The unfinished business of the Iran-contra affairs still haunts us. It reappears every time the President decides to take some critical action in foreign policy on his own.1 We have barely begun to face the issue, with the result that some Iran-contra variant is bound, sooner or later, to recur.
The Iran-contra affairs amounted to more than good plans gone wrong or even bad plans gone wildly wrong. They were symptomatic of a far deeper disorder in the American body politic. They were made possible by an interpretation of the Constitution which former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver L. North thought gave them a license to carry on their secret operations in the name of the President, without regard for any other branch of the government.2 One would not ordinarily think of Poindexter and North as authorities on the power of the presidency in foreign affairs. Yet, to justify their actions, they held forth on just this constitutional issue. A highly dubious theory of a presidential monopoly of foreign policy had filtered down to them. Their reasons reflected a school of thought that calls into question the constitutional foundations of this country.
On May 2, 1986, Poindexter sent a revealing message to his deputy, Don Fortier, about a conversation with President Reagan. Poindexter said that he and the President had discussed an aid bill for the contras, which was not going through Congress fast enough to please the administration. Reagan had started the conversation with “I am really serious.” He then said: “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.” After some discussion on how to accomplish this end, Poindexter observed: “But the fact remains that the President is ready to confront Congress on the Constitutional question of who controls foreign policy.”3
Poindexter brought up another critical question bearing on who controls foreign policy. Of all the powers given to Congress by the Constitution, none is more fundamental than congressional control of appropriations.4 Without that control, Congress would be deprived of any effective share in the governance of the United States. Yet Poindexter took it upon himself to declare that the constitutional authority of Congress to appropriate money should not be used “to restrict what the President can do in foreign policy.”5 In effect, he wanted congressional control of appropriations to stop at foreign policy, thereby depriving Congress of any fully effective means of influencing it.
North also posed as an authority on the President’s constitutional powers. At one point in the congressional hearings, he said:
I deeply believe that the President of the United States is also an elected official of this land, and by the Constitution, as I understand it, he is the person charged with making and carrying out the foreign policy of this country [italics added].6
It was this assumption of a president almighty in…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.