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Congress: Treat Iraq Like The Contras

In 1982, angered by a White House secretly escalating an unpopular war in Central America, the House passed the Boland Amendment, a rider to the Defense Appropriations Act of 1983. The amendment was crafted by Massachusetts Congressman Edward Boland, and was designed to cut off funds the CIA and other intelligence agencies were using to carry out sabotage attacks in Nicaragua and to support the anti-government Contra guerrillas. The Senate had a Republican majority at the time, but even members of President Reagan’s own party were outraged when he launched his Contra-backing warfare without even notifying Congressional oversight committees.

So far, the newly Democrat-controlled Congress has not been outraged enough to use its constitutionally-mandated power to force an end to the lethal war in Iraq. Perhaps they will still rise to the occasion, ending the war by cutting funds for the war. 

But there is still time right now—before the Bush administration makes good on its rising threats—to stop the looming war in Iran. We need a new Boland Amendment, one that will pre-empt any possibility of the White House launching an attack against Iran.

In recent weeks the threat of war in Iran has qualitatively escalated. Provocative U.S. attacks on Iranian diplomatic offices, arrests of Iranian officials inside Iraq, and the installation of a second U.S. aircraft carrier group in the Persian Gulf seem all but openly designed to goad Tehran to respond. Repeated Bush administration threats about “dealing with” alleged Iranian involvement in attacks on U.S. soldiers resonate back to equally unproven claims about Iraq’s WMDs. Both have been calculated to ratchet up public and media support for a U.S. attack—on Iraq then, and on Iran now—and to undercut any potential congressional move to stop a new attack.

Meanwhile, the White House appears oblivious to recent Iranian developments that should have lessened the tensions, including the diminishing domestic popularity of the provocative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Tehran’s apparent technical failures in nuclear power technology.


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The timing of the recent intensification of threats against Iran is breathtakingly dangerous for the Bush administration itself. It is emerging even while debate continues in the administration about whether Iraq’s U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is capable of leading the war-wracked country, or whether Washington should reorganize Iraq’s government to give more power to the Iranian-backed forces currently at the center of Maliki’s own coalition. 

It is also a moment in which the U.S. is again increasingly isolated internationally. Canada’s right-wing prime minister and former Bush ally Stephen Harper is publicly excoriating the White House for keeping Canadian citizen Maher Arar on the U.S. “no-fly” list despite Arar’s absolute exoneration (complete with an official apology and an $8.5 million settlement) by Canada. Germany and Italy are issuing arrest warrants against dozens of CIA agents involved in the kidnapping and “extraordinary rendition” of European citizens sent to be tortured around the world. And even in loyal Britain, Tony Blair’s heir-apparent Gordon Brown has made clear he is considering a very different relationship with Washington than that of “Bush’s poodle.”  Is this a new incarnation of the Old Europe of the months before Bush’s Iraq War?

Like so many carefully negotiated congressional moves, the Boland Amendment was in fact neither unequivocal nor absolute. It prohibited the U.S. government from providing military support “for the purpose of overthrowing the Government of Nicaragua.” But it became the symbol of public anger and insistence on ending U.S. support for the Contras and their brutal war. And it thus came to embody an even more powerful check on the White House’s war-making capacity than the resolution’s actual language might have imposed. When the Reagan team decided to violate the Boland Amendment, to make an end run around the law, their actions lead directly to what quickly became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. 

Both former war supporter Republican Congressman Walter Jones and the courageous California Congresswoman Barbara Lee have introduced different bills that take some steps towards prohibiting a U.S. attack on Iran. Either one, or perhaps a different bill altogether, could become the Boland Amendment for Iran—capturing the breadth of both public anger and congressional opposition.

It remains unclear whether the White House needs to be concerned about Congress actually cutting off funds for the war in Iraq. But it is certain that the Bush administration is very worried about the possibility of a new Boland Amendment to prevent an attack on Iran. As one former senior intelligence official told Seymour Hersh, “they're afraid that Congress is going to vote a binding resolution to stop a hit on Iran, à la Nicaragua in the Contra war.”

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is the 7th updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer. Follow her on Twitter: @PhyllisBennis

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