This is supposed to have been the era of the imperial presidency. It has turned out to be the era of presidencies that have tried to make themselves imperial—and failed. The attempt and the failure of the Reagan presidency are only the latest of this kind. The basic elements that have gone into the Reagan effort are also not new. Other presidents have used and misused the National Security Council and its “adviser”; other presidents have deliberately kept their secretaries of state in ignorance of presidential policy; other presidents have found ways to keep Congress in the dark about what they were doing.

Yet there is something new about the Reaganite phenomenon. The elements of the present intrigue may be familiar, but they have taken a different and more ominous form. A would-be imperial president has prepared the way for a would-be presidential junta.

The transition has been a very long one. In his study of the imperial presidency, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. began the story with the disputes over presidential power in George Washington’s administration. But the present crisis of presidential power has a different dimension; it is a crisis not only about what a president has the power to do; it is also about the power of those around or behind him to act in his name.

The roots of the present predicament go back to the efforts of at least the last seven presidents to extricate themselves from the constitutional limitations of their office. Schlesinger places the “presidential breakaway” after the Second World War. “The postwar Presidents,” he asserts, “though Eisenhower and Kennedy markedly less than Truman, Johnson, and Nixon, almost came to see the sharing of power with Congress in foreign policy as a derogation of the Presidency.”1 This version lets Franklin D. Roosevelt off on the ground that though his “destroyer deal” with Great Britain in 1940 was arranged without congressional authorization, it was done for good and sufficient reasons. Schlesinger exonerates Roosevelt because the prospect of a British collapse represented a genuine national emergency, and because Roosevelt privately consulted with the Republican and Democratic leadership. But Roosevelt knew that his action was constitutionally dubious and at first did not want to send the destroyers to Great Britain without legislative approval. As Schlesinger notes, the leading authority on the presidency, Professor Edward S. Corwin, regarded the deal as an “endorsement of unrestrained autocracy in the field of our foreign relations.” The road to Reagan was paved with good intentions.

The imperial presidency, then, is one that acts autocratically. It does so far more in foreign than in domestic affairs. Yet it was not always so. As long as the isolationist tradition was still strong, presidents had less incentive or opportunity to act alone. Once the so-called Truman Doctrine of 1947 seemed to provide a license to intervene everywhere in the world, presidents were far less inclined to restrain themselves, especially in periods of congressional complaisance.

Before the end of the Second World War, presidents did not have the bureaucratic means to carry out policy by themselves. They might insist on making decisions unilaterally, but they could not bypass the existing bureaucracy in order to carry them out. Roosevelt did not have a Central Intelligence Agency or a national security adviser with his own staff; the “destroyer deal” was no secret from the department, Congress, or anyone else. The CIA and the National Security Council were set up in 1947, the latter with a staff headed by an assistant for national security affairs, better known as national security adviser. From a handful, the NSC professional staff has grown to about fifty, enough to divide up the entire world among its own specialists. With these two new agencies, presidents were able to do things that had not been feasible for them to do before.

Again, the change came by stages. The CIA was originally charged with coordinating, correlating, evaluating, and disseminating foreign intelligence information; the national security adviser was given the task of coordinating the policy options open to the president and the recommendations to him. A decision was made at an early stage that foreshadowed the end of the State Department’s traditionally predominant role in the making and execution of American foreign policy. Truman’s secretary of state, James F. Byrnes, wanted the new intelligence organization to be responsible to the State Department. 2 When he was turned down, the CIA went on to live a life of its own, increasingly at the expense of the State Department. In 1948, another new agency, loosely linked with the CIA, was set up, disarmingly called the Office of Policy Coordination, to engage in covert activities; in 1951, it was fully integrated into the CIA, which henceforth carried out both covert intelligence and covert operations.

The Truman administration was basically responsible for these innovations; yet Truman himself did not realize where they were going to lead. Eleven years after he had left office, Truman confessed: “I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak-and-dagger operations.” He no longer liked what he had wrought: “For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the government.” After watching what had resulted, he wanted no more of it: “I, therefore, would like to see the CIA be restored to its original assignment as the intelligence arm of the President, and whatever else it can properly perform in that special field—and that its operational duties be terminated or properly used elsewhere.”


