Michael Hirsh

Stories by Michael Hirsh

  • North Korea's Kim Jong Il

    The weird and scary saga of how an isolated, bankrupt nation went nuclear--and how the United States failed to stop it.
  • Let's Calm Down

    While visiting Asia this week with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, I stopped in to see my old Tokyo neighborhood, where I last lived 12 years ago. I was astonished at how little had changed: there was my house, its yellow stucco walls still stained the exactly same shade of brown; there was the same McDonald's and Mr. Donut at the train station, and the same koban , or police box, with a blue-jacketed, white-hatted policeman drowsing over his battered desk.It seemed an apt metaphor for Japan itself, where the debate over military readiness is not much more advanced than it was 15 years ago, during the first gulf war. Yes, the threat from North Korea is far more immediate to Tokyo than the menace of Saddam Hussein was. And yes, the Japanese have moved beyond the sort of meek debates they had back then over sending minesweepers to the Gulf. Today, to deal with the threat from North Korea, new nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is inching his country toward aggressive...
  • Asia's New Reality

    Whatever the success of North Korea’s nuclear test this morning—and one U.S. official suggested it might be “more fissile than pop,” meaning it may have been a small device indeed—Kim Jong Il has created a new strategic reality in Asia. Yet it may not be the one he wanted. By the accounts of many Asia analysts, the North Korean leader sought respect above all—geopolitical acceptance of the kind that Washington ultimately accorded to India after it exploded a nuclear device in 1998. Kim wanted to ensure his regime’s survival. What he may now get instead is an increasing determination, not only in Washington but elsewhere, that he has to go.Indeed by late last week, when U.S. officials grew increasingly certain that North Korea would detonate a nuclear device, there was a sense of resignation in Washington—almost a feeling of relief that, at long last, strategic clarity had arrived. “At least there would be a unified front against North Korea” if Pyongyang tested, one senior official...
  • Ike Was Right

    He was a Republican president from Texas at a time of great peril for America, a moment in history when the conservative base of his party was dominated by radical thinking about how to take on the nation’s mortal enemy. It was an election year, and the GOP was making political hay by mocking Democratic weakness. Among the most radical Republican critics was one of the president’s own top cabinet officers, who called for pre-emptive war.But Dwight D. Eisenhower said no to that. In some of the most important yet little appreciated decisions ever made by any U.S. president, Ike faced down both his own advisers and his base in the early to mid-’50s and embraced the containment policies of the other party. And he did it for a simple reason: he knew they were right. His only litmus test was competence.It’s important to remember this relatively obscure chapter of American history today, a time when the GOP—the supposed party of adults—is being accused of incompetence on almost every level...
  • Clinton Loses His Cool

    Even Bill Clinton, who never met a camera he failed to charm, couldn't keep his rage out of public view any longer. Ever since ABC television aired its riveting but risibly fictive docudrama “The Path to 9/11” earlier this month, former Clintonites have been seething. The miniseries had laid much of the blame for the failure to get Osama bin Laden on Clinton and his supposedly wimpy national-security team. The Bush administration, meanwhile, is portrayed mostly positively, seen gearing up to take on bin Laden when 9/11 hits. No surprise there: “The Path to 9/11” was scripted by a conservative screenwriter named Cyrus Nowrasteh, who once took part in a panel at the right-wing Liberty Film Festival entitled “How Conservatives Can Lead Hollywood's Next Paradigm Shift.”So when Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace gently asked the former president “why didn’t you do more” to put Al Qaeda “out of business,” he sparked an unexpected blast. Clinton, who had granted Wallace an interview at his...
  • How to Avoid War

    America is in the middle of a giant mess in the Muslim world, and there is one country—just one—that holds the key to solving the whole problem. There is only one country that has the ability, and the interests, to help us confront the out-of-control Shiite militia movement in Iraq, the terrifying Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and the still-dangerous Hizbullah presence in Lebanon all at once. There is just one country that stands between the unsettling situation we're in now and the far greater horror of a nuclearized Islamic world in which Israel is permanently locked into an existential battle with both Arabs and Iranians, and Americans must live in fear forever. There is just one country that, if it were brought into the community of nations, could stop this downward spiral before it is too late—indeed reverse it.That country is Iran. The only man who can bring Iran around is George W. Bush. And the only way he can achieve that is by wiping the table clean and proposing a...
  • Where’s the Clarity?

