The Third Country and the Fourth Man

By Richard H. Curtiss

Originally published in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs , January, 1987

President Reagan's insistence at his press conference on referring to Israel as a "third country" and then denying that US arms had been shipped to the Ayatollah Khomeini through that "third country," even after the White House chief of staff had admitted it, was pathetic rather than puzzling. He knew that Israel had gotten him into the mess. Now he was hoping Israel's US lobby would use its tremendous clout to get him out. He hoped it could induce congressmen to just go through the motions of an investigation, and persuade the press to lay off. Because Israel's leaders are extremely worried about Israel's image in the affair, the fix is already in with some of Israel's most obedient servants in Congress, who are showing syrupy solicitude for Rambos who have just done more damage to US interests in the Middle East than 40 years of unremitting Soviet efforts toward the same ends. It's harder to turn off the newshounds in full cry, however, because if the lobby's journalistic collaborators drop out of the pack, their newspapers and networks get scooped, and they lose their jobs.

Watch out, therefore, for terrorist incidents involving Americans overseas or even at home to shift the journalistic spotlight and American public wrath away from American fools and Israeli knaves in Washington and toward knaves in the Arab world. Israel's Mossad has long had moles in the radical Palestinian and Shiite fringe groups which now sup mostly at Muammar Qaddafi's, Hafez Al Assad's, and the Ayatollah Khomeini's tables. Some Israeli double agent or secret sympathizer need only whisper in the ear of an Arab Marxist or Muslim fundamentalist equivalent of Lt. Col. North that now is the time to strike at America. When that Arab Rambo does, he won't understand any more than did Lt. Col. North that he's in fact devastating the cause he wants to serve.

Diversionary Actions

Such an action by Abu Nidal in London provided Sharon his pretext for Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Later in 1982 and 1983, fringe group actions blunted American indignation that Israel had twice broken its word to the US first seizing Muslim West Beirut after US Marines were withdrawn, and then allowing the Palestinian families whose safety the US had guaranteed to be massacred in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. In 1985 the Shiite hijacking of a TWA flight to Beirut had alerted Americans to the existence of 1,100 Lebanese Shiite and Palestinian hostages taken forcibly to Israel. Americans also were disturbed that year at Israel's air strike on Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Tunisia, destabilizing the only Arab government which had heeded American pleas to help get the PLO leader and his men out of Beirut to prevent the Israelis from reducing that city of one million inhabitants to rubble. But when Arab fringe group hijackers murdered a helpless American aboard the Achille Lauro, even informed Americans forgot their indignation at Israel's obvious attempt to turn moderate states all over the Middle East against the US.

Why do these Arab Rambos act so stupidly, time after time, turning American public opinion against their own cause and provoking US retaliation that in turn hardens Arab public opinion against the US? If the Israelis are behind it, how do they do it? Perhaps the White House drama that has so suddenly humbled a popular President is instructive in this regard.

Israeli Origins

No one disputes its Israeli origin. Israel's separate Middle East agenda is to keep the Ayatollah's war with Iraq going; defeat an oil-rich Iraqi government that might otherwise slip out of the Arab radical and into the Arab moderate camp; keep the other Arab oil-producing states too frightened of Iran to help the Palestinians, make Israel the only remaining US friend in the Middle East, possibly restore the old Israeli-Iran anti-Arab alliance, and earn piles of desperately-needed hard currency in the process. To accomplish all this, Israel had to keep arms flowing to the Ayatollah. To be allowed to, however, Israel had to implicate the US in the actual arms sales. The Israelis made pass after pass at Reagan Administration officials. Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz, Richard Allen, William Clark and perhaps even Alexander Haig all understood, however, that Israel's Middle East agenda is not America's.

Israel's decisive breakthrough apparently was engineered in 1985 by Michael Ledeen, a founder of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), the cornerstone of what insiders call Israel's "shadow government" in Washington. Ledeen had worked closely with Marine Colonel Robert C. McFarlane when both were at the Department of State in the time of Alexander Haig. When McFarlane went with Judge Clark to the National Security Council he brought Ledeen along as a consultant. After Clark left and McFarlane succeeded him as National Security Adviser to the President, Ledeen apparently convinced McFarlane to let Israel be the middleman in a US probe for friendly elements in the Khomeini government. By that time McFarlane was smart enough to understand how pro-Israel American media could hurt him if he didn't go along with initiatives by friends of Israel like Ledeen. He wasn't swift enough, however, to stop Israel's plan from immediately turning into a scheme for the US to ransom its hostages by replacing arms Israel would sell to the captors' Iranian sponsors.

