By KEVIN TAYLOR, political reporter
A US official's extraordinary attack on the Prime Minister makes it clear that Helen Clark's personal criticism of President George W. Bush cost New Zealand any chance of a free-trade deal.
The US Government spokesman told the Herald last night that personal attacks by Helen Clark on Mr Bush had been "beyond the call".
"You can forgive friends a lot, but in the way the world really operates, personal attacks are beyond the call, particularly from friends," he said.
Helen Clark apologised to the Bush Administration last month for offending the US in saying it would not have invaded Iraq if Al Gore had been President.
In an unusual comment from a senior trade official, Trade Representative Robert Zoellick told the US House of Representatives agriculture committee on Wednesday that there had been "some things done recently that would make [a free-trade agreement] harder to carry" to Congress.
Asked what Mr Zoellick had meant, the spokesman said that, while he could not talk for Mr Zoellick, the way the Iraq issue was handled had raised eyebrows in Washington.
"When you have a long-time friend and you are in a situation which is a very critical one for your sense of national security, although you don't always expect your friends to agree with you all the time ... the way that is handled and the way it's expressed is important."
The way the issue developed just before the Iraqi war was "perhaps not as friendly as one hoped".
Helen Clark's remark about Al Gore had been the "coup de grace", the spokesman said.
"When already-hoped-for co-operation isn't there and comments get increasingly more strident about 'it has to be the UN, it has to be the UN, it has to be the UN' and then the most responsible person in that Government all of a sudden comes out and sort of personally attacks the President, it's that one step beyond."
The spokesman said his remarks were not intended as a personal attack on the Prime Minister, but as a criticism of her comments and Government policy.
Helen Clark said last night she was "quite astonished".
Speaking through her spokesman, she said there had been no personal attack on President Bush.
"These comments are highly unfortunate," said her spokesman.
He said the Prime Minister had apologised after it was drawn to her attention that the US had taken offence where none had been intended.
The Government had contributed to Operation Enduring Freedom and the rebuilding of Afghanistan.
It also expected to help with reconstruction in Iraq if a UN resolution was passed.
"New Zealand has a long-term close relationship with the US, and the Prime Minister will not be letting anonymous comments from some official upset that relationship," her spokesman said.
A free-trade deal - worth an extra $360 million - with the US was a long-term proposition.
Helen Clark was not in Wellington yesterday, and Trade Negotiations Minister Jim Sutton bore the brunt of the attacks in Parliament over the issue.
Mr Zoellick told the Agriculture Committee "a lot of their agricultural exports are ones that are very sensitive here".
He was referring to lamb and dairy products from New Zealand.
The opposition of farm groups would make it hard to win congressional approval.
Without offering specifics, Mr Zoellick also said the US was disappointed with recent actions by New Zealand.
Mr Sutton conceded there was "some potential downside" for New Zealand if only Australia got a deal, but he was adamant New Zealand still had a chance.
Australia is negotiating with the US on such a deal, and actively supported the Iraqi war.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard was treated as a hero on a recent visit to the US, and Mr Bush will visit Australia, but not New Zealand, this year.
Act described Mr Zoellick's comments as the most serious setback since Britain joined the European Community in 1973.
"The trade nightmare is about to occur - Australia gets free-trade access to America while this country is denied," said leader Richard Prebble.
Asked if he accepted a link between trade and foreign policy, Mr Sutton said trade was conducted in the context of a broad relationship.
"To that extent, they are linked. I think what we are seeing here is a more specific linking than we have seen.
"Most of the time previous US Administrations, including Republican Administrations, have made it clear that there was no linkage between security and trade issues."
United States-New Zealand Council president Fred Benson said an agreement still had some support in Congress, and he was hopeful.
"The job ahead for us, though, is to analyse these comments and sit down and decide what needs to be done in both New Zealand and the US to break the barrier and get on to an agreement."
National leader Bill English said New Zealand farmers and exporters had Helen Clark's "foreign commentator role" to thank for the setback.
HOW NZ'S CHANCES FADED
"I don't think that September 11 under a Gore presidency would have had this consequence for Iraq. But I think in this Administration there were forces that always wanted to go after Iraq and September 11 tipped the balance." - Helen Clark, March 30
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"It wouldn't be a novel observation to say that [the war] doesn't appear to be going to plan." - Helen Clark, March 31
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The bottom line is that this Government doesn't trade the lives of young New Zealanders for a war it doesn't believe in, in order to secure some material advantage. - Helen Clark, March 31
What others said
"The Prime Minister's statement was regrettable." - US Embassy public affairs officer Bill Millman, April 1
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"There's been some things done recently that would make [a free- trade agreement] harder to carry". - US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, May 21
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"This wouldn't be the high point of the campaign." - Trade Negotiations Minister Jim Sutton, May 22
By KEVIN TAYLOR, political reporter