Finally, he reflected: “We have grown up as a nation, respected for our ability to maintain a free and open society. There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.”3 To a correspondent, he wrote: “The CIA was set up by me for the sole purpose of getting all the available information to the President. It was not intended to operate as an international agency engaged in strange activities.”4

These activities have grown stranger and stranger, until under Reagan the president himself claims that he does not know how they have happened. Yet there is one thing that he could not fail to know—that he used his national security adviser instead of the secretary of state as his chosen instrument in the conduct of American foreign policy. If this displacement had happened for the first time, it would be serious enough. But it has happened frequently before, though not in the extreme Reaganite form.

Too much attention has been paid to the minutiae of the Iran-contra affair and not enough to the implications it has for the institutions and structure of our government. Long after the exact details of the diversion of funds to the contras have been forgotten, the institutional cost will still have to be paid. For a full appreciation of how deep and acute the problem is, it is necessary to look back and see how it has developed over the past quarter of a century. This institutional crisis mainly concerns the president, secretary of state, and national security adviser, the first two offices as old as the Republic, the third a comparative newcomer in the American scheme of governance.


The post of national security adviser did not take off until early in the Kennedy administration in 1961. The post was held by McGeorge Bundy, who with his deputy, Walt W. Rostow, according to Arthur M. Schlesinger, gave the White House “an infusion of energy on foreign affairs with which the State Department would never in the next three years…quite catch up.” At first, it is said, Kennedy wanted the State Department to be the “central point” in all aspects of foreign affairs. But he was soon “disappointed” in its makeup and performance, with the result that he came to depend on Bundy and his staff or on Theodore Sorensen, his special counsel. The secretary of state, Dean Rusk, and Kennedy’s entourage were so different from each other in outlook and manner that they hardly spoke the same language. To Kennedy himself, Rusk’s views “remained a mystery.”5 Sorensen says that Rusk “deferred almost too amiably to White House initiatives and interference.” If Kennedy had lived to have a second term, Bundy would have been a “logical candidate for Secretary of State.”6

Kennedy was not the first president to make foreign policy in the White House rather than in the State Department. The pattern had been set by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who made his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, almost a figurehead. But Roosevelt had not built up a substitute or shadow foreign-policy agency; he had preferred to work through other cabinet officers, at first Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, and then through other members of the cabinet or his personal emissary Harry Hopkins. Yet Roosevelt and the proliferation of quasi–foreign-affairs agencies during World War II were responsible for starting the State Department on its downward path. Presidents who wanted to be their own foreign ministers followed his example by choosing weak secretaries of state and depending on others to carry out their wishes.

The president who gave this system a pathological twist was Richard Nixon. We know just how pathological it was because his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, has told us all about it. Nixon hardly knew Kissinger when he took him on; his choice as secretary of state, William Rogers, was one of Nixon’s closest friends and a former law partner. When Nixon chose Rogers, Nixon knew him to be unfamiliar with foreign affairs. According to Kissinger, Nixon immediately told him to build up a “national security apparatus” in the White House. The only region that Nixon entrusted to Rogers was the Middle East—for one reason because Nixon believed at the time that any active policy there was doomed to failure. The “back channel” that Nixon and Kissinger set up with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin cut the State Department out of the most important field of Soviet-American affairs. According to Kissinger, Nixon repeatedly lied to Rogers, especially about Kissinger’s trip to China in 1971 and to Moscow in 1972.


Why did Nixon humiliate his old friend? Kissinger’s explanation clearly suggests a pathological motive. In the past, it seems, Rogers had been the “psychologically dominant partner” in the relationship. Now Nixon “wanted to reverse roles and establish a relationship in which both hierarchically and substantially he, Nixon, called the tune for once.” Kissinger was only too willing to collaborate in the diseased machination, of which he was the chief beneficiary. “I do not mean to suggest that I resisted Nixon’s conduct toward his senior Cabinet officer,” Kissinger confessed bashfully. “From the first my presence made it technically possible and after a time I undoubtedly encouraged it.”

One precedent set by Kissinger has come back to haunt the present secretary of state, George Shultz. Kissinger used the US ambassador in Pakistan to prepare for his China trip without either of them informing Secretary of State Rogers. The US ambassador in Lebanon was used in the same way to help in the arms deal with Iran, without the knowledge of Secretary Shultz, who professed to be “shocked” when he learned about it and then took steps to prevent it from happening again. Shultz found it necessary to protest against the use of Kissinger’s precedent as a justification for treating him as Rogers had been treated, with the argument that Kissinger was unique—“They broke the mold when they made him.” Unfortunately, they did not break the mold of what he did, which was far more important in the long run than what he was. If Kissinger had been national security adviser vis-à-vis Shultz, it would seem, Shultz would have made no complaint.

