Flashback: When a secretary of state goes rogue

When Secretary of State George Shultz appeared on Face the Nation on November 16, 1986, President Ronald Reagan’s administration was in its second week of a scandal.

The administration had approved the sale of U.S. arms to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages held in Lebanon by Iranian ally Hezbollah. A portion of the proceeds from the sale went to fund the Contras, a militia movement fighting a Democratically-elected communist government in Nicaragua.

Iran was, at the time, a designated state sponsor of terror, and it was also involved in a war against neighboring Iraq, a U.S. ally. Both the sale of arms to Iran and the provision of support to the Contras were contrary to the Reagan administration’s stated policy. And the “Iran-Contra Affair,” as the controversy had come to be known, threatened the administration’s credibility at home and abroad.

“If you tell our allies and other diplomats that our policy remains to embargo arms against Iran, aren’t they just going to smile and laugh and say, ‘Come on, you’re doing it, we’re going to do it’?” asked CBS News’ Lesley Stahl in the interview with Shultz.

“Probably they will,” conceded the secretary, who’d privately argued against the arms sale and warned the president that it would be seen as a negotiation with terrorists. “On the other hand, we have to be serious about it ourselves, and we have to reinforce it, and we have to point out to them the reason why we have that policy. And the reason why we have it applies to them as well. They have a stake in a changed Iran. They have a stake in an end to the war. They have a stake in a change in terror, and so on.”

Three days before Shultz’s interview, on November 13, President Reagan delivered a televised address from the Oval Office in which he acknowledged the transfer of arms to Iran, but insisted it was undertaken to improve relations, generally, rather than specifically to secure the release of hostages.

Shultz backed up the president’s explanation on Face the Nation. “The president said that was not his intent, and he did not do that, and I think it is clearly wrong to trade arms for hostages,” he said. “So that is our policy; that remains our policy.”

“Will there be any more arms shipments to Iran, either directly by our government, or through any third parties?” Stahl asked.

“It’s certainly against our policy,” Shultz said.

“That’s not an answer,” Stahl replied. “It was against our policy before, and we went ahead and did it. You seem to be saying there will be.”

“We gave a signal and the signal has been given, and as far as I’m concerned, I don’t see any need for further signals,” Shultz said.

“Well then why don’t you answer the question directly?” Stahl persisted. “I’ll ask it again. Will there be any more arms shipments to Iran, either directly by the United States, or through any third parties?”

“Under the circumstances of Iran’s war with Iraq, its pursuit of terrorism, its association with those holding our hostages, I would certainly say, as far as I’m concerned, no,” Shultz said.

Stahl sensed an opening. “Do you have the authority to speak for the entire administration?” she asked.

“No,” Shultz admitted.

Shultz had been preparing to declare on the broadcast that the administration would stop selling arms to Iran. But just before his appearance, he got word that the White House would not commit to such an embargo.

When he was asked whether he thought the U.S. should halt the sale of arms to Iran, and he offered an opinion that went beyond the line the administration had drawn, he thought he would be fired.

In the end, though, Shultz stayed put, and it was the old policy that was jettisoned. Shortly after Shultz’s interview, the administration changed its position to accord with the answer the secretary offered on Face the Nation.

Former Secretary George Shultz will make a return to the broadcast this Sunday, discussing President Trump, national security, and more in an interview you’ll only see on Face the Nation. Check your local listings for airtimes