When McFarlane left the government shortly afterward, he was succeeded by his deputy, Vice Admiral John Poindexter, a career Naval officer more at home with the physics he had studied in college than with foreign policy. To keep him aboard, the Israelis apparently set out new bait by acquiescing in financial aid for the Nicaraguan contras. They knew the new NSC Director was working for a President whose major foreign policy fixation was to keep the contras afloat until he could get Congress to restore their US funding. Meanwhile the arms sale scenario had further evolved into direct shipment of US arms via Israel to Iran, and the US was firmly hooked. Operational control of the project went to Lt. Col. Oliver North, who may have used some of the Iranian money to help not only the contras but even some pro-contra candidates in 1986 US domestic political campaigns. American credibility began its steepest downward spiral in history.

Checking Checks and Balances

It shouldn't be that easy, however, to create a foreign policy disaster in a government supposedly full of checks and balances. At first it wasn't. After the Department of State said no twice, however, it was cut out of the loop. After the Pentagon also said no, it was mostly shut out as well. Only the CIA, which seems to have said yes, no and maybe all at the same time, apparently stayed as much in as out.

Even then it should have been stopped by normal bureaucratic scrutiny within the NSC, which has advisers for each geographical area. Past NSC directors for Near East and South Asian Affairs have included such Near East experts as William Quandt, now of the Brookings Institution, and Gary Sick, now of the Ford Foundation. Jeffrey Kemp, now of the Carnegie Endowment, was director for the first Reagan term. He was succeeded at the beginning of the second term by James (Jock) Covey, a Foreign Service officer who had served previously in Jerusalem and who departed the NSC in the spring of 1986 for assignment to the US Embassy in Cairo. Deputy to both Kemp, who had departed before the Ledeen initiative, and to Covey was Howard Teicher, a Soviet affairs expert who, because of his period of residence in Israel and aggressive partisanship for Israel in the US, was known as the NSC's "first kibbutznik." It is possible that either Covey or Teicher, or both, were excluded from chats between Poindexter and North during this period about the Israel initiative. When Covey left he was succeeded by Dennis Ross, a career officer who, like Teicher, was soon known for his pro-Israel stance, but who may also have been excluded.

No Near East Advice

If any of these Near East advisers were in the loop, they obviously couldn't or didn't want to convince McFarlane or Poindexter of the obvious fact that any secret shared with both Israel and Iran would be revealed when it served the interest of anyone in either of those highly unstable governments to do so. Or that the inevitable revelation would do incalculable damage to whatever remains of the American position in the Arab world, all of whose leaders are accustomed to US unwillingness to stand up to Israel, but most of whom still believed that Americans and their government are incapable of long-term deceit or grossly immoral betrayal.

On the NSC table of organization there is a civilian official between Admiral Poindexter and Lt. Col. North. By mid-1986, with the Israeli scheme going from bad to worse, he should have been able to warn them that the President has to be protected from breaking the law. And that, given the realities of of domestic politics, any US government infraction will eventually be exposed. The man holding the job by that time was Howard Teicher, who had moved up from the Near East, South Asia Deputy Director position in mid-1986 to become NSC Senior Director of Political-Military Affairs. Only his testimony can make clear what role, if any, he had in the arms for hostages deal his boss, Poindexter, and his subordinate, North, were working on. Did he advocate it, object to it, participate in it, or just ignore it?

One person who clearly wasn't just ignoring it was the mysterious "fourth man" who had accompanied Robert McFarlane, Oliver North, and former Tehran CIA Station Chief George Cave last spring on a plane bearing TOW missiles into Tehran. The foursome spent four days in the Tehran Hilton, getting the runaround as low-level Iranian officials made increasingly outrageous demands. That fourth man might surely have suggested that instead of sinking further into disaster, the group advise President Reagan to go public with a denunciation of the Israelis and Iranians who had maneuvered them into a stupid and immoral ransom deal, and try to save American credibility. The name of that fourth man, which surfaced long after the names of the others on the flight, was by that time quite familiar. He was the NSC's "first kibbutznik," Howard Teicher.

So, the next time you think it would be impossible for individuals with loyalties to a particular cause or with a private agenda, by giving or withholding advice, to make gullible Rambos in Arab guerrilla organizations, western intelligence services, or even the White House do things destructive to their own national interests, think again. About Michael Ledeen or Howard Teicher.