Robert ‘Bud’ McFarlane, Reagan’s National Security Adviser, Dies at 84

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Robert C. “Bud” McFarlane, former national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan and the only Reagan White House official to willingly accept legal blame in the Iran-Contra scandal, died May 12 at a Lansing hospital, Michigan. He was 84 years old.

The cause was an exacerbation of a previous lung condition, said his son, Scott McFarlane. Mr. McFarlane lived in Washington and was hospitalized while visiting his family in Michigan.

A taciturn retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, Mr. McFarlane worked in the 1970s and 1980s at the nexus of the military and political establishment. He was the son of a congressman, a graduate of the US Naval Academy, and a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

In the early 1970s, he was a military aide to Henry A. Kissinger, who was Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to President Richard M. Nixon. Mr. McFarlane’s subsequent efforts in Iran were often perceived as a misguided effort to emulate Kissinger’s innovative advances in restoring relations with Communist China.

Following his military resignation in 1979, Mr. McFarlane served on the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee and later became an adviser to Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. during the early years of the Reagan White House.

Mr. McFarlane was Haig’s point man for tough assignments in the Middle East and with Congress, winning applause for persuading Congress to restore money for the MX missile program and advance nuclear arms control negotiations with the sovietic Union.

He became deputy national security adviser and, in 1982, pushed for the deployment of US Marines to Lebanon for a peacekeeping mission. It was a risky move that ended in catastrophe when terrorists bombed the Navy barracks, killing 241 US service members in October 1983, just two weeks after McFarlane took over 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 did was overshadowed by the Iran-contra scandal, the illegal sale of weapons 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 relations with Iran, which had been severed after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The conspirators, with McFarlane at the center, diverted tens of millions of dollars in proceeds from arms sales to aid the Nicaraguan “contras,” rebels fighting the Castro-backed pro-communist Sandinista government. Through a series of laws in the early 1980s, Congress restricted and later prohibited direct US military assistance to the rebels.

Mr. McFarlane’s key lieutenant in the Iran-contra scheme was Oliver L. North, a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who was on the staff of the National Security Council. North worked directly with CIA director William Casey to circumvent the laws.

As he wrote in his 1994 memoir, “Special Trust”, Mr. McFarlane quickly became “disillusioned with Iran’s initiative after Israel’s first shipment of … missiles to Tehran. I thought it was time to abort this project. It had too quickly turned into a trade in Israeli arms for hostages, rather than a serious attempt to identify a possible successor to Khomeini. However, I felt that it was a policy that the president would stick with.”

On December 4, 1985, Mr. McFarlane tendered his resignation to Reagan due to what he called his increasingly bitter personal and professional disagreements with Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger and White House Chief of Staff, Donald T. Regan, who constantly sought to diminish him and restrict his independent access to the president.

Mr. McFarlane also failed to fully gain the confidence of Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who was concerned about the White House’s secret support for the Nicaraguan contras.

After officially leaving the administration, McFarlane remained an unofficial White House emissary in an effort to free American hostages held by Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based Iranian proxy, and arrange a secret meeting with what he hoped that they were smart “moderate” Iranian officials. to discuss steps toward normalization.

In May 1986, McFarlane was asked by new national security adviser John M. Poindexter to lead a secret mission to Tehran. He arrived there that month on a Boeing 707 with no identification, using an Irish passport as an alias. He was accompanied by North, CIA officer George W. Cave, and two other CIA officers.

They were taken to the former Hilton Hotel and rushed to a secluded suite where they expected to meet high-level Iranian officials. None showed up for substantive diplomatic talks, nor did any realistic possibility of the promised hostage release arise. Meanwhile, Iranian guards rocked the 707 and confiscated the Hawk missile parts that the Iranians had demanded as a ticket into Tehran for McFarlane.

Mr. McFarlane departed after the third day of dead-end talks. He left behind a kosher chocolate cake frosted with a key, which would symbolize a new opening between Iran and the United States.

