Iran/Contra Was the Prototype for Post-Vietnam Imperial Adventure

tags: Iran Contra

Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University and a Nation editorial board member, is the author of a number of prize-winning books, including "The Empire of Necessity."

What, then was Iran/Contra? Many things.

First, it was a vast covert fundraising network, one that went well beyond Iran and well beyond the goal of arming the Contras. Funding came from four main sources: third-party allied countries, such as Saudi Arabia; the conservative grassroots, which, through various right-wing activists coordinated by North, contributed to the anti-Sandinistas cause; wealthy US businessmen, many of them tied to the extractive industry, such as Ross Perot; and Latin American drug cartels (much of the money was routed through Manuel Noriega’s Panama; the cartels’ transport infrastructure was used to get weapons to the Contras and, in turn, drugs into the United States—as North wrote in his personal diary: “Honduran DC-6 which is being used for runs out of New Orleans is probably being used for drug runs into U.S.”).

Second, this dense, transnational fundraising-and-supply network, which included Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Freedom Council, was more than logistical. It helped bind diverse, often fringe groups into a unified campaign. It was, for example, the first time neoconservatives and the religious right worked together on an extensive project. Well before those two groups joined after 9/11 to fight radical Islam, the logistical network that undergirded Iran/Contra allowed them to warm up against another “political religion”: Liberation Theology, Latin America’s Christian socialism, which fought against US-backed military juntas and sought to achieve social justice through a redistribution of wealth. In order to bypass public and congressional opposition, the White House outsourced the “hearts and minds” component of its Central American wars to evangelicals. This gave the religious right its first real taste of power within the Republican Party and drew it closer to other groups within the Reagan Revolution. Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum sent down “Freedom Fighter Friendship Kits” to the Contras, complete with toothpaste, insect repellent, and Bibles. Gospel Crusades Inc., Friends of the Americas, Operation Blessing, World Vision, the Wycliffe Bible Translators, and World Medical Relief likewise shipped hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid to the anti-Sandinista rebels and Honduran refugee camps, where they established schools, health clinics, and religious missions. Similar operations took place in El Salvador and Guatemala, where Pat Robertson used his Christian Broadcasting Network to raise money for Efraín Ríos Montt, the evangelical Christian who presided over Guatemala’s 1982 genocide, which killed over 100,000 Mayan Indians.

Third, the money raised by Iran/Contra’s vast fundraising operation was used not just to wage a war on Nicaragua but to fight psy-ops here, on domestic US soil, to neutralize political opposition in Congress and deflect critical public opinion. The Office of Public Diplomacy, headed first by Otto Reich and then Robert Kagan, targeted journalists and public opinion, while the White House worked closely with “independent” grassroots conservative organizations to defeat congressional opponents and keep tabs on, and harass, anti-interventionist activists in organizations such as the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. The details are too thick to relate here, but a draft chapter in the Senate’s Iran/Contra report called these activities “what a covert CIA operation in a foreign country might do”; they “attempted to manipulate the media, the Congress and public opinion to support the Reagan administration’s policies.”

Finally, Iran/Contra was at its heart an ideological project. It wasn’t enough for militarists and neocons to figure out ways to secretly wage an illegal war. Congressional oversight was only part of the problem, and easily overcome. What had to be defeated was the widespread, diffuse anti-militarism and cynicism regarding the use of American power that had overtaken the American public since the 1960s, with the loss of the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal.

To this end, the illegal war against the Sandinistas provided a chance: Reagan defended support of the Contras in highly idealistic terms, describing the counterinsurgencies as the “moral equivalents” of the founding fathers, as carrying Tom Paine’s and Abraham Lincoln’s torch. This is the first time that the modern Republican Party used such grandiose language to describe a foreign intervention; before this, from Wilson to JFK, similar lofty rhetoric had been the property of Democrats. Similarly, intellectuals on the religious right, along with mainline conservative Protestants, used the war against Liberation Theology—identified by one as “the single most critical problem that Christianity has faced in all of its 2000 year history”—to offer a proactive ethical defense of markets and militarism, to insist that wealth and power were a sign of God’s grace. ...

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