In retrospect, Kissinger knew that there was something wrong with his theatrical China coup. In his memoirs, he admitted:

The State Department should be the visible focus of our foreign policy; if the President has no confidence in his Secretary of State he should replace him, not substitute the security adviser for him. If he does not trust the State Department, the President should enforce compliance with his directives, not circumvent it with the NSC machinery. Yet, while these postulates are beyond argument as a matter of theory, they are not easy to carry out. To achieve the essential coherence of policy there is need for a strong Secretary of State who is at the same time quite prepared to carry out Presidential wishes not only formally but in all nuances.7

So it was Secretary of State Rogers’s fault for having been too weak to carry out the presidential wishes. But Nixon had deliberately chosen a weak secretary of state and then had made him all the weaker by treating him with open contempt and cutting him out of his own constitutional responsibilities. As for the conspiratorial secrecy which enveloped Kissinger’s first trip to China in 1971, it was not anything the Chinese had wanted or demanded. They were, in fact, “extremely suspicious of our desire for secrecy.” It was wholly contrived for American consumption, to confront the American public with an accomplished fact.

Nixon fancied himself a great expert in foreign affairs; Carter had no such illusions. But Carter also wanted to be seen as his own master in foreign policy and, therefore, chose a secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, who would not be too obtrusive. His national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was from the first determined to be the President’s prime agent in foreign policy. Brzezinski quickly contrived to freeze out the CIA in the daily intelligence of the President, which he insisted on giving every morning without anyone else present. He saw himself as Carter’s mentor and in the first months gave him lessons in “conceptual or strategic issues.” Brzezinski’s National Security Council staff controlled “the policy-making output of both State and the Defense Department,” as well as the activities of the CIA. Brzezinski and Secretary Vance increasingly disagreed on major issues, with Vance unable or unwilling to assert himself. Vance’s “reluctance to speak up publicly, to provide a broad conceptual explanation for what our Administration was trying to do, and Carter’s lack of preparation for doing it himself, pushed me to the forefront,” Brzezinski later explained, adding in parenthesis, “I will not claim I resisted strongly.” Finally Vance could stand no more and resigned as a result of his disagreement over the ill-fated mission to rescue the hostages from the Tehran embassy. Another secretary of state had spent almost four miserable, humiliating years in office, at least as the national security adviser later described them.8

Reagan’s first secretary of state, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., was another casualty. Having been Kissinger’s deputy on the staff of the National Security Council, Haig well knew about the rivalry and threat from that quarter to the secretary of state. When he took the office, he says, the President told him that he would be “the spokesman” in foreign affairs and “I won’t have a repeat of the Kissinger-Rogers situation.” Reagan also assured him that the new national security adviser, Richard Allen, “would act exclusively as a staff coordinator.” Haig does not seem to have had much trouble with Allen. They were both deprived of direct, regular access to the President, the factor that Haig later thought had brought both of them down. For most of his tenure, Haig attributed his woes to the White House staff, especially James A. Baker and Michael K. Deaver or as Haig put it—“Baker, Deaver, and their apparat.” Without access to the President and subject to their control of what went to the President, Haig was mortally handicapped by “not knowing his methods, not understanding his system of thought, not having the opportunity of discussing policy in detail with him.” The same might be said of some of his predecessors and their knowledge and understanding of the presidents who had chosen them.

After Allen’s inglorious departure as national security adviser in January 1982, a real rival and threat confronted Haig in his successor, William Clark, whose deputy was Robert C. McFarlane. As Haig tells the story, he began to be bypassed by Clark during the Lebanon crisis of that year. Soon Haig was worried by a situation “in which a presidential assistant [Clark], especially one of limited experience and limited understanding of the volatile nature of an international conflict [at that time the Falklands crisis], should assume powers of the Presidency.” Clark would draft a message to Israel for the President to sign without showing it to Haig. Yet in the end, Haig himself came to denigrate the constitutional position of the secretary of state to such an extent that he offered the view that “it does not really matter whether the Secretary of State or the National Security Adviser, or some other official carries out the President’s foreign policy and speaks for the Administration on these questions.” The would-be imperial president, it seems, was permitted to use anyone to make the secretary of state a figurehead instead of a “vicar.”9

The imperial presidency has not materialized. Kennedy’s presidency was cut short. Johnson came to grief over Vietnam. Nixon was disgraced and dethroned. Carter was not successful enough to win a second term. Now Reagan has been exposed as a hollow idol—the great delegator who gave away his power to those to whom it had been delegated.