Mr. McFarlane’s dream of renewing relations with Iran for Reagan, and thus matching Kissinger’s triumph in China for Nixon, had failed. In his own memoir, Weinberger mocked McFarlane as “strange, withdrawn, moody”. [and] pretentious” with “a strong desire to be perceived as better than Henry, 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 Sandinista forces shot down a CIA-controlled cargo plane carrying weapons to Nicaraguan rebels. Congress soon launched an investigation of the Iran-contra operation.

In November 1986, Poindexter resigned and North was fired. There was talk of impeaching Reagan. The White House staff led by Regan initiated a damage control plan to isolate the president and blame McFarlane, who was no longer in the White House and lacked the influence and stature of friends like Shultz and Weinberger.

On December 1, Reagan appointed a special commission chaired by Sen. John Tower (R-Texas) to investigate the Iran-contra scandal.

McFarlane later said he was depressed and guilt-ridden for failing to prevent the scandal from spreading around Reagan, who had publicly insisted he would not trade guns for hostages.

On February 9, 1987, the night before his appearance before the Tower commission, Mr. McFarlane swallowed 30 Valium pills and went to sleep with his wife. He found him unconscious in the morning and called a friendly doctor, who saved him. He was subsequently hospitalized for psychiatric treatment.

In the first interview after his suicide attempt, Mr. McFarlane told the New York Times: “What really drove me to despair was the feeling that I had failed the country. Had I stayed in the White House, I’m sure I could have prevented things from getting worse.”

When he recovered, McFarlane testified before congressional committees, often contradicting the memory of others in the White House and on the National Security Council.

It was not until March 1988, after lengthy negotiations by his attorney, Leonard Garment, with Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence E. Walsh, that Mr. McFarlane pleaded guilty to four misdemeanors and a grand jury indicted North and Poindexter.

Mr. McFarlane acknowledged that he withheld information from Congress on four occasions, concealing secret White House support for the contras.

On March 3, 1989, he received a two-year suspended sentence and a $5,000 fine for each of four misdemeanor charges. He was required to perform 200 hours of community service, but he could have received a maximum sentence of four years in prison and fines of $400,000.

Before his sentencing, Mr. McFarlane told the court: “Clearly, this episode in the country’s history has created enormous confusion in the processes of our country, and to the extent that I contributed to it, I regret it. I am proud to have served my country.”

In 1992, he was pardoned by President George HW Bush, along with Weinberger, former Deputy Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, and three former CIA officials. North’s 1989 conviction on criminal charges stemming from the affair 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 was a 1959 graduate of the Naval Academy and twice served combat tours of duty in Vietnam. In 1967, he earned a master’s degree in strategic studies from the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

In 1959, Mr. McFarlane married Jonda Riley. In addition to his wife, the survivors include three children, Lauren, Melissa and Scott; two sisters; and eight grandchildren.

After the Iran-Contra affair, Mr. McFarlane started an international consulting business. He was in the news again in 2009 when the Sudanese government sought his help with the Obama administration to remove sanctions. Sudan’s then-President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was 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 the Darfur region of Sudan.

Sudanese officials helped arrange a $1.3 million contract between McFarlane and the Qatari government, The Washington Post reported. McFarlane met with Sudanese intelligence officials in Middle Eastern capitals, where he insisted that he would not work directly for Sudan but only through a third party like Qatar. Federal investigators conducted an investigation but declined to file criminal charges.

In Washington, McFarlane was long seen as a man of contradictions: penitent and defensive about Iran-contra, soft-spoken and outwardly inscrutable, but in fact scathing about what he saw as deception and disloyalty on the part of those he he felt he had served as an ally. obedient sailor.

In his 1994 memoirs, McFarlane recalled Iran-Contra as a “tasteless episode.” He remained conflicted about the president who “approved of every single action I took” on Iran-Contra but who “lacked the moral conviction and the intellectual courage to defend us and defend his policy.”

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