Washington is suspended, waiting for next week, when Ollie North will explain, among other things, how he used Iran arms money to acquire snow tires and security alarms. Meanwhile, a leading halftime activity in Iran-contra Washington consists of debating whether Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, should be fired for having misled Congress about U.S. government assistance to the contras at a time when some forms of assistance were prohibited.
The first article of impeachment against Abrams is that he was not sufficiently attentive to Oliver North's activities. Abrams argues that it is not the job of an assistant secretary of state to oversee the White House. He assumed that his colleagues at the NSC were telling him the truth and not acting idiotically. Both assumptions proved wrong, but the evidence to date supports Abrams' assertion that he was not part of the private network. Considering the lies that North told everyone -- Assistant Attorney General Charles Cooper testified that he would not believe North under oath -- it seems plausible that he lied to Abrams as he lied to almost everyone else about the nature of his activities.
Article two says that for 18 days Abrams misled Congress and the country about who was behind the Hasenfus mission. Secretary of State George Shultz has answered that charge rather directly. "I was lied to," he said, and "Elliott Abrams was lied to." Are Shultz and Abrams lying now? If so, both should be fired. But there is no evidence to suggest that they are.
Article three is supposedly the capital offense: Abrams misled the Senate Intelligence Committee about the solicitation of $10 million from the sultan of Brunei. Secretary Shultz, in a letter to Congress defending Abrams, admits the mistake but explains that å"at the time Mr. Abrams gave his testimony, we had given that country a pledge of absolute confidentiality . . ." That is still no excuse for misleading Congress. One does not prefer a pledge of confidentiality to a foreign ruler over the responsibility to level with one's own Congress. But who made that pledge in the first place? Shultz says "we." The secretary of state is ultimately the one who decides that a solicitation be made in "absolute confidentiality," meaning, I suppose, that even Congress should not be told. If making such a decision is a hanging offense, well, then, should not Shultz hang too? Congress' highmindedness should lead it to call for Shultz's resignation. There are no such calls. Which makes one wonder whether what moves the Abrams posse is principle or politics.
The identity of those calling for Abrams' head makes one wonder even more. Most insistent is the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which has consistently opposed contra aid, a policy that Abrams has done more to advance than anyone else. Of the 129 Democrats who signed a letter to Shultz demanding Abrams' resignation, only four voted for contra aid last June. Firing Abrams, the letter asserts, "is an essential first step in rebuilding the bipartisan consensus and trust so essential to the conduct of our foreign policy." One of the signers, Rep. Edward Feighan, wrote his own longer letter explaining that a bipartisan policy in Central America requires "close and candid consultation between the executive branch and the Congress" and thus Abrams, who now is "unable to command such credibility before this Congress," must go.
But what these Democrats want is not consultation or compromise. They want to overturn the policy. The idea that Abrams must go because in their eyes he is not a trustworthy enough person with whom to shape a bipartisan Nicaragua policy is a phony. The Democrats' idea of a bipartisan Nicaragua policy is one in which Democrats and Republicans join hands to disband the contras. They want to get rid of Abrams because for two years he rolled over them on contra policy and because, if they can force the administration to fire the chief architect of the policy, they will have revealed the administration's weakness, indeed its desperation, on Central America.
More muted calls for Abrams to retire have come from another quarter, moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats who have supported contra aid. During the Iran-contra hearings, Rep. Dante Fascell, Sen. David Boren and Sen. William Cohen indicated that the president might have a better chance of getting contra aid if Abrams were gone.
In fact, it is hard to think of a single member of Congress whose mind would be changed by Abrams' firing. The Iran-contra hearings have changed none of the facts on the ground in Central America. Imagine a congressman who did switch his vote on contra aid based upon whether or not Abrams' head was offered up to him. He would be rightly accused of putting politics ahead of his country's interests. Boren said as much: "That would be a very petty basis on which to reach a decision about something of extreme importance to our national security." Both Boren and Cohen have now affirmed that their votes will not be affected by Abrams' fate.
Yet the new team at the White House does not seem averse to sacrificing Abrams if that would boost the president's immediate fortunes. Accordingly, it has undermined Abrams with unattributed statements and lukewarm official pronouncements. This is a case where faithlessness is not even good politics. Sacrificing Abrams would weaken both the president's image and the contra cause. It would be read, correctly, not as conciliation but as capitulation. The Abrams case, like much Iran-contra pleading, is less about principle than it is about power. Those pushing for Abrams' ouster know the stakes. Only the White House seems oblivious.