But though the imperial presidency has failed to come about, presidents have distorted the institution they have inherited by seeking to get rid of checks and balances in the conduct of foreign affairs. The expansion of presidential ambitions in foreign policy has been concurrent with the expansion of the country’s global power. This expansion, on a scale never envisioned by pre–World War II presidents, has made foreign affairs the main test of presidential greatness. Presidents have deliberately appointed weak secretaries of state or rid themselves of those who did not bend to their will in order to free themselves from traditional or constitutional constraints. The last strong secretaries of state were Truman’s George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson and Eisenhower’s John Foster Dulles a quarter of a century ago. It is unthinkable that any president would have treated them the way Rusk, Rogers, Vance, and Haig have been treated, or that Marshall and Dulles would have submitted to such treatment.

The fate that has overtaken Secretary Shultz both resembles that of the other recent secretaries of state and also differs from anything experienced before. It is the extra dimension that deserves the most attention in making sense of the Iran-contra imbroglio.


While much is murky about the entire affair, the main thing is indisputable. The essentials can now be reconstructed without the aid of a congressional inquiry or pleading with Rear Admiral John M. Poindexter and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver L. North to come clean.

On January 17, 1986, President Reagan signed a secret intelligence “finding” authorizing the sale of weapons and spare parts to Iran. This directive also enjoined that it should not be made known to Congress, and, even more remarkably, to four of the eight members of the National Security Council. The four left out were: Secretary of State Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William J. Crowe, Jr., and Secretary of the Treasury James A. Baker III. The four in the know were: Vice President George Bush, CIA director William J. Casey, Attorney General Edwin Meese, and presidential chief of staff Donald T. Regan. The “finding” attributed the need to exclude Congress to “extreme sensitivity” and “security risks.” So secretive was the order that only one copy was made of it and it was deposited in the safe of National Security Adviser Poindexter.

This “finding” was not made by President Reagan in a fit of absentmindedness. It can be understood only by going back to two previous meetings of the National Security Council. On December 6, 1985, a “full-scale” discussion had been held on the subject of arms sales to Iran. It was not a new subject for Secretary Shultz; he said that he and the then national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane had been considering it ever since June of that year. Whatever Shultz knew or did not know, one shipment of American arms was sent from Israel in August 1985 with the approval of the President, according to McFarlane, and a second in September. At the meeting of December 6, both Shultz and McFarlane came out against the proposal—Shultz evidently on principle, McFarlane because he had been disappointed in his previous dealings with the Iranians. The decision at that time went in favor of engaging “in a dialogue [with the Iranians] if they release our hostages but that we would not sell them arms,” as Shultz put it in his testimony of December 8, 1986.

But the President was somehow prevailed on to reopen the subject. Another “full-scale discussion” was held on January 7, 1986. This time both Shultz and Weinberger openly opposed changing the policy of not selling arms to Iran. Nevertheless, as Shultz disclosed, he could see that he was now on the losing side. Thus the January 7 meeting led to the secret decision of January 17. Shultz, Weinberger, and the two others were “cut out” of the subsequent dealings, because they were opposed to the arms sales or were not sufficiently enthusiastic. In any case, the critical decision of January 17 had been made after about six weeks of intensive discussion and conflicting views.

Whatever the vagaries of President Reagan’s decision-making process may be, he made this decision fully aware of what it entailed. No one else can be held responsible for it.

Of the four trusted with the decision, there is reason to believe that the most influential and zealous was Casey. For the task of drafting the January 17 finding was given to Stanley Sporkin, then the CIA’s general counsel and now a federal judge. The evident objective in drafting the order was to shield the CIA, among others, from breaking the law prohibiting the United States from selling weapons directly to Iran without notification to Congress.

