Historic Blunders

5th May 2006 at 01:00
In 1985, Ronald Reagan, president of the most powerful nation on earth, is fretting about seven Americans being held hostage in the Lebanon. He wants to bring these folks home. But he has promised not to deal with terrorists and chances are that his supporters would regard the militant Muslim kidnappers as just that.

So Reagan, who treasures his reputation for straight talking, embarks on some double-dealing. He agrees to sell weapons to Iran in the hope that it will influence the kidnappers. Unfortunately there is the small problem of the US trade and arms embargo against Ayatollah Khomeni's country, which is embroiled in a war with Iraq and finding it difficult to buy guns.

Still, thinks Reagan, violating an embargo is not as bad as breaking a personal promise. So the weapons are sold - secretly. Then someone else has another bright idea. Iran is paying millions of dollars for its various military bits and bobs, including 1,500 missiles. No one knows what to do with the cash, as they're not really supposed to have it. So why not send it off to support a bunch of the president's favourite rebels in Nicaragua? These are the Contras, right-wing insurgents trying to destabilise a government backed by Communist Cuba. Unfortunately there is another small problem. Congress has forbidden any military aid to go to such groups. But there is a loophole. The CIA, the defence department, and all government agencies are covered by the ban.

But the National Security Council is not mentioned by name. So the council's Colonel Oliver North goes shopping for weapons for the Contras, his wallet stuffed with money from Iran. And so it goes on until the end of 1986 when a Lebanese newspaper uncovers the first link in the dirty chain that became known as the Iran-Contra affair. The political scandal was immense. It took Reagan years to recover from Congress's charge that his administration had been secretive, deceptive and shown disdain for the law.

And what of those hostages in the Lebanon? The people in whose aid all this had been done? Well, the kidnappers did release three, and then promptly went out and captured three more.

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