    Terrible as they are, wars can be clarifying events. Like thunderstorms, they purge the diplomatic air. They force people to take sides and, if they are total wars, they leave one victor standing. This is what happened during World Wars I and II (the latter being mainly an extension of the former) and the cold war. In the end, fascism and totalitarianism were vanquished—with the exception of a few redoubts, like North Korea—freedom was left the sole victor and America was seen as its champion. George W. Bush would have us view the "war on terror," which turns five years old on Monday, in this light as well. "This is the great ideological struggle of the 21st century—and it is the calling of our generation," the president said this week in a dramatic rendezvous-with-destiny speech timed to the 9/11 anniversary. "Freedom is once again contending with the forces of darkness and tyranny"—the terrorists who would seek to impose what he called a "totalitarian Islamic empire."The president...
  • Dangerous Days

    This is as dangerous an August as I can recall, at least since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait 16 years ago. The Europeans are dithering over contributions to a peacekeeping force while a dangerously unstable Lebanon slips into a "security vacuum," in the words of United Nations envoy Terje Roed-Larsen. Iran is stringing along the West in negotiations as it rushes to perfect the nuclear fuel cycle—which could occur as soon as the next several months—while bidding skillfully for regional hegemony. North Korea is hinting darkly at a nuclear test after firing off missiles. And Iraq is, well, say no more.It is the sort of moment when peace and history could be hanging in the balance for a generation to come—the kind of tipping point when American presidents can no longer leave the negotiating to underlings. They must take the world stage themselves to find a new way out, simply because no one else has the globo-oomph to do so. There is a grand American tradition behind this sort of...
  • Pounding the Keys

    There she was playing her Brahms sonata, while 5,000 miles away the Mideast burned. It was all too tempting for columnists to make snarky references to Nero and his fiddle, and a few did. But Condoleezza Rice clearly had more on her mind than the annual song-and-dance show put on by ministers at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations forum, a sideshow conference Rice had skipped just the year before. She knew she would very shortly return to the Mideast-- after giving the Israelis a little more time to inflict damage--to play a central role on perhaps the biggest diplomatic stage of her life. And she knew she had directed her top aides--Nicholas Burns in New York, Philip Zelikow in Brussels, David Welch and Elliott Abrams in Jerusalem--to prepare for her main act this week while she played the piano in faraway Malaysia.Why did Rice, elegantly attired in a red batik dress, choose a somber Brahms piece for the ASEAN show? After all, last year her deputy, Robert Zoellick, sang "My...
  • Making Enemies

    Reading "Fiasco," Thomas Ricks's devastating new book about the Iraq war, brought back memories for me. Memories of going on night raids in Samarra in January 2004, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, with the Fourth Infantry Division units that Ricks describes. During these raids, confused young Americans would burst into Iraqi homes, overturn beds, dump out drawers, and summarily arrest all military-age men—actions that made them unwitting recruits for the insurgency. For American soldiers battling the resistance throughout Iraq, the unspoken rule was that all Iraqis were guilty until proven innocent. Arrests, beatings and sometimes killings were arbitrary, often based on the flimsiest intelligence, and Iraqis had no recourse whatever to justice. Imagine the sense of helpless rage that emerges from this sort of treatment. Apply three years of it and you have one furious, traumatized population. And a country out of control.As most U.S. military experts now acknowledge, these...
  • The White House: The Legacy On the Line

    The Bush team didn't see this one coming. Maybe it was simply that too many other volcanoes were erupting at the same time. Iraq was tipping closer to civil war, Iran was getting more brazen by the day and North Korea's missiles were roiling East Asia. The president, meanwhile, was preoccupied with what would likely be a testy G8 summit hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin. True, the two top U.S. Mideast envoys--David Welch and Elliott Abrams--were in