President Bush‘s efforts to resolve two major foreign-policy challenges in his waning days in office have prompted double-barreled criticisms, with leaders here and abroad questioning concessions his administration has made to Iraq and North Korea.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton said Monday that he was “deeply troubled” by a pending status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) with Iraq because it could result in American troops being prosecuted in Iraqi courts.
Across the globe, Japan and South Korea have gone public with rare dissent, saying they are worried over an agreement on how to verify North Korean pledges to give up making fuel for nuclear weapons.
Mr. Skelton, the leading House Democrat responsible for the U.S. military, said: “I do not believe it was wise to push off major decisions about the legal protections U.S. troops would have in such cases or the crimes for which they could be charged.”
Both Iraq and North Korea had been defined by Mr. Bush as members of the “axis of evil,” and subsequent events in each were largely driven by what is often referred to as the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive military action against terrorist threats.
The doctrine resulted in an invasion of Iraq and perceptions in neighboring Iran, as well as North Korea, of a U.S. military threat. Iran responded by arming anti-U.S. fighters in Iraq, according to U.S. officials, while North Korea tested its first atomic bomb.
Mr. Skelton’s criticism targeted a SOFA agreement signed Monday by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker in Baghdad.
By setting a three-year deadline for the complete withdrawal from Iraq, it eliminates one firm line set by Mr. Bush in opposing “artificial timetables.”
Mr. Skelton also warned that the U.S.-Iraq agreement contained “vague language” that would “likely cause misunderstandings and conflict between the U.S. and Iraq in the future.”
“Should the Iraqi council of representatives pass the agreement, the House Armed Services Committee will closely monitor the agreement´s implementation to ensure the protection of our men and women in uniform, who have served and who continue to sacrifice on our behalf in Iraq,” Mr. Skelton said.
Mr. Skelton’s criticism of the SOFA contrasted with praise from the Bush administration, Iraqi officials and even a tentative endorsement from Iran on Monday.
“Definitely, today is an historic day for Iraqi-American relations,” Mr. Zebari told reporters after exchanging signed copies with Mr. Crocker.
The two men also signed a long-term strategic framework, which Mr. Crocker said would define the countries’ ties for years.
“It reminds us all that, at a time when U.S. forces will continue to withdraw from Iraq in recognition of the superlative security gains over the last few years, our relationship will develop in many other important ways,” Mr. Crocker said.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon news conference that he has consulted the top U.S. commanders in Iraq and that they all think the agreement allows enough time for the Iraqis to be ready to defend themselves.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder said the agreement would provide the framework for continued operations in Iraq.
“We’re happy to see the Iraqi Cabinet has approved the agreement. In terms of discussing details and specifics, it´s still too early to make any statement. We’re hopeful, we’re confident that the [parliament] will have an agreement signed soon.”
Even Iran, a sworn U.S. enemy that had been a bitter critic of the pact, took a surprisingly positive stand.
Iran’s judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, said the Iraqi Cabinet acted “very well” in approving the pact.
The Web site of Iran’s state television quoted him as saying he hoped the U.S. will withdraw its troops within the time specified in the deal.
There was no word from the pact’s harshest Iranian critic, hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the judiciary chief often speaks on behalf of Iran’s more powerful clerical rulers.
To take effect, the agreement must be approved by Iraq’s parliament and signed into law by President Jalal Talabani and his two deputies.
The agreement does not provide immunity for U.S. troops, but will allow a joint committee, made up of both U.S. and Iraqi officials, to decide if U.S. citizens should be tried under Iraqi law for crimes committed off base.
It would provide a legal basis for U.S. military security operations to continue past the Dec. 31 deadline, when authorization by the United Nations expires.
Though Iraq’s Cabinet overwhelmingly approved the SOFA on Sunday, some U.S. officials and scholars said passage by Iraq’s fractious parliament is far from certain.
Raed Jarrar, an Iraq specialist at the American Friends Service Committee, said that under Iraqi law, the parliament must first pass a law on international agreements by a two-thirds majority.
“It’s a close call whether they will follow the requirements or bypass them,” Mr. Jarrar said.
If the parliament insists on two-thirds approval, “it’s impossible to pass,” he said.
On the North Korean front, the Bush administration is drawing fire for removing North Korea from the U.S. list of terrorist-sponsoring nations without obtaining a firm agreement allowing outside inspectors to take samples from nuclear sites.
Here, public criticism has come from South Korea and Japan over an agreement on outside nuclear inspections in North Korea.
“Washington itself admitted a lot of ambiguities exist,” South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told the South Korean parliament last week. “Through consultations with other countries, we will ensure that sampling is an essential part of verification.”
Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso has said that the situation will be “tangled” if the U.S.-North Korea verification deal was only a verbal understanding.
Tokyo’s top envoy to the six-party talks, Akitaka Saiki, said after meeting his Chinese counterpart that Beijing is not ready to call the group’s next meeting because of differences “over how to put the U.S.-North Korea deal on paper,” Japan’s Kyodo News agency reported.
Chief U.S. negotiator Christopher R. Hill returned from a visit to Pyongyang in early October with what the State Department said was an “agreement” to verify a nuclear declaration submitted by the communist state in June.
The department has not released the main document, but only an accompanying “fact sheet” with “U.S.-North Korea understandings on verification.”
The “understandings” outlined specific verification measures, such as “the use of scientific procedures, including sampling and forensic activities,” which would provide relatively reliable clues about the North’s nuclear activities.
North Korea, however, insisted last week that it had made no such promises and rejected the notion of allowing any samples to be removed at the site of its plutonium-making plant at Yongbyon.
“The method of verification will be … confined to field visits,” the official KCNA news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying. Changing the written agreement is “an act of infringing upon sovereignty little short of seeking a house search.”
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said: “The Japanese, South Koreans and even the Chinese are unhappy about the level of consultations, because now we have ambiguity, and they are frustrated that this situation has emerged.”
Officials and analysts said it is likely that the North Koreans are trying to buy time until President-elect Barack Obama takes office.
But Evans Revere, president of the Korea Society in New York, said North Koreans had been repeatedly warned against making such assumptions.
“If Pyongyang thinks that the next administration is going to give them an ‘easier ride,’ I think they are making a mistake,” Mr. Revere said. “During the North Korean delegation’s recent visit to New York, many people made precisely this point to them.”