Robert ‘Bud’ McFarlane, Reagan’s national security adviser, dies at 84
A taciturnly retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, Mr. McFarlane worked in the 1970s and 1980s at the crossroads of the military and political establishment. He was the son of a congressman, a graduate of the US Naval Academy and a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War.
In the early 1970s, he was a military aide to Henry Kissinger, who was both Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to President Richard M. Nixon. Mr. McFarlane’s later efforts in Iran have often been seen as a misguided effort to emulate Kissinger’s groundbreaking forays into restoring relations with communist China.
After his military resignation in 1979, Mr. McFarlane served on the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee, then became an adviser to Secretary of State Alexander Haig during the early years of the Reagan administration.
Mr. McFarlane was Haig’s right-hand man on difficult missions in the Middle East and with Congress, and he was applauded for persuading Congress to restore the money for the MX missile program and advance the nuclear arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union.
He became deputy national security adviser and, in 1982, he pushed for the deployment of American Marines in Lebanon for a peacekeeping mission. It was a risky move that ended in disaster when terrorists bombed Marine barracks killing more than 240 US servicemen in October 1983, just two weeks into Mr McFarlane’s new post as Reagan’s top security adviser.
As a national security adviser, he was credited with helping shape Reagan’s proposed strategic missile defense initiative, popularly known as “Star Wars”. But almost everything he has done has been overshadowed by the Iran-Contra scandal, the illegal sale of arms to Iran in exchange for that country’s help in freeing American hostages held in Lebanon. The effort was also intended to help restore US diplomatic ties with Iran, which had been severed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The conspirators, with Mr McFarlane at the centre, diverted tens of millions of dollars in profits from arms sales to help the Nicaraguan ‘contras’, rebels fighting the pro-Communist Sandinista government backed by Fidel Castro. Through legislation in the early 1980s, Congress restricted, then banned, direct US military assistance to the rebels.
Mr. McFarlane’s key deputy in the Iran-Contra scheme was Oliver North, a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel on the staff of the National Security Council. North worked directly with CIA Director William Casey to get around the laws.
As he wrote in his 1994 memoir, “Special Trust”, Mr McFarlane became “disillusioned with the Iranian initiative after the first Israeli shipment” of “missiles to Tehran. I thought it was time to abandon this project. It had too quickly become a trade in Israeli arms for hostages, rather than a serious attempt to identify a possible successor to Khomeini. Yet, I felt that it was a policy to which the President would stick to.
On December 4, 1985, Mr. McFarlane tendered his resignation to Reagan over what he called his increasingly bitter personal and professional disagreements with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and with the House Chief of Staff. Blanche Donald Regan, who constantly sought to diminish him and reduce his independent access to the president.
Mr. McFarlane also never fully won the trust of Secretary of State George Shultz, who was worried about the White House’s covert support for the Nicaraguan contras.
After officially leaving the Reagan administration, Mr. McFarlane remained an unofficial White House emissary with the aim of freeing American hostages held by Hezbollah, a proxy for Iran based in Lebanon, and organizing a secret meeting with what he hoped were “moderate” Iranian officials. ready to discuss steps towards standardization.
In May 1986, the new national security adviser, John Poindexter, asks Mr. McFarlane to lead a secret mission in Tehran. He arrived there that month in an unmarked Boeing 707, carrying an Irish passport as his alias. He was accompanied by North, CIA official George Cave and two other CIA officers.
They were taken to the old Hilton hotel and rushed to an isolated suite in hopes of meeting with Iranian officials. None have come forward for substantive diplomatic talks, and no realistic possibility of hostage release pledges has emerged. Meanwhile, Iranian guards rocked the 707 and seized parts of the Hawk missile that the Iranians had demanded as Mr. McFarlane’s ticket to Tehran.
Mr McFarlane left after the third day of deadlocked talks. He left behind an iced kosher chocolate cake with a key, which was to symbolize a new openness between Iran and the United States.
His dream of renewing relations with Iran for Reagan, and thus of matching Kissinger’s triumph in China for Nixon, had failed. In his own memoir, Weinberger mocked Mr McFarlane as “strange, withdrawn, sullen and pretentious” with “a great desire to be perceived as better than Henry”, which was a “difficult task” at best.