Ordinarily, the CIA would have been given the task of carrying out the January 17 directive; it had all the means to do so and in any case the plan could not be implemented without it. But past misbehavior had made the CIA suspect and dictated that a less exposed agency should be put out in front. The national security adviser and his staff served the purpose because they were considered to be responsible to the President alone and not even to the National Security Council as such, let alone to Congress. Yet Poindexter and his main aide in the operation, Lieutenant Colonel North, had no physical means to carry out an arms deal with Iran. They were helpless without the cooperation of the CIA and the arms which could be obtained only from the Defense Department.

Thus, as Casey explained, the CIA put itself in a “support mode” to Poindexter.10 The CIA requested the arms from the secretary of defense, who ordered the army to release them from its stocks and transfer them to the CIA. Secretary Weinberger, who did not approve of the deal but was aware that it was the President’s wish, did nothing to hinder it. A stickler for form, he knew that he was bound by the Economy Act, which regulated the transfer of property between government agencies. Weinberger insisted that the Defense Department should be paid $12 million for the arms, a price obviously far less than they were worth but with the inestimable advantage that it was $2 million less than arms sales that had to be reported to Congress. The arms were then transported to Israel and elsewhere in chartered planes of companies controlled by the CIA. The money obtained from the Iranian intermediaries was put into secret bank accounts in Switzerland. Almost every step in the transaction was actually carried out through the CIA, while at the same time director Casey was able to shift the responsibility to the NSC, which, he later claimed, “was operating this thing.”

Thus was set up what amounted to a presidential junta. It was not led by a single, outstanding personality of the Kissinger type. Its main figures were relatively obscure military characters—a rear admiral and a lieutenant colonel on active service. They could get things done only by acting in the President’s name, generally through the CIA. Even Secretary Weinberger, who must have suspected that something untoward was afoot when he was told to “sell” arms to the CIA, apparently entrusted the transaction to only two of his closest aides. How many besides Poindexter and North were directly involved in the deal with Iran is not known, but they could not have been many, because extraordinary measures were taken to keep the affair a secret—and it was kept a secret for months.

The diversion of funds to the contras, whatever it amounted to, was only a minor byproduct of the deal with Iran. It was made possible by the junta-like operation, which was so self-contained and so far removed from the rest of the government, even from the CIA, if we can believe its director, that it could be managed by a single insider. The worst that North can be charged with is having done something illegally—providing the contras with funds that Congress had refused to approve—that Reagan and Casey wanted done unobtrusively, in a way that would not technically violate the Boland Amendment prohibiting the government from supplying such funds. North’s transgression has been a godsend to Reagan and Casey, because it has diverted attention from the government-by-junta that they set up and that made possible the diversion of funds.

Far more important than the diversion of funds to the contras was the damage done to the conduct of a credible, responsible American foreign policy. For years official American spokesmen had fulminated against making deals with terrorists or terrorist nations, and especially against selling arms to Iran. On October 1, 1986, however, Secretary of State Shultz met in New York with the six Persian Gulf foreign ministers, organized in the Gulf Cooperation Council. He assured them that the United States was intensifying its efforts to discourage the sale of arms to Iran, feared by all of them. By that time, the United States had been secretly, for months, intensifying its efforts to sell arms to Iran, directly and indirectly.

No doubt Secretary Shultz did not mean to deceive. But he was not a member of President Reagan’s junta, which was pursuing an altogether different foreign policy. Thus arose the curious phenomenon of two conflicting American foreign policies—the junta’s and the secretary of state’s. Both in a sense emanated from the President, but only one was credible and genuine on October 1, 1986, when Shultz conferred with the Gulf ministers.

Yet government-by-junta cannot operate without the voluntary ignorance and complaisance of those who are in a position to resist it. Shultz, Weinberger, and probably others were aware of “bits and pieces of evidence,” as Shultz put it, that arms were going to Iran. They knew as much as they wanted to know, which was just enough to permit them to protest that they did not know enough. So long as it was the President’s policy, they looked the other way, despite a conviction that it was indefensible. Secretary Weinberger permitted himself to say that the President had received “very bad” advice and that “there aren’t any moderate elements in Iran with whom we can deal.” But he had authorized the transfer of arms to the CIA for Iran and, like Shultz, had put loyalty to the President ahead of faithfulness to the best interests of the country.


The implications of government by secret presidential junta strike at the very roots of the American system of government. One way to think about them is to note how the Iran-contra affair has been defended or rationalized by those politically or ideologically closest to the President.

