By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2007
The White House yesterday found itself fending off a conservative revolt over the North Korea nuclear deal, even scrambling to mollify one of its own top officials who expressed sharp disagreement with a provision that could spring Pyongyang from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, U.S. officials said yesterday.
Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser, fired off e-mails expressing bewilderment over the agreement and demanding to know why North Korea would not have to first prove it had stopped sponsoring terrorism before being rewarded with removal from the list, according to officials who reviewed the messages.
John R. Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called the agreement -- in which North Korea would freeze its main nuclear facility in exchange for an initial supply of fuel oil -- "a bad deal" that violated principles that were closely held in the beginning of the Bush administration.
And the National Review, a conservative bastion, yesterday slammed the agreement as essentially the same one negotiated by President Bill Clinton in 1994 -- a charge the Bush administration rejects. "When exactly did Kim Jong Il become trustworthy?" the magazine's editors asked. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, normally a Bush supporter, also condemned the accord yesterday as "faith-based nonproliferation."
Bolton's comments, the barbs from conservative publications and the Abrams e-mails reflected deep concerns among conservatives that the agreement could turn out to be an important and troubling turning point. Current and former Bush officials said they fear that after six years they are losing control of foreign policy to more pragmatic forces. The shift, they said, has become especially apparent with the departure of Donald H. Rumsfeld, who as defense secretary was often seen as a counterweight to State.
More specifically, conservatives said, they worry that the administration's willingness to bend on North Korea does not bode well for hard-line policies toward Iran, the Palestinians or other issues. Indeed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov yesterday called on the United States to demonstrate "the same flexibility, a sensible flexibility" toward Iran's nuclear program.
At a news conference yesterday, Bush appeared irritated by criticism from Bolton, once a leader of the administration's conservatives. When a reporter mentioned that Bolton, whom Bush championed, had called it a bad deal, Bush smiled ruefully. "I strongly disagree, strongly disagree with his assessment," Bush said.
Abrams, a legendary bureaucratic infighter and outspoken neoconservative, is responsible for policies aimed at promoting democracy overseas. Officials who reviewed his e-mails on the nuclear deal would not quote from them but described the messages because they agreed with the concerns and wanted to make public the depth of disagreement within the administration. They said Abrams appeared frustrated because so many key decisions had been made at the highest levels without much vetting by officials scattered across the government.
Abrams, they said, was especially concerned about a section of the agreement that stated: "The U.S. will begin the process of removing the designation of the DPRK as a state-sponsor of terrorism, and advance the process of terminating the application of the Trading with the Enemy Act with respect to the DPRK." DPRK is the abbreviation of North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Countries that are on the U.S. terrorism list are subject to trade and other sanctions.
In an e-mail that Abrams sent to officials involved in Asia policy and nonproliferation policy, he reminded the recipients that, in a deal with Libya on abandoning weapons of mass destruction, the United States said it would start a "delisting" process only if Libya ended its support for terrorism -- and that the terrorism track was separate from the weapons deal.
When one of the Asia experts replied that the process was young, Abrams shot back that he thought that section of the deal was bad.
Gordon Johndroe, a National Security Council spokesman, did not dispute this account but said: "Initial press reports on the six-party-talks agreement sparked a discussion among staff that were seeking clarification of some of the deal's aspects. All has been clarified, and we look forward to implementation."
The provision that irritated Abrams has also sparked concern in Japan, which fears that the United States will remove North Korea from the terrorism list before North Korea has come clean on its kidnappings of Japanese citizens decades ago. Bush tried to mollify those concerns in a phone call yesterday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The State Department says North Korea has not committed a terrorist act since the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air Lines flight.
Bush defended the nuclear agreement as a "unique deal," in part because of his decision to bring in other nations, such as China.
"I changed the dynamic on the North Korean issue by convincing other people to be at the table with us on the theory that the best diplomacy is diplomacy in which there is more than one voice," Bush said.
Bolton later stood by his criticism. "I'm very sad about the president's change in policy," he said in an interview. "The policy as originally articulated and implemented in the first term was exactly right. There's no need to change it. The pressure was what brought North Korea to the table originally. Why get rid of the pressure?"
Asked if he felt disloyal to Bush, who stood by him through a long and ultimately unsuccessful Senate confirmation fight, Bolton said: "I didn't say anything for a good long time, and I wouldn't have said anything if they hadn't changed the policy. I'm loyal to the original policy."
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.