The Tower Commission has been taken as evidence for very many things. It’s been taken as evidence for President Reagan’s lack of attention to foreign policy; it’s been taken as evidence of a glitch in the chain of command and control in the White House. It can as easily be taken as evidence of the view, held by some people, that this planet Earth is used as a penal colony and lunatic asylum by more advanced civilizations around the solar system. And that view would certainly be as difficult to prove wrong as the one that is offered, which is that it shows a president who is not in control! What the Report shows in bold contours, with ferocious clarity, is the operation in detail of the Reagan Doctrine. It amasses incontrovertible documentary evidence of President Reagan’s absolute commitment and attentiveness when it comes to implementing that doctrine.

What, you may ask, is the Reagan Doctrine? I would describe it as the outcome of a hitherto unsuspected coalition of political forces in this country between the Republican Party and intellectuals. The Republican Party had been getting along quite well without intellectuals for decades, so I suppose it’s no surprise that when it did hire some, they turned out to be pseudo. Typically, they were careerist defectors from the Democratic Party, going under the new and increasingly soiled label of “neo-conservative.” If I mention the names of Elliott Abrams, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Norman Podhoretz and Charles Krauthammer, or the magazines Commentary, The New Republic and National Interest, you will know what I mean. It was in these circles that the concept of the Reagan Doctrine was adumbrated and refined. What did the doctrine say? It consisted of four headings.

  • The United States should prepare to support any force anywhere in the world which was contesting the Soviet Union and its allies.
  • Such forces should be subjected to no tests apart from their anti-communism. They need not be democratic, or indigenous, or popular. They need only be prepared to take the war to the enemy camp, and to abide by the dictates of covert action. This was a change from mere “containment.”
  • Congress and the media, and by implication the political and democratic and civil parts of American society, would be better off not knowing about any of this. In the mind of the neoconservatives and the traditional right, it was democratic scrutiny and criticism that lost the Vietnam war. These people have a “stab in the back” mentality, and their interpretation of foreign policy is strikingly and self-consciously anti-democratic. Read the works of Richard Secord, the sayings of Oliver North and the columns of Podhoretz and Krauthammer and you find an explicit contempt for democracy and its failures to coincide with the dangerous notions of “will” and “resolve.”
  • The idea of “strategic consensus” might be called a corollary of the Reagan doctrine. This formulation described the need for an ally in covert operations, especially in the Third World. The natural ally, of course, was Israel and it is implicit in the Reagan Doctrine that Israel enjoys most favored nation status for its expertise in counterinsurgency, espionage and covert action.

These four themes have been discussed openly by their protagonists. If you bear them in mind, and think of those who spent a great deal of time since the fall of the Carter presidency in selling these points to the mass media, mass academia and other intellectual and pseudo-intellectual milieux, you will see that the Tower Commission is simply a report on the operations of the Reagan Doctrine from day to day. The contents of the “prof” computer notes — in particular, the day-by-day discussions between Adm. Poindexter and Col. North — are a record of what the appointees of the doctrine do. It is also a very interesting record not only of what they do and what they think, but also of how they think and how they operate. The two are essential. In this case, you can distinguish the dancer from the dance.

What we find outlined in the Tower Commission are the bare but very distinct lineaments of a state-within-the- state. This state is set up to implement and enforce the Reagan Doctrine on a global scale. It has its own economy, based admittedly on the primitive accumulation methods of drugs, ransoms and the proceeds of illegal arms sales. It has its own foreign policy — that goes without saying. It is even able to dispatch official representatives abroad without the American ambassador knowing they are present, without even the secretary of state knowing. Take Michael Ledeen in Israel, and later Oliver North in Beirut. The secret state, of course, has to have its own airline: it has at least one, Southern Air Transport. It has almost everything, in fact, except a seat at the United Nations. Southern Air Transport flies a rather predictable and unvaried schedule, touching down in the deserts of Iran and the swamps of Honduras (via Israel usually) and sometimes putting down in Miami. The secret state has its own police, of course, and promotion structure, its own command and control system. It even awards its own medals, as in the case of Oliver North getting a decoration for his role in seeing the AWACS deal through and bringing Saudi Arabia on line with the Reagan Doctrine, not an easy task and one he performed with some dexterity.

