1 - Bitter harvest: The presidential branch and the Iran-contra affair  pp. 19-42

Bitter harvest: The presidential branch and the Iran-contra affair

By Matthew J. Dickinson

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There is an emerging consensus among scholars that the presidential branch is flawed, perhaps fatally so. However, the scholarly criticism, while trenchant, is not typically theoretically explicit. Critics generally do not concern themselves with conceptualizing the causes and consequences of White House staff growth, hierarchy, and functional differentiation. This chapter does address those issues, however, using the conceptual framework presented in the introductory chapter. The Iran-contra affair – in many respects the paradigmatic example of the flaws inherent in the presidential branch – provides the empirical grist for the conceptual mill.

Although details of the Iran-contra affair remain shrouded in controversy, on balance it is one of the best researched and most accessible cases of presidential decision making. Four official investigations, several insider accounts, and numerous books and newspaper and journal articles have been devoted to explaining what happened, and why. Because of the extensive documentation, the case is a useful illustration of the more general criticisms scholars make regarding the White Housecentered presidential staff.

The Iran-contra events are by now familiar: In 1985, the Reagan administration, disregarding its own stated policy, undertook a covert operation to sell American arms to Iran. It did so in part to influence Iranian “moderates” to pressure Mideast terrorist factions to release the Americans they held hostage. Despite Reagan's subsequent assertions to the contrary, however, in retrospect the Iran initiative was perceived by many observers as little more than a plan to pay ransom to kidnappers.