WASHINGTON, May 13 (Reuters) – Robert McFarlane, a White House adviser who appealed to the Saudi royal family to fund a secret war in Nicaragua and carried out a secret mission to sell arms to Iran in the scandal who rocked the presidency of Ronald Reagan, has passed away.
He was 84 years old.
McFarlane, who was in Michigan to visit family, died Thursday of complications from a previous illness, his family said in a statement.
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McFarlane first worked in the White House under Richard Nixon, as a military aide to foreign policy chief Henry Kissinger, after serving two tours in Vietnam as a Navy officer.
Calm and straight-faced, McFarlane took power in the White House from Reagan “under a blanket of boredom,” wrote journalist Robert Timberg. Reagan appointed him national security adviser in 1983 mainly because he was the less controversial choice.
Four years later, televised congressional hearings that revealed McFarlane was the kingpin of the scandal known as Iran-Contra fascinated millions of Americans.
McFarlane directed arms sales to people he thought were moderates in Tehran in hopes they could free seven American hostages held by Iran-linked Hezbollah in Lebanon. The failed attempts to free them circumvented a US arms embargo on Iran and came only years after Iranian militants held 52 hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran for more than a year. year.
During the hearings, McFarlane told lawmakers he was unaware that arms sales profits were being diverted to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua fighting the Sandinista socialist government — until his protege and fellow Marine, Oliver North , tell him.
But years earlier, McFarlane had arranged ways to fund the Contras, which were fighting the democratically elected Nicaraguan government, without the knowledge of Congress. Ultimately, the scandal underscored the ability of White House officials to conduct foreign policy on their own and circumvent the Constitution’s system of checks and balances designed to keep such policies from getting out of hand.
As McFarlane worked on nuclear arms control and many other difficult issues in the Reagan White House, he feared he would eventually be remembered for Iran-Contra. He regretted stepping down from the White House in the middle of it, but became increasingly embroiled in the scandal after his departure.
VIETNAM AT THE WHITE HOUSE
Robert Carl McFarlane, son of a Democratic congressman from Texas, was born July 12, 1937, grew up in Washington, and graduated from the US Naval Academy. Between two tours in Vietnam, he obtained a master’s degree in strategic studies in Geneva.
After returning to Washington and serving in several government positions, he landed a job at the White House. As Kissinger’s aide, McFarlane witnessed the bitter American defeat in Vietnam. He handled White House communications with the US Ambassador to South Vietnam as he led the evacuation of US diplomats by helicopter from the embassy rooftop in Saigon in 1975.
Earlier, Kissinger had helped open up relations with China after secret talks, sparking McFarlane’s interest in shaping relations with quiet powers.
As a Reagan White House aide, McFarlane helped launch a study known as the Reagan Doctrine, a commitment to rolling back Soviet communist influence from Latin America to the Middle East. Soon Reagan appointed him national security adviser. McFarlane took the doctrine to heart.
In Nicaragua, the socialist Sandinista government, McFarlane believed, formed a “beachhead on our own continent…working from there to spread Communism virtually everywhere in our backyard”.
Reagan’s CIA tried to help the Contras by bombing an airport and mining ports. But news reports revealed the attacks, prompting Congress to pass the Boland Amendment banning US intelligence agencies from helping the Contras.
Nevertheless, Reagan, who saw the Contras as the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers, told McFarlane to bring him solutions, not problems. Believing that the Boland Amendment had no reins on White House officials, McFarlane secretly fought over funding in other ways.
He visited the Saudi ambassador at his mansion overlooking the Potomac River and suggested that if the Contras failed, Reagan could lose re-election. Soon the Saudis were paying $1 million a month into a bank account in the Cayman Islands.
Farther from home, McFarlane feared Moscow was courting neighboring Iran and making inroads into the Middle East. An Israeli contact raised the idea of selling American arms through Israel to moderates in Iran, locked in a war with Iraq. Beyond the possibility of freeing the hostages, McFarlane believed that building ties with moderates could lead to the eventual overthrow of Ayatollah Khomeini and a reset in Iranian-American relations that could go down in history.
He brought the idea of freeing hostages to Reagan who was recovering from cancer surgery. For Reagan, who had become obsessed with the fate of hostages, including a CIA station chief, a deal could free them.
“ASKED TO PLAY GOD”
The Iranians told McFarlane to choose which hostage they would release. “I was asked to play God,” McFarlane said. His choice was easy: William Buckley, the station master. Washington has approved missile deliveries from Israel. But Buckley was already dead. While one hostage was freed, others were taken.
Feeling he had failed Reagan, McFarlane resigned in late 1985.
Before leaving, however, McFarlane took up communication ties with the White House National Security Council.
In May 1986, McFarlane and Oliver North flew on a mission to Tehran to meet people they thought were moderates. Along with a palette of missile parts, they carried gifts: guns and a chocolate cake topped with a key, meant to symbolize a diplomatic overture.
They were not welcomed by moderates, but by the Ayatollah’s elite military force, the Revolutionary Guards. The days passed. No hostages were freed, the Americans returned home defeated.
On the return trip, North revealed that he had diverted some of the sales profits to the Contras. “At least we’re using some of the Ayatollah’s money in Central America,” North told McFarlane.
Another surprise was in store: an article in a Lebanese magazine revealed the disaster to the world. This led to an American investigation that damaged Reagan’s reputation and plunged McFarlane into depression.
In February 1987, the night before McFarlane was to appear for the second time on Capitol Hill before an Iran-Contra inquiry, he swallowed 30 Valium pills with a glass of wine and went to bed.
The suicide attempt failed.
After pleading guilty to lying to Congress about soliciting funds for paramilitary activities in Nicaragua, McFarlane was sentenced in 1988 to probation, a $20,000 fine, and community service.
Unlike other figures in the scandal, McFarlane did not exercise his constitutional right to evade questions.
In 1992, President George HW Bush pardoned McFarlane on the advice of then-Attorney General Bill Barr, who held the same position under Donald Trump.
STAR WARS As National Security Advisor, managing the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union was a large part of McFarlane’s duties. Reagan, who feared nuclear war, wanted to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” lasers that could detonate nuclear missiles from the sky. Many scientists were skeptical and some Pentagon officials believed it would worsen the arms race.
Reagan ordered McFarlane to convince British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to support SDI. McFarlane told him that Reagan thought the system could net British companies $300 million in contracts. “Thatcher sat down and brightened up a bit,” McFarlane wrote. “Finally she turned to me and said, ‘You know there might be something in there after all!'”
McFarlane was proud to have helped secure the first nuclear non-proliferation agreement with Moscow, but feared Iran-Contra would eclipse him.
He also regretted having resigned in the midst of this crisis. “I shouldn’t have done it,” he told the Fiasco podcast in 2020 of the abandonment. “The only person who could have stopped (Iran-Contra) was me.”
After leaving politics, McFarlane co-founded a company to develop nuclear power plants overseas using American technology.
Once again, Russia figured prominently in his thinking. McFarlane believed that if the United States did not offer reactor technology to countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia or China it would. He met with Trump administration officials on possibilities of bringing the technology to the kingdom, a move that critics say could spark a Middle East arms race.
McFarlane is survived by his wife, Jonda, and their three children.
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Reporting by Timothy Gardner in Washington Editing by Diane Craft and Matthew Lewis
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