Robert Fisk writes about Oliver North’s contributions to the ordeal of the Middle East

There seem to have been several Oliver Norths. There was Oliver North the Patriot, whom Robert McFarlane would describe as ‘an imaginative, aggressive, committed young officer’, Ronald Reagan’s personally approved ‘hero’. There was Oliver North the Man of God, the born-again Christian from the charismatic Episcopal Church of the Apostles who believed that the Lord had healed his wounds and who – in the words of one former associate at the National Security Council – ‘thought he was doing God’s work at the NSC.’ There was Oliver North the Man of Action, able to work 25 hours in every 24, dubbed ‘Steelhammer’ by Senator Quayle’s buddy Robert Owen, firing off memos from his state-of-the-art crisis centre in the White House.

And then there was Oliver North the thug, drafting directives that authorised CIA operatives ‘to “neutralise” terrorists’, supporting ‘pre-emptive strikes’ against Arab states or leaders whom America thought responsible for such terrorism, supporting one gang of terrorists – the Contra ‘Freedom Fighters’ of Nicaragua – with the proceeds of a deal that would favour another gang of terrorists, those holding American hostages in Beirut. The Oliver North that the Middle East got was the thug.

Reading Ben Bradlee’s disturbing book Guts and Glory[*] in West Beirut – where some of Lieutenant-Colonel North’s plotting went so disastrously awry – has been an unsettling experience. It is, for example, a sad tribute to North’s charisma that the author should have actually adopted some of the Lieutenant-Colonel’s picture-book overview of the Middle East. Mr Bradlee writes eloquently enough about the evils of terrorism but somehow cannot bring himself to call the perpetrators of a 1985 Beirut car bomb terrorists – because they turned out to be members of a ‘counter-terrorist force’ of Lebanese and Palestinian militiamen trained by the CIA. He writes that the bombing of the US Embassy in Kuwait in 1983 was carried out by the pro-Iranian Hezbollah movement, who ‘had supposedly been provoked by Washington’s support of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982’. But why ‘supposedly’? Was it not possible that the Israeli invasion, which cost more than 17 thousand lives (most of them civilians), should have produced just such violent acts of revenge against Israel’s principal ally?

Bradlee says that Israel’s policy against ‘terrorists’ – a policy with which North, of course, thoroughly agreed – was one of ‘surgical strikes’ that ‘eliminated unnecessary civilian loss of life’. Yet there is, in reality, no such thing as a ‘surgical strike’ – as the hundreds of Israeli air raids in Lebanon over the past 12 years have bloodily proved. Such clinical nonsense can only be dreamed up in the White House situation rooms and by the authors of Israeli and American press releases. Bradlee bought the line.

Again, he describes the 1983 suicide bombing of the US Marine headquarters in Beirut as ‘an incomprehensible tragedy’. Yet there was nothing ‘incomprehensible’ about it: the Marines were targeted because the American Navy was shelling Muslim areas of the Chouf mountains in support of Christian Lebanese forces. And the Marines died because their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Geraghty, was so convinced that he was still on a peace-keeping mission that he had forbidden his men to carry ammunition clips in their rifles. So when the smiling truck bomber arrived, their guns were not loaded.

On page 328, Bradlee recalls how Amiram Nir, the Israeli Prime Minister’s adviser on ‘counter-terrorism’, suggested that North’s Iranian arms-for-hostages initiative could be strengthened: by ‘getting the Southern Lebanon army [sic] to free twenty or thirty Shiite Hizballah [sic] prisoners “who didn’t have blood on their hands” as an added inducement for the Hizballah terrorists to release the American hostages’. But Bradlee – who seems to have no idea what the South Lebanon Army is – fails to ask why, if these prisoners had no blood on their hands, they were being held captive in the first place. In fact, the South Lebanon Army is a group of undisciplined militiamen working for the Israelis – they would also be labelled terrorists in any objective description – who were and still are holding several hundred Shia Muslims without trial at Khiam jail: these inmates are, in effect, hostages themselves. What the Israelis were actually suggesting was that Lebanese hostages controlled by Israel should be swapped for American hostages held by the Hezbollah. The author clearly does not realise this.

In a book that is about Oliver North rather than the Middle East, it is perhaps uncharitable to point up the factual errors. But surely Bradlee can do better than to refer to the Palestine Liberation Organisation as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, to mis-spell hostage Thomas Sutherland’s name as Southerland, to refer to the ‘terrorist bombings’ at Rome and Vienna Airports when in fact they were shootings. At least he does not make President Reagan’s mistake of the time – which was to refer absentmindedly to the murders ‘at Rome and Vietnam Airports’. Bradlee gives two different, incorrect figures for the casualties at the US Embassy bombing in Beirut in 1983, and says that the victims of the later slaughter were ‘241 Marines’. In fact, many of the dead were not Marines but US Naval personnel who had chosen to sleep at the US Marine headquarters overnight on 22-23 October after attending a pop concert. These points may seem trivial, but inattention to detail has been one of the most salient and devastating features of US policy in the Middle East – as Mr Bradlee’s book makes clear.

