wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

John O'Sullivan

The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister

Shortly after taking office, Gorbachev had given the Soviet armed forces two years to win the war in Afghanistan. In turn the Red Army had launched a much tougher and effective counter-insurgency campaign using helicopter gunships and fighter-bombers. Against these tactics the mujahadeen used Blowpipe ground-to-air missiles provided by the British and Soviet SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles purchased secretly in Europe by CIA. These were effective at first, but the Soviet forces eventually developed tactics to outwit them. Pakistan's president Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq told a delegation of U.S. congressmen in late 1985 that the rebels desperately needed better missiles, in particular the Stinger. It took almost a full year to overcome the resistance of the military and intelligence bureaucracies in order to get them to the Afghans. Reagan signed an order to do so in April 1986; the first delivery of Stingers was made in September of that year.

A U.S. Army study later concluded that the Afghan resistance fired 340 Stingers, downing 269 aircraft. The balance of war on the ground swung back strongly in favor of the Afghans at the very moment when Gorbachev's deadline for success was approaching. In effect, their supply was the decisive military event of the war.

It was also the decisive political event of the war. Radek Sikorski, now Poland's defense minister, then a young journalist covering the conflict from the mujahadeen side, reached both conclusions. He acknowledged the military effect of the Stingers, but he thought that the supply of British Blowpipes was also important because, though less effective than Stingers, they were an open political commitment that helped overcome the resistance of U.S. bureaucrats to supplying the Stingers. If the British could ignore 'plausible deniability,' so could the U.S. And the mere fact that the U.S. was now prepared to openly assist anti-Communist forces—which was the essence of the Reagan Doctrine—was itself a crucial strategic innovation. It added to the long list of reasons for the Soviets to reconsider their various Third World commitments.

Diplomacy, in particular the UN negotiations at Geneva, now took on some importance; these negotiations provided the diplomatic fig-leaf for a Soviet withdrawal. The Geneva accords were signed in April 1988, and Soviet troop withdrawals began in August. On February 15,1989, General Boris Gromov crossed the bridge to the Soviet Union—the last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan—one decade after the Soviets had confidently invaded.

The Afghan war did not end there. The Soviets continued to send military supplies to their Afghan allies, who clung to power for another three years. Since the fall of Kabul in 1991, Afghanistan has suffered from endless sectarian conflict, a civil war, an invasion, and a revived civil war. It remains in crisis at the time of this writing. In 1989, however, the country had delivered a historic strategic defeat to the Soviets. Their friends and their enemies knew it. The subjects of their European empire were now encouraged to seek their own liberation. And Soviet influence elsewhere began to retreat.

As Rodman notes, almost all Brezhnev's military commitments to the Third World were abandoned between 1988 and 1992. Cuban troops were withdrawn from Angola following an agreement signed in December 1988 in New York. The Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia in 1989. The Sandinistas were defeated in a democratic election in Nicaragua in 1990. And there was a political settlement that essentially reconciled the losing Communist guerrillas to a democratic status quo in El Salvador in 1992. These events, marking the end of the Soviet Union as a superpower, represented an astounding success for a foreign policy doctrine of four years' standing. But the Reagan Doctrine's victory in Central America had not come simply, painlessly, or without casualties. It wounded, in particular, the president of the United States—and almost fatally.

Central America—in particular aid to the Contras—was a recurring controversy in U.S. domestic politics from 1981 until the 1990 Nicaraguan elections. The broad American Left outside Congress bitterly opposed Reagan's policy. Congress, narrowly divided, regularly came close to cutting off aid and instead compromised by imposing restrictions on it (the various 'Boland Amendments'), and the administration sought ways around the restrictions. For five years, however, Reagan got most of what he wanted, in part because of the administration's willingness to compromise and in part because of the Sandinistas' intransigence and brutality. The Reagan administration showed its reasonableness in El Salvador, where it supported centrist Christian Democrat politicians, land reform, and restraints on the military. The Sandinistas showed their unreasonableness by sending out violent mobs to attack opponents in a 1984 election that had been designed to establish their legitimacy. They did so again, as Reagan biographer Richard Reeves dryly points out, by visiting Moscow whenever a close congressional vote on Contra aid was scheduled. Both these sets of actions enabled Reagan to win support for his Central American policy from a coalition of moderate Democrats led by Congressman Dave McCurdy.

But when the Iran-Contra scandal broke, this narrow but effective coalition was weakened. The germ of the scandal was the administration's attempts to get around the effective prohibition of congressional restrictions on aiding the Contras. Most of these attempts—encouraging private citizens and friendly governments to aid the Contras—were legal. But a White House cabal, led by deputy NSC director Admiral John Poindexter and the gung-ho Colonel Oliver North, who undoubtedly believed that they were carrying out Reagan's wishes, conceived an ingenious plan to direct funds to the Contras from profits on arms shipments to Iran that were themselves designed to secure the release of American hostages held by terrorists linked to the Iranian mullahs. Whatever the legality of this arrangement—the Iran-Contra planners believed they were operating through legal loopholes and, because of the unutterable legal confusion that eventually descended on Iran-Contra, their contention was never decisively disproved—it was the worst possible politics.

Ayatollah Khomeini was so despised in America that the idea of supplying him with rockets struck ordinary citizens as outrageous and allies as a betrayal of Reagan's principled stand against terrorism. There were arguably legitimate arguments for the supply of arms to Iran: developing a strategic rapprochement with a major regional power in the Middle East and saving the lives of U.S. hostages. In retrospect, however, these look unrealistic: the outreach to Tehran had failed in any event, the American negotiators had been taken to the cleaners, only a few of the hostages were released, the dealings in Tehran smacked of amateur conspiracy addicts, and an atmosphere of illegality and deception hung over the entire enterprise. The momentum of scandal familiar since Watergate now took over. Reagan's approval ratings dropped precipitously and for the first time since the attempt on his life he looked politically mortal. A quasi-legal process in control of both houses of Congress, moved to destroy the Reagan presidency. And for almost an entire year the business of the U.S. government was delayed and distorted by the scandal mania.

Reagan was forced into humiliating gestures of apology and amnesia in the course of this hunt. But he survived owing to two errors on the part of his partisan critics. What really agitated the voters was that Reagan had struck a deal with the mullahs only six years after the Tehran hostage crisis. His liberal critics were far more concerned with the diversion of funds to the Contras. They never managed to instill their indignation into the voters, who after a time accepted the president's apology for arms dealing. Second, the media and the Democrats had spent six years trying to convince America that Reagan was a doddering old dimwit asleep at the wheel. That now suited Reagan's defense perfectly. The Democrats' new image of him—a Machiavellian mastermind orchestrating a vast conspiracy—was actually closer to the truth, but it seemed so uncharacteristic that Saturday Night Live produced a hilarious sketch showing Reagan barking commands to juggle currencies and transfer arms in fluent French and Farsi and eventually exclaiming in exasperation, 'Do I have to do everything myself?'

In the end Iran-Contra dribbled into the sands of legal appeals and newspaper recapitulations. Reagan revived his presidency; some reforms of the NSC, including its own legal counsel, were introduced; stronger congressional oversight of the CIA was brought in; and George H. W. Bush won the 1988 election after campaigning as Reagan's heir. Even the Contras survived.