, for example, he reportedly went so far as to provide secret tours of the White House to low-level Iranian operatives. In meetings in Frankfurt in October 1986, North tried to ingratiate himself with the Iranians by presenting them with a Bible inscribed by President Reagan.
Blind tenacity and boastful enthusiasm are no substitutes for sober and balanced judgment. Oliver North has said of himself, ``This kid was the one people came to when they wanted something done.''
North's political opponents are, of course, likely to resist senatorial representation by an individual whose record is long on self-promotion and short on constructive results. But the seriousness of the problem is seen in the fact that many of North's former associates are also uneasy about his current statements and his past behavior. Thus, Ronald Reagan wrote a letter to North indicating that he was ``pretty steamed'' about North's statements.
Robert McFarlane, a fellow ex-marine who accompanied North on the Israel-to-Iran adventure, has said on national television that Oliver North is a ``performer'' who ``is conning people the same today as he did in government.'' Mr. McFarlane, who knew North ``like a son,'' has described the lieutenant colonel in print as ``deceitful, mendacious, and traitorous.'' He concludes, ``This is not somebody you want in public office.''
Many Virginians are apparently willing to forgive North for his admitted lying and numerous misrepresentations of the truth. Many are also willing to forget that, despite taking the Fifth Amendment whenever he could, North was convicted of three felonies (convictions subsequently overturned, it should however be noted). But how many Virginians can really support a man whose foreign policymaking experience is limited to reckless missions built on ignorance and secrecy - missions that resulted in predictable failure, disgraced North, and dishonored his country?
In this fragile, dangerous, complex world, would North offer America mature, reasoned, and steady judgment? Is the self-proclaimed ``kid'' a statesman?