It was not really surprising that North and his colleagues in Washington sometimes seemed obsessed by Beirut, outraged by the terrible plight of the hostages held there, stunned by their own inability to find the hostages’ location, infuriated that the captors of the Americans should be able to escape with impunity. It is curious to look back to those days in 1985 and 1986 and to remember what West Beirut was actually like to live in then.

It was not just a place of chaos and anarchy: those two words are too frequently and too easily used by journalists to define complex or hostile environments. But, reading this book, I remembered days when the anti-Western sentiments in West Beirut were so strong that merely to visit a bookshop in Hamra Street was a perilous foray into the unknown – particularly after the bombing of Libya that was carried out by US planes, some of them flying from British airfield. The strike against Libya was partly engineered by Colonel North himself. It was perhaps three weeks after the Tripoli bombings – another ‘surgical strike’ that slaughtered civilians – that on Hamra Street I was spat at for the first time by a bearded man who had watched me buying a newspaper. West Beirut was hopelessly divided between Druze and Shiites. Sunni Muslims were watching the collapse of their own power base of wealth and privilege. The Shiite movement was split into nationalist (Amal) and pan-Islamic (Hezbollah) divisions, the latter supporting the remnants of Yassir Arafat’s Palestinian guerrillas in the razed camps of Sabra and Chatila. Over all this political turmoil there was one unifying force: the growing anger with America, the belief that the West – and the United States in particular – had brought about this grief through its support of Israel and its opposition to Arab aspirations, the idea that the West was an historical enemy, burdening Lebanon with a Western-style power-sharing constitution that had placed minority pro-Western Christians over the majority Muslims.

This was not a world which Lieutenant-Colonel North could be expected to understand. From the moment I left my home in the Ein Mreisse neighbourhood to travel to the Airport, for instance, I would watch the changing political face of Beirut: from the Druze families in my street, I would cross invisible front lines past the Sunnis who thought the Druze would defend them, to the Shiites of the southern suburbs whose various persuasions – Hezbollah or pro-Libyan or just freelances looking for a cheap captive to sell – would venture onto the airport road in the hope of finding a foreigner. Just to the left of that road would be the buildings in whose basements the foreign hostages languished, held by at least three different groups whose only similarity was their shared suspicion of what the West was doing.

Imagine, then, what it is like to remember all this and then to see, through the pages of Mr Bradlee’s book – through a glass darkly in every paragraph – into the hidden world of Beirut’s enemies in the White House. There is Colonel North, sober-suited and dark-tied, ‘able to make any issue an apple-pie issue and then sell it’. In his technology-oriented crisis office with its computer screens, scrambled telephones, his chic assistant Fawn Hall, his direct line to the CIA, there was no room for doubt or the comprehension of shifting alliances. Ollie was one of the ‘action people’ who cut through the gridlock of Washington bureacracy. In November 1985, he is discussing with Nir two mysterious covert operations code-named TH1 and TH2 which may have been joint US-Israeli ventures – we never discover what they really were – while in December he is messaging McFarlane that Terry Waite is warning that one of the hostages ‘could well be executed before the end of the week’.

Into this far-away, hygienic environment, into North’s sanctum arrive memos from ‘sources’ who are reputed to be ‘well-wired’ in Lebanon; into North’s inner circle wander con-men like Manucher Ghorbanifar, the Iranian who fails every CIA lie-detector test but succeeds in every attempt to persuade North that the Iranians will agree to a neatly-cut deal of arms for hostages.

It was a simple-minded world in which Oliver North lived; indeed, Reagan, too, held – still holds – a febrile, naive, almost childish understanding of the Middle East, which is probably why he went along with North’s schemes to release the hostages. In the Lieutenant-Colonel’s corner of the White House, there was no way in which US officials were going to come to terms with the mosaic which the few Westerners left in West Beirut were able to witness. The smell of burning garbage, the mutual suspicions of watched and watchers in the streets, would never penetrate through to a man who, in Bradlee’s damning words, ‘proved once again that a great actor can save a lousy script. As long as the performance is first rate, the sins can be forgiven.’

Occasionally – and only occasionally – one finds a little reality in this space-age world. Major-General Richard Secord (retd) came face to face with it. ‘In Beirut,’ he told Bradlee,

it always mystified me why we couldn’t pin down the location of the hostages. It’s a small place. I told Ollie many times: ‘If I were the director [of the CIA], I would assure you I’d find them.’ I’d find them by issuing the necessary orders and tasking the necessary resources ... [North] knew that the bureacratic mumbo-jumbo that goes on in counter-terrorism back here in Washington is deadening. Why do you think they’ve never launched a successful hostage rescue? There have been a lot of movies about the ‘A Team’ or some team bursting in. But that’s movies only. We haven’t got around to doing it in real life.

Indeed not. There was even a film of the rescue of American passengers from a hijacked US jet, a saga that retold the story of the TWA airliner that was hijacked to Beirut in the summer of 1985. In the film, a group of courageous American servicemen from the Delta Force rescue the hostages; in real life, President Assad of Syria negotiated their release. The film was made in Israel and it was a lie. But it was the sort of drama that North would have liked to turn into real life.