It has all these distinct features of a state within the state. And it has one crucial thing, by the way, in common with the public state, the civil state, the state whose 200-year old constitution we are about to commemorate. It has the same president. This is not a mere point of similarity. It is a crucial organizing point of the Tower Commission. The secret state and the civil state have the same president. And the president was running both of them, but giving most of his attention to the secret state — which maybe explains his lack of attention to the state of the union.

This required an amazing, enormous degree of coordination, as becomes clear from the contents of the Tower Commission Report. It was necessary to manipulate, and to try to align with each other, the internal politics of Iran, the oil policy of Saudi Arabia, the arms sales policy of Israel, the domestic policy of Honduras, the foreign policy of Costa Rica and the entire construction of the American- sponsored exile Nicaraguan opposition. At a minimum. It is thus quite impossible to regard what happened within that realm as a coincidence, or as a set of coincidences. And I do not believe any thinking person is any longer satisfied with that explanation. It necessitated, as we now know, setting up an NSC within the NSC, itself already quite inaccessible. It involved setting up a CIA within the CIA. William Casey did not feel “his” CIA was trustworthy enough. And crucially, the secret state could call on the resources and services of another state, the state of Israel, which meant that it could always borrow from the expertise, the secrecy, the diplomatic dexterity, and the military reach which US citizens had already financed in this other state.

All of these elements involved actions and connections that the Congress and the press and the public naturally were not supposed to know about. But the secret state broke down, or at least is currently undergoing a severe institutional crisis, because it necessitated the exclusion of large areas of the Defense Department, almost all the State Department at the highest levels, and considerable parts of the cabinet and the White House. So what we are seeing, and what has been represented as a crisis, is in fact a very hard-fought turf war within the establishment, exposing the state-within-the-state and disclosing its failure to impose the Reagan Doctrine.

This crisis is sufficiently deep to have temporarily overshadowed the hitherto very warm and sunny relations between the American state and the state of Israel. This has led in its turn to a turf-war within Israel, where many feel it may have been unwise to bet the future of their state on the American state-within-the-state.

This, in short, is what we mean by Iran-contragate. And it raises a very important and suggestive question. Need it have been like this? Was it essential that it should come out this way? Was it inevitable that the state-within-the-state would have foundered in the way it did and threaten to precipitate a general crisis of the political establishment? I am inclined to the view that it was inevitable, because the people who have to be picked in order to implement this policy themselves have to come from a profoundly undemocratic and extremist political culture. When you review the profiles of Oliver North, of Carl Channell, of Gens. Singlaub and Secord and their associates, you are looking at people from political organizations which were excluded from the Goldwater campaign in 1964 for extremism. These are the people into whose hands the care of the republic and its foreign policy was given.

Who did Oliver North go to when he wanted to start the illegal contra aid? Who did he go to with the letter from Reagan mandating this man to carry on with contra aid? To whom does Reagan address himself as “your friend, Ronald Reagan”? Carl Channell. Carl Channell is a very prominent leader of front organizations such as the American Committee Against Terrorism and a large number of various other “free world”-type committees. This is a man with a long background in the John Birch Society. He is the sort of man Barry Goldwater would not touch. This is who North went to.

Who was the other man they went to? Gen. John Singlaub, in order to raise money and to find Bibles and padres and guns for the contras. And to train them when the CIA had to pretend it was not doing so. John Singlaub is chairman of the World Anti-Communist League (WACL). There are extreme rightist conservative figures in Western Europe and the United States who left the WACL ten years ago when they found out that it was essentially a Third Reich revivalist organization. It was to people like this that the president turned. Into hands like these he gave the care of American foreign policy. That is a crisis, however you slice it.

The really threatening character of this project reveals itself not in what Oliver North thought of the Nicaraguans, nor in what John Singlaub thought of the Iranians, nor in what either of them might think about the Palestinians — objectionable and fascist-minded as that would undoubtedly turn out to be. What they have in common with their president, and with that president’s appointees to the CIA and the National Security Council, is a hatred for American democracy. They share a conviction that American democracy has stabbed them in the back ever since Vietnam. The main enemy, for them, is at home. It is the American public — not just its right to know, but its right to determine policy abroad, or even to be informed about it. That is a sobering two-hundredth birthday present for the constitution. It becomes a question of whether the state will outlive democracy, or whether democracy and the people will outlive the state.

How to cite this article:

Christopher Hitchens "The Reagan Doctrine and the Secret State," Middle East Report 148 (September/October 1987).

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