State of Engagement
A Foggy Bottom official wants to sit down with Iranian mullahs and Pyongyang's Dear Leader.


If Richard Haass, an outgoing State Department official, has his way, President Bush’s policy of isolating Iran and North Korea will be undermined. And if top-ranking officials at State have their way, Haass’s successor will continue the Haass efforts.

Between now and the end of June, two events will be unfolding side-by-side: Haass is going to attempt to find ways to “engage” the Iranian mullahs and Kim Jong-Il, and Foggy Bottom will be trying to replace him with someone who favors the same strategy — even though that approach is in direct contravention of the president’s directives.

Haass is the director of policy planning at the State Department, which means that he is in charge of converting the president’s vision into actual policies. With Powell on a losing streak of late, some have speculated that Haass’s imminent departure is an acknowledgement of his own weakness. The extent of his power suggests otherwise. (As does his lucrative new post as head of the Council on Foreign Relations.)

Although several levels down on the official personnel flowchart, Haass is perhaps as powerful as almost anyone at State. One administration official describes Haass’s role as a “confidential adviser” to Powell, giving his advice to the Secretary of State maximum weight when final policy decisions are made. Powell has come to so trust Haass that he never filled a formal position for a chief adviser known as “Counselor” inside State, relying instead on Haass to informally assume those responsibilities. So much power in Haass’s hands, though, has created a series of problems, none more serious than those with Iran and North Korea.

From almost the moment he came to State from the left-leaning Brookings Institution, Haass has “made it his mission to loosen sanctions on Iran,” notes an administration official. His first goal was to stop the reauthorization of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) in the summer of 2001. ILSA had originally passed in 1996, but it was up for a five-year renewal shortly before 9/11. As sanctions bills go, ILSA is relatively tough, in that it authorizes sanctions not just against the nations in question, but also against countries and companies that do business with them. Fortunately, Haass lost in a landslide; the House voted 409-6, and the Senate voted 96-2 to fully renew ILSA for five years. (The two senators who voted against renewal were Republicans Richard Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, State’s strongest Senate allies.)

But neither the humiliating ILSA defeat nor the deaths of 3,000 Americans at the hands of terrorists changed Haass’s mind about “engaging” the nation that even State describes as “the most active state sponsor of terrorism” in its annual reports on global terrorism.

Since he couldn’t get the U.S. to meaningfully engage Iran, Haass was determined to bully an ally into making his dreams a reality. A month after the 2002 State of the Union address — when President Bush had declared Iran a member of the “axis of evil” — Haass went to Israel with a shocking message. He told Israeli officials that they needed to “engage” the Iranian mullahs, according to several administration officials. The policy-planning director did this “because he didn’t agree with the president that Tehran should be vilified, so he simply did his own thing,” explains an administration official.

Several observers inside the administration note that Haass still has his sights set on Tehran. The man who already loosened sanctions on Iraq in 2001 with so-called “smart sanctions” — which allowed Saddam to purchase dual-use items that had military capabilities — could attempt to at least lay the foundation for easing sanctions on Tehran. Or he could flak for the mullahs, such as when he helped persuade State’s number two, Richard Armitage, to call Iran a “democracy” in a Los Angeles Times interview this February.

The White House, of course, could try to put a stop to Haass’s shenanigans on Iran, but it remains to be seen if officials there are willing to expend the political capital. Reining him in could be a daunting task, though: among other things, Haass is also going to keep them busy by attempting to simultaneously undermine the president’s North Korea strategy.

As the situation over North Korea has become increasingly tense, Haass has staked out a leading position in pushing for a softer line on Pyongyang. Haass sent out a classified cable this January that one official labeled a “broadside” against the President Bush’s North Korea policy. While the White House has made clear the president’s intent to isolate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, Haass urged bilateral relations, or one-on-one talks. Trouble is that doing so would give the despotic tyrant exactly what he has wanted all along, for the U.S. to go “knee-to-knee” with him.

When State Department officials learned — and subsequently hid from the rest of the administration — that North Korea had started reprocessing plutonium, Haass was one of the select few with the inside scoop. In a March 31 meeting with two State Department officials in New York City, North Korean officials told the U.S. for the first time that they had begun reprocessing — yet that information was not given to the Department of Defense or even the White House. It wasn’t until almost three weeks later, on April 18, when North Korea announced this publicly that the Pentagon and the White House learned of the startling revelation. Although it is not clear what role Haass played in shielding this vital information, an administration official notes that the policy-planning director knew of North Korea’s admission.

Even if Haass didn’t take the lead in pulling the wool over the eyes of most of the administration, he most likely agreed with the decision to do so. One of the leading advocates of direct negotiations with North Korea, Haass “thinks you can put the nuclear genie back in the bottle by talking to Kim Jong-Il,” explains an administration official. Haass is apparently unfazed by the dismal track record “talking” has produced, particularly North Korea’s now-broken 1994 pledge to stop developing nuclear weapons.

The good news is that Haass has less than two months to achieve his goals of “engaging” the Iranian mullahs and Kim Jong-Il. The bad news is that the leading candidate to replace him is the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Robert Pearson — the person whose job it was to win Turkey’s support for the war in Iraq. It’s not that Pearson’s a bad guy — although he was partly responsible for the strategy of flogging Turkey with anonymous quotes by “U.S. officials” that badly backfired — it’s that reform must happen at State, and it simply isn’t possible in the absence of new blood and fresh leadership.

Director of policy planning is not a Senate-confirmed position, so Congress will have no say in who fills the post. And if the White House waits until after Armitage has tapped a replacement, officials there might be frozen out as well. Left to his own devices, it is highly unlikely that Armitage will pick someone who rejects the State worldview of appeasement — and very likely that he will embrace someone who is eager to carry on Haass’s efforts to “talk” with both the Iranian mullahs and Kim Jong-Il. The White House needs to “talk” to Armitage to keep that from happening.

— Joel Mowbray is an NRO contributor and a columnist. Mowbray is the author of the upcoming Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Endangers America’s Security.