He almost achieved it, just once, when his state-of-the art intelligence room came up with the information that the Palestinian gunmen who had murdered an elderly Jewish passenger on the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro were being flown by the Egyptians to Algiers. US jets forced the Egyptian airliner to land at an Italian air-base: but the Palestinian whom the Americans thought was behind the sea-jacking was allowed to fly on to Yugoslavia and the gunmen were jailed in Italy. There was no extradition to American justice. In Egypt, President Mubarak – who was trying to crush the Islamic extremist movement threatening Western interests in his country – had to send in his riot police against protesting students. The tear-gas drifted across central Cairo all afternoon. Another success by Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North.

It was probably inevitable that it would be the Iranians who eventually brought North down. Bradlee’s long exposition of the negotiations leading up to and through the now-famous meeting in Tehran between North, McFarlane and the Iranians makes it quite clear that the Ayatollah’s men quickly got the measure of the Lieutenant-Colonel. The Americans had arrived with a plane-load of weapons, an awful lot of fatalistic good will, promises of more missiles to come and some suicide pills in case things went wrong. McFarlane clearly did not keep his pill: when he tried to kill himself months later, he survived. The Iranians read the Americans lectures on the Islamic Revolution, promised that they could free hostages in Lebanon, but asked for more weapons first. McFarlane sulked in his room while North realised they had both been conned by Ghorbanifar. It must have been a destructive moment for North’s equilibrium.

Only four months earlier, he had prepared a memorandum for Admiral Poindexter, the then head of the National Security Council, a record of which is worth quoting in extenso for the insight it gives into the fantasy world in which North lived. ‘Four thousand TOW missiles were to be shipped to Iran in increments of 1000 each,’ Bradlee writes.

On 8 February, after delivery of the first 1000 missiles, the Southern Lebanon Army was to release 25 Hizballah prisoners. The following day, all the American hostages would be freed in Beirut. On 10 February, as the second shipment of missiles was delivered, selected hostages from other countries would be released. And in return for the final two shipments, the remaining foreign hostages would be turned over, along with the remains of William Buckley [the murdered CIA station chief in Beirut]. On 11 February ... Ayatollah Khomeini would step down.

Just like that. And just so far does the mind of a Marine lieutenant-colonel go in the White House when he is under no serious political control. As North was told during the subsequent Irangate hearings, ‘covert action should always be used to supplement, not to contradict, our foreign policy.’ But what was US policy towards the Middle East other than the misty right-and-wrong world projected by Reagan himself? Was it really any surprise when an administration that refused to bargain with terrorists secretly bargained with terrorists – and sold the Iranians thousands of missiles into the bargain?

Bradlee’s book leaves one with the dismal belief that East and West never can look each other squarely in the eye, at least not so long as the current administration runs the White House. The politics of Rambo lead only to disaster. This biography of North is peppered with figures who came to Beirut and disappeared. Dale Dye, the Marine who found a seat on a flight from Da Nang for North when he was leaving Vietnam, turned up in West Beirut in 1982. A friendly, talkative man, he was packed off home when he started showing his service pistol to crowds at a West Beirut hotel bar. McFarlane I recall walking bravely under shellfire to visit the Marines in Beirut in 1983. When I ran up to ask him amid all the din why he had come, he muttered that it was ‘his duty’. It was his first and last visit to the American military in Beirut.

Two years later, I watched Terry Waite go off into the night to try and negotiate the release of hostages. He was a frightened and very brave man whose own illusions about the world of Beirut were to be shattered within 13 months when he disappeared into the abyss. And there was Terry Anderson, my good friend who was the Associated Press correspondent in Beirut – a man with whom I shared many grim moments in the Chouf mountains and on the West Beirut perimeter when the city was under siege by the Israeli Army. He, too, stayed on when the Westerners left and went on jogging each morning along the Beirut corniche outside the apartment block in which we both lived. In March 1985, four bearded gunmen kidnapped him too, and we have not seen him since. Anderson was one of the Americans North was trying to free with his promises and guns.

Perhaps Beirut is too intractable a place to allow any honest negotiation to work. But it was certainly not for the likes of Colonel North and his one-dimensional colleagues. The Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot, who was among these colleagues, described Middle East negotiations thus to Bradlee:

Forget the Marquess of Queensberry Rules. Forget what would work in Lima, Ohio. Forget our three branches of government. You’re over in an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth country; you’re over where people never got the word, and you’ve got to deal with them in their culture, and their way, and their mentality. But you never give them anything in advance ... You swap. You don’t go to the bazaar, pay for the rug and hope it gets delivered to the hotel ... I mean it’s hard-ball, straight-up negotiation. You don’t give them anything ’til you get what you want.

In the end, of course, it was not hard ball at all and there was nothing straight about the negotiations. Lieutenant-Colonel North and his friends got involved in a rug market – and they were conned by equally ruthless ‘action people’ who knew only too well how the White House worked.

[*] Reviewed by Michael Rogin in the last issue.