A most striking motif is the line drawn between the President himself and rank-and-file conservatives or Republicans. This distinction came out most crudely in the tirade by Patrick J. Buchanan, the President’s communications director, or propaganda minister, in The Washington Post of December 8, 1986. Buchanan raged against “the Republican Party establishment,” which had “headed for the tall grass” instead of showing its gratitude and loyalty to a president to whom it owed “all it has and all it is.” For Buchanan, the President was truly an imperial ruler whose party was merely a retinue to whom self-interest ought to dictate unquestioning service and obedience.

A variant of this theme was put forward by Irving Kristol, the neoconservative ideologue. The trouble, according to Kristol, is that Reagan’s major appointments in the foreign-policy area, both in the State Department and Pentagon, “have been from the traditional-conservative wing of the Republican Party,” rather than the “populist conservative and American nationalist” wing—the latter a neoconservative formula. Since most of the Republicans in Congress also come from the traditional-conservative wing, “Mr. Reagan has not only found his hands tied by Congress—he has managed to tie his own hands as well.” Thus the State and Defense departments were most responsible for what went wrong in Reagan’s foreign policy because they refused to go along with it in Iran, Syria, and Nicaragua. It is a curious sophistry—they were in fact least responsible because they opposed it, but precisely this, according to Kristol, made them most responsible. Kristol suggests that the President had to “cut out” both his State and Defense departments from the Iran intrigue—“this is no way to conduct a foreign policy”—because they were filled with traditional conservatives.11

Buchanan’s mindless loyalism is as far from traditional Republicanism as Kristol’s casuistic neoconservatism is from traditional conservatism. In both cases, the blame can be shifted from Reagan only by invoking a political or ideological ethos alien to American institutions and practices.

Still another neoconservative version has come from Norman Podhoretz. Unlike Buchanan, who ranted against the Republicans, and Kristol, who blamed the State and Defense departments, Podhoretz’s villains are in Congress, especially its Democrats. Podhoretz writes, incomprehensibly:

And in foreign affairs, we now had not an Imperial Presidency but an Imperial Congress attempting to make policy instead of consenting to or opposing presidential initiatives.

It seems to have escaped him that the “Imperial Congress” could not oppose the presidential initiative in “the Iran-contra scandal” (as he himself calls it), because it was not permitted to know anything about it until it was too late. Congress’s alleged “imperial position” is also made inexplicable; he asserts that “Reagan, drawing on his great popularity, finally succeeded in persuading a narrow and reluctant Congressional majority to authorize military aid to the [Nicaraguan] resistance” and had “prevailed” over the congressional opposition. This would seem to be an odd way for Congress to demonstrate its “imperial position” and “make policy.” Congress’s chief fault, according to Podhoretz, is that it is “too large and diverse” to “run an activist foreign policy,” as if that was what Congress had been trying to do in the Iran-contra affair and as if the size and diversity of America as a nation were not integral to the conduct of any democratically conceived and executed foreign policy.12

And then there is the view of our former UN ambassador, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick. She was in Tel Aviv after the diversion of funds was revealed but that did not stop her from bitterly assailing Secretary of State Shultz, Attorney General Meese, and Chief of Staff Regan. Like Buchanan’s, her main theme was that of unconditional loyalty to President Reagan. “At critical points,” she complained, “the President was pushed to center stage and his chief advisers faded into the background, whereas it should have been the other way around.” She did not explain how Secretary Shultz, who had been cut out, or Regan, to whom Poindexter and North did not report, could have pushed themselves to center stage to explain what had gone on—and in the case of Shultz without lying about his original opposition. Kirkpatrick also did not think there was anything wrong with the diversion of funds to the contras, and she described it as “very imaginative.” Kirkpatrick’s performance in Tel Aviv was not as fully reported in the American press as it deserved to be.13

These reactions to President Reagan’s predicament tell us something about its implications. The Iran-contra affair has evoked demands for absolute loyalty to the President, outcries against traditional Republicans or conservatives in general, charges against Congress as the main enemy, and justifications of an admittedly illegal diversion of funds.

Another response has been put forward by Charles Krauthammer of The New Republic, which touches a deeper level of the problem. “This affair,” he holds, “is not a Reagan crisis nor a presidential crisis, but a recurring American crisis, rooted ultimately in the tension between America’s need to act like a great power and its unwillingness to do so.” He further explains: “The problem is not democracy. Democracy is instrumental. Its role is faithfully to transmit the popular will. The problem is American popular will, which is deeply divided on whether to accept the responsibilities of a great power.”

