PARIS -- Political rivals and journalists are badgering George Bush to give a full account of what he said in the secret councils that discussed sending arms to Iran. In principle, Bush is right to dismiss questions about the general advice he gave the president as irrelevant and overly intrusive.
In practice, however, the vice president's silence is untenable. It spreads the suspicion that on the specifics of the Iran deal Bush's judgment was as rotten as that of his White House colleagues.
We already know, as Bush and Reagan contend, the baseline: For whatever reason, Reagan was bound and determined to send arms to the ayatollahs. Adding Bush's voice to the dissent of George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger will not alter history. Nor was Bush needed to egg on Reagan. The Bush badgerers flatter him by attaching such importance to his policy advice.
But The Washington Post's front-page description last Thursday of Bush's substantial exposure to the decisions to traffick with Iran shifts the focus to another level. It shows that Bush had sufficient opportunity to make judgments about the operational aspects of the arms and hostages tracks that he says were kept separate. Having to go loyally along with his president, did Bush show common sense or even wisdom in ensuring that a workable policy was being implemented?
For the central question in those secret White House councils quickly became not the abstract moral or legal ones of do you deal with terrorists through their political masters, but the practical political ones of how to deal with them successfully.
This is seen most clearly in the decision by Washington in July 1986 to abandon its policy of promising to provide arms to Iran only if all American hostages in Lebanon were released.
We now know that the switch to sending some arms for each hostage released was demanded by Iran and pushed on Reagan by CIA Director William Casey and Lt. Col. Oliver North. North maneuvered Bush into a meeting with Amiram Nir, one of the chief Israeli architects of the opening to Iran, just as the decision was being made. Nir told Bush there was "no real choice" except to change the policy. Bush's reaction remains unknown.
At about the same time, the Iranians were making the same demand to the new French government headed by Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, which also chose to change policy and to make concessions to Iran on a piecemeal basis to get some of the French hostages released.
There is no firm evidence to suggest that Washington and Paris ever worked together in their secret dealings with Tehran. But policy-makers in both capitals recognized the "package vs. one-by-one" deal as the crucial dilemma they faced in offering concessions for the release of hostages. They knew they had no way of preventing the hostage takers from pocketing the goodies and simply picking up new "merchandise" off the streets for new bargaining.
Predictably, the captors have deliberately held onto the three French hostages whose release would give Chirac's government the most political mileage, in an evident bid to up the ante. The remaining hostages are a prominent journalist and two diplomats.
With American and French citizens the targets of choice for the Beirut hostage takers and both nations holding presidential elections this year, the politics of hostage trading is likely to present candidates on both sides of the Atlantic difficult moments, even though the hostages themselves have receded in public concern.
The men who made the decisions in Washington and Paris to deal for hostages are practical politicians, whose devotion to their trade seems to prevent them from being overly affected by humanitarian concerns in most of the tough decisions they have to make. That is how it should be.
Bush's protestations that he and Reagan only "erred on the side of human life," if they erred at all in making their decisions on Iran, ring hollow in his continuing silence about the practical judgments he was called upon to make. A more authentic echo of political life in Washington may be provided by that unforgettable computer note by North that talks about getting Ronald Reagan a Nobel prize for ending the Iran-Iraq war.
It is this echo that Bush needs to speak out persuasively to combat, with its suggestion that personal ambition drove much of the behavior of the actors on the inside of this drama. The least that any country has the right to expect is that citizens held hostage will not also be exploited by its own politicians.