Blaming Success, Upholding Failure

Mainstream media mostly fails to hold conservatives accountable for misrepresenting North Korean policy under Bush and Clinton.

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Recent history is, sadly, all too often ancient history for many reporters. Time and again as events unfold, reporters—due either to deadline constraints, editorial meddling, or just a failure to grasp the realities of recent history—fail to put events in any sensible context, leaving readers and viewers at sea seeking to make sense of it all.

Comments made Tuesday by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) during a campaign stop are a classic case in point. McCain blamed the Clinton administration’s 1994 “Agreed Framework” with the North Korean government, in which the North Korean regime agreed to halt its plutonium production and put it under lock and key overseen by an international team of inspectors, in return for energy assistance.

McCain told a gathering of the conservative faithful that “I would remind Senator [Hillary Rodham] Clinton (D-NY) and other Democrats critical of the Bush administration’s policies that the framework agreement her husband’s administration negotiated was a failure.” This is so simplistic as to be deliberately misleading, but you’d hardly know that from most of the coverage.

The next day The New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg quoted McCain in the second paragraph of her article that focused on the political fallout the North Korean nuclear test. The story waited until paragraph seventeen, however, to explain what the Clinton deal was, and that contrary to McCain’s critique, “North Korea abided by the freeze.”

Stolberg rightly notes that the North Koreans began a second, secret nuclear program in the late 1990s, but did not feel compelled to mention the Bush administration’s record of completely ignoring the problem for the first six years of their time in power. It was a similar story in Wednesday’s Washington Post, where Charles Babington also addressed McCain’s false claims as a purely political event that existed independent of any independent reality.

Not all the coverage of the Bush administration’s failure to forestall the current crisis in North Korea has been so misguided. Back in July, The New York Times’ David Sanger observed that the Bush administration “has engaged in a six-year internal argument about whether to negotiate with the country or try to plot its collapse — it has sought to do both, simultaneously,” and that the president’s “isolation strategy ultimately failed.”

The best exposition of the failures of the Bush administration comes from Fred Kaplan, who wrote an illuminating piece in The Washington Monthly back in May 2004 outlining how the Clinton plan, while not perfect, still succeeded in keeping the plutonium rods locked down and the North Koreans talking. But the Bush administration decided to scrap the Agreed Framework plan in favor of inaction, freeing the regime to unlock the rods, and continue their nuclear weapons program. Kaplan writes that:

Bush had no desire to negotiate with North Korea over its nuclear weapons, much less its energy needs. To Bush and those who agreed with him, this refusal was a matter of principle. Charles Pritchard, who directed National Security Council’s Asia desk under Clinton and was named the State Department’s special North Korean envoy under Bush, recalls reading an NSC memo early on in the Bush administration, stating this no-negotiations policy explicitly. The rationale for the policy, according to the memo: to preserve “moral clarity.”

There’s nothing like “moral clarity” to prevent a nuclear explosion. Despite the fact that the Bush administration withdrew from the Agreed Framework in October 2003, with no policy (save “moral clarity”) to replace it, conservatives like McCain can find no better excuse for Bush’s inaction than to blame Clinton.

Writing on The National Review’s “The Corner,” earlier this week, John Podhoretz wrote that “that bilateral negotiations between the United States and North Korea elevates North Korea to a station we do not think they occupy, and that by rewarding them in this fashion, we will tempt other nations to use exactly the same sort of blackmail approach to get our attention and get our bribe money.”

Yet another such signal contribution came from the magazine’s editor, Rich Lowry, who wrote on Tuesday that “We need to junk the six-party talks and pressure Pyongyang on all fronts, toward the long-term goal of the collapse of its government. We have talked to our enemy, and it only has made him stronger. It’s time for action.”

Just what “action” that may be, he did not say. But in decrying talks with the North Korean regime and calling for regime change, the right wing press is again ignoring reality. In the October Atlantic Monthly, the conservative Robert D. Kaplan spoke to Colonel David Maxwell, the chief of staff of U.S. Special Operations in South Korea, who told him “the collapse of the chain of command of the [Kim II Sung government] could be more dangerous than the preservation of it, particularly when one considers control over WMD.”

Kaplan also gave a nod to the Bush administration’s essential tone-deafness when it comes to the North Korea problem. “To Kim’s sure dismay,” he wrote, “the American response to his recent missile tests was a shrug. President George W. Bush dispatched Christopher Hill, his assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, to the region rather than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.”

Amazingly, none of these press reports addressed the fact Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, back in 1994 when he was not in government, sat on the board of a company that was awarded the contract to provide the two light-water reactors to North Korea as part of the deal President Clinton brokered with Pyongyang in 1994. Rumsfeld appears to have a faltering memory when it comes to the Zurich-based company, ABB, of which he was a non-executive director, which at the very least should spark questions from journalists.

Rumsfeld’s former spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, told Newsweek in February 2003 that her boss “does not recall it being brought before the board,” even though ABB spokesman Bjorn Edlund told Fortune magazine in 2003 that “board members were informed about this project.” One board member, who declined to be interviewed, “recalls being told that Rumsfeld was asked “to lobby in Washington” on ABB’s behalf” for the contract.

Alas, as with Rumsfeld’s coddling of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, this story is symbolic of the larger one—the administration’s dishonesty and incompetence— about which the mainstream media only explains a tiny, and ultimately, deceptive part.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” moved from to Media Matters on Monday September 18. The new URL is

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Eric Alterman

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