Although there were rumors of a secret supply channel to the contras, the first public evidence came on October 5, 1986, when a CIA-controlled cargo plane carrying arms to Nicaraguan rebels was shot down by Sandinista forces. Congress quickly began an investigation into Operation Iran-Contra.
In November 1986, Poindexter resigned and North was fired. We were talking about impeachment of Reagan. White House staff led by Regan launched a damage control plan to isolate the president and shift the blame onto Mr. McFarlane, who was no longer in the White House and lacked the influence and stature of friends such as Shultz and Weinberger.
On December 1, Reagan appointed a special commission chaired by Sen. John Tower (R-Texas) to investigate the Iran-Contra scandal. Mr McFarlane later said he was depressed and racked with guilt for failing to prevent the spread of scandal around Reagan, who had publicly insisted he would not trade arms for hostages .
On February 9, 1987, the day before his appearance before the Tower Commission, Mr. McFarlane swallowed 30 Valium pills and fell asleep next to his wife. She found him unconscious in the morning and called a doctor friend, who saved him. He was then hospitalized for psychiatric treatment.
During the first interview after his suicide attempt, Mr. McFarlane told the New York Times“What really despaired me was the feeling of having let the country down. If I had stayed in the White House, I’m sure I could have stopped things from getting worse.
When he recovered, Mr. McFarlane testified before congressional committees, often contradicting the briefs of others in the White House and the National Security Council. It was not until March 1988, after negotiations led by his attorney, Leonard Garment, with Iran-contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, that Mr. McFarlane pleaded guilty to four counts and a grand jury charged North and Poindexter.
Mr. McFarlane has admitted hiding information from Congress on four occasions, concealing secret White House support for the contras. On March 3, 1989, he received a two-year suspended prison sentence and a $5,000 fine for each of four misdemeanor counts. He was sentenced to perform 200 hours of community service, but he could have received a maximum of four years in prison and fines of $400,000.
Prior to his sentencing, Mr McFarlane told the court: “It is clear that this episode in the country’s history has created enormous upheaval in the processes of our country, and to the extent that I have contributed to it, I regret. I am proud to have served my country.
In 1992, he was pardoned by President George HW Bush, along with Weinberger, former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, and three former CIA officials. North’s 1989 conviction on criminal charges stemming from the case was overturned on a technicality and he was never retried.
Robert Carl McFarlane was born in Washington on July 12, 1937. At the time, his father, William, represented Texas as a Democrat in the United States House of Representatives.
He graduated in 1959 from the Naval Academy and served two combat missions in Vietnam. In 1967, he obtained a master’s degree in strategic studies at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. In 1959 Mr. McFarlane married Jonda Riley. In addition to his wife, survivors include three children, two sisters and eight grandchildren.
After the Iran-Contra affair, Mr. McFarlane launched an international consultancy business. He made headlines again in 2009 when the government of Sudan sought help from the Obama administration to lift sanctions. Omar Hassan Bashir, who was president at the time and later ousted in a military coup in 2019, has been charged by the International Criminal Court with genocide and war crimes related to the conflict in Darfur.
Sudanese officials helped arrange a $1.3 million deal between Mr. McFarlane and the government of Qatar, The Washington Post reported. Mr McFarlane met with Sudanese intelligence officials in Middle Eastern capitals, where he insisted he would not work directly for Sudan, but only through a third party such as Qatar . Federal investigators investigated but declined to press charges.
In Washington, Mr. McFarlane has long been considered a man of contradictions: remorseful and defensive about the Iran-contra, soft-spoken and outwardly inscrutable, but actually scathing about what he viewed it as deceit and disloyalty on the part of those whom he felt he had served. a dedicated sailor.
In his 1994 memoir, Mr McFarlane remembered the Iran-Contra as a “sordid episode”. He remained conflicted about the president who “approved every action I ever took” in Iran-contra but who “did not have the moral conviction and the intellectual courage to stand up in our defense and to defend his politics “.