Krauthammer finally presents his case in the form of a dilemma. The presidency

finds itself in a permanent bind: to fulfill its obligations as leader of a superpower or to fulfill its obligations as leader of a democracy. Confronted with the choice, a president must choose the latter. But it is the choice itself—not the identity of the president or his management style—that is the source of our recurring crisis.14

This view conveniently exculpates every president and every “management style” by putting the onus on the “choice.” Even as Krauthammer puts it, however, the choice should not be so difficult or culpable. We are told that confronted with the choice, the president “must choose” to fulfill his obligations as leader of a democracy. If that is how he must choose, why should the choice itself be responsible for creating the crisis instead of the president who does not make the right and necessary choice?

Yet Krauthammer is clearly of two minds about the primacy of democracy. If democracy is merely “instrumental,” then it is not fundamental, as it has long been assumed to be in the American political tradition. Krauthammer himself implies that democracy is something more than “instrumental” if presidents must choose to be faithful to it and must subordinate superpower status to it. Krauthammer would have much less trouble with presidents making the choice if he himself had less trouble making it.

Still, there is something revealing in Krauthammer’s dilemma that bears closely on Reagan’s “management style” in the Iran-contra affair. Reagan’s choice of a presidential junta to carry out his policy was more characteristic of a leader of a runaway superpower than a leader of a healthy democracy. The deliberate decision to exclude Congress for many months from all knowledge, the degrading ex-communication of the secretary of state, the implied edict that disagreement cannot be tolerated and is punishable by exclusion from decision making, the morbid secrecy of the entire enterprise—these are political monstrosities in a democracy such as ours. They are of a piece with those other monstrosities that have recently been advanced—absolute loyalty to the President, repudiation of traditional conservatism in favor of adventurist neoconservatism, the conception of Congress as enemy, and the absolution given to lawlessness on the part of presidential agents, even military officers.

Despite my reservations about the way Krauthammer has dealt with the problem that he poses, it is not a problem that can be easily disposed of. If, as he says, America is unwilling to act like a great power, or the “American popular will” is deeply divided on whether to accept the responsibilities of a great power, what are the further implications of such a “permanent bind”?

The most far-reaching implication of this line of reasoning is that the President and those around him must substitute their will for the “popular will.” If a president must choose between being the leader of a superpower or the leader of a democracy, the former must take precedence over the latter or he will be no leader of a superpower. President Reagan made precisely such a choice when he decided to act through a presidential junta instead of the existing structure of government. The argument that he was forced to rely on his junta because he could not trust Congress, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, and any others who might disagree with him merely reinforces the ultimate nature of this choice. But there was another way open to him. If he could not trust them it should have meant that he could not carry through a policy without or against them. At that point, the leader of a democracy would call a halt.

In fact, then, the Krauthammer dilemma is unreal. The reason so many presidents have failed to make their rule imperial is that they have always, ultimately, come up against the basic institutions of this country, backed by the “popular will.” In order for these institutions and will to be overcome, a radical change would have to take place in this country. We are still far from that, but the threat exists so long as the President and his apologists think that he must act like the leader of a superpower instead of the leader of a democracy.

In the end, setting up a presidential junta as a solution to the problem of being both a superpower and a democracy is self-defeating. Without the support of our democratic structure backed up by popular approval, a president will end up the leader neither of a superpower nor of a democracy. Whenever we act as a superpower at the expense of our democracy, the price is too high. It would be safer and sounder to seek openly to establish a balance between the responsibilities of a superpower and those of a democracy. Whenever the two responsibilities conflict and democracy loses, our system of government becomes unbalanced and finally takes revenge on those who would, in fact, impose an imperial presidency.

The founders still have something to teach us. “The history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human virtue which would make it wise in a nation to commit interests of so delicate and momentous a kind as those which concern its intercourse with the rest of the world to the sole disposal of a magistrate, created and circumstanced, as would be a president of the United States,” wrote Alexander Hamilton in No. 75 of The Federalist. “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Gov[ernmen]ts demonstrates, that the Ex[ecutive] is the branch of power most interested in war, & most prone to it,” wrote James Madison to Jefferson in 1798. “It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war in the Legisl[ature].”15

This Issue

January 29, 1987