By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
Mistrustful of North Korea and its willingness to keep promises, Vice President Cheney worked hard in President Bush's first term to prevent talks aimed at halting that country's push to develop a nuclear bomb. At one point three years ago, he even bypassed the State Department to intervene in delicate negotiations over Pyongyang's nuclear activities.
But this month Cheney stayed out of the way as a top State Department negotiator wrapped up a nuclear agreement with North Korea -- a deal that many of the vice president's conservative allies consider foolhardy and that some of his own staff are said to find hard to swallow.
The contrast underscores the vice president's shifting status in Washington. There is no evidence that Cheney's close relationship with Bush has been lessened. But there is also little doubt that the causes he has championed -- a tough skepticism of negotiations with dictatorships such as North Korea and the forceful exercise of presidential authority -- are being rethought within the Bush administration, according to officials inside the government and experts outside it.
The North Korea deal is only the latest example of a new pragmatism forced on the administration by a series of court decisions, the deteriorating situation in Iraq and -- perhaps most of all -- the Democratic takeover of Congress.
The White House has made a concerted effort to be more conciliatory with Capitol Hill; to make rhetorical nods to issues such as global warming and income inequality, which drew little attention in Bush's first term; to permit court review of secret wiretapping of terrorism suspects; and to make new diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East and elsewhere.
"There's no question in the current political situation that Cheney has lost clout," said Leslie H. Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "He's lost clout because Bush has to prove he's not an international confrontationalist, warmonger and diplomatic bungler. If you have such a reputation, you can't function as president."
It hasn't helped Cheney that his former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- who had aggressively advanced the vice president's interests through a sometimes hostile bureaucracy -- has been sidelined because of his role in the Valerie Plame case. The government's perjury case against Libby will go to the jury this week after a trial that exposed the vice president's large behind-the-scenes involvement in seeking to discredit Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador who accused Cheney and other administration officials of twisting intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war.
Some conservatives close to the administration see Libby's resignation after his indictment in late 2005 as part of the unraveling of a Cheney network, leaving a void that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the engineer of the North Korea deal, has exploited. Others who have departed include Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz; and lower-level aides with long-standing ties to Cheney.
One former administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk more candidly, said Cheney's office has "disappeared" on foreign policy under Libby's replacement, David Addington, and the vice president's foreign policy adviser, John P. Hannah. "Addington and Hannah are smart people, but they are no Scooter. Scooter worked 25 hours a day and he had Addington and Hannah working for him, so it was a powerful combination," this source said. "The result is that Cheney is taking a back seat, and there is no check or balance on Condi in foreign policy. It is what Condi decides and what the president agrees to."
Figuring out how much influence Cheney has is a longtime Washington parlor game -- but the answer is ultimately unknowable, given that almost all of his advice is offered privately, and both the president and his No. 2 zealously guard the details. The two meet for a private lunch once a week, share intelligence briefings and get together with staff for policy discussions.
Only 37 percent of Americans view Cheney favorably, according to the most recent USA Today-Gallup poll, but he remains an important emissary to key constituencies, foreign and domestic. He elicited laughter last week when, speaking to the National Association of Manufacturers in the middle of a snowstorm, he quipped, "The good news is, the federal government is shut down today -- so everybody's safe." He left yesterday for a long-planned trip to Australia and Japan, where he is expected to reassure the allies about the North Korea deal.
Cheney still shows up two or three times a month at policy lunches for Senate Republicans. "I know that he is very comfortable fundamentally with the approach the Bush administration has taken to the war on terrorism, which is go after them hard, keep them on the run and empower moderates," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).
But many who know Cheney believe he is out of step with the current tenor of the administration, noting that he has offered none of the concessions of error that Bush has tried out recently to regain lost credibility on Iraq.
"Dick was always very realistic," said Kenneth L. Adelman, the Reagan administration arms-control official who has known Cheney for more than three decades. "I don't really understand how month after month he gets briefings showing Iraq's getting worse and worse, and he engages in all this happy talk. Bush has become more realistic. Certainly [Defense Secretary Robert M.] Gates is more realistic, so the happy talk from the Pentagon is over. Yet Cheney is still stuck in the mold."
The negotiations for the North Korea deal showed how much things have changed in Bush's second term. Three years ago, when Cheney's influence was at its peak, U.S. negotiators had rigid instructions to demand that Pyongyang dismantle its programs before receiving benefits, and had almost no authority to speak directly to North Korean officials.
This time, in meetings with Chinese and South Korean officials in Vietnam in November, Rice raised the idea of obtaining an "early harvest" -- a freeze on North Korea's main nuclear facility -- to start the process, administration officials said. She empowered her chief negotiator, Christopher R. Hill, to work out the details during a one-on-one meeting with the North Koreans in Berlin last month.
Under the deal, North Korea would receive an initial supply of fuel oil for the freeze. Pyongyang also promised to disable the facility and take further steps toward denuclearization in return for additional economic, energy and humanitarian assistance. The accord left for future negotiations the question of what to do with North Korea's existing nuclear weapons; Pyongyang declared itself a nuclear power in October after exploding a nuclear device. Many conservatives worry that the new arrangement could relieve North Korea of pressure from the United States without any guarantee it will eventually get rid of the weapons.
Lea Anne McBride, Cheney's spokeswoman, said he supports the plan and agrees with Bush that the North Koreans "have to prove themselves by following through on the deal."
Sources who have spoken with administration officials said Cheney's staff is not happy with the agreement, and former administration officials said they have a hard time believing that Cheney does not share those sentiments. They pointed, for instance, to the agreement's language calling for new "working groups" to settle outstanding issues, something they said he has long opposed.
But some Cheney associates said they doubt he will work against the plan. "The one thing about Cheney is he has never done anything the boss didn't want him to do," said a longtime friend from previous administrations, who suggested that Cheney's acquiescence in the nuclear deal may have been a tactical concession, given the United States' eroding position in the world.
"I think he's someone who is very strategic in his thinking," said Aaron L. Friedberg, a Princeton University professor who served as an adviser to Cheney on national security from 2003 to 2005. "He's prepared to make adjustments and trade-offs as the situation warrants. . . . I suspect in a number of situations he would have preferred to push harder and take a tougher stand, but he has always been a pragmatist."
Staff writers Glenn Kessler and Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.