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Colonel North gets the Senate in his sights

THE NAME of his house - Narnia, after the land of heroes and goblins invented by C S Lewis - shows that Oliver North likes fantasy, and the success of his career shows the marketability of his own political dream world. Last night he said he would run for a Senate seat in Virginia, seven years after he was unmasked as a main actor in the Reagan administration plot to sell arms to Iran.

Given that the plot failed, its exposure inflicting wounds from which the Reagan White House never recovered, Colonel North's success in building a political career out of his role in the disastrous affair is an extraordinary achievement. He charges dollars 25,000 (pounds 16,000) for giving a lecture and his staff say he will spend at least dollars 2m to win the Republican nomination.

Colonel North's success is based on portraying himself as a martyr of the right, the straight-arrow soldier whose only fault was doing too much for his country. The patriotic card he plays is crude but it has been potent ever since he made his name in 1987 by appearing before Congress in full uniform to face down his accusers.

In fact, Congress's pursuit of the Iran-Contra conspirators was less than wholehearted. The Democrats did not want to discover anything that might force them to impeach Ronald Reagan. They were happy, as the Iran-Contra special prosecutor, Lawrence Walsh, explained in his report last week, to give Colonel North immunity in return for testimony and to write off the affair as a rogue operation that went wrong.

Although he portrays himself as a simple soldier, Colonel North has always been, in a sense, a military politician of a variety that flourishes particularly well in Washington. Some of the zanier characters in the US government in the past 20 years have come from the military, the most recent example being Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, Mr Clinton's nominee for the Pentagon, who publicly self-destructed last week, citing press plots against him.

The military profession possibly so cocoons its members that their eccentricities are concealed. Admiral Inman, who resigned as deputy head of the CIA in 1982, had spent 30 years in Washington heading all branches of intelligence successively. Nobody seemed to notice that he was a vulnerable individual. For all his conspiratorial ways Colonel North was easily manipulated by Iranian conmen who acted as go-betweens with Tehran.

But Colonel North and Admiral Inman are not alone. A common theme in the most disastrous episodes in recent US history is that they were presided over by highly politicised military officers with long careers in the Washington bureaucracy and scant operational experience. Last year Admiral Jonathan Howe was appointed, on US insistence, to be UN envoy to Somalia where he pursued the catastrophic policy of trying to kill Mohamed Farah Aideed, a task for which his force was neither mandated nor equipped.

Disaster in Somalia on 3 October last year, when 17 US soldiers were killed by militiamen, was almost an exact parallel with US intervention in Lebanon 10 years earlier under Colonel Robert McFarlane, President Reagan's special envoy. Colonel McFarlane, a co-conspirator with North over arms to Iran, had used US marines, originally sent as peace-keepers, to aid the Christian government in what was, in effect, a civil war. The response was a suicide truck, packed with explosives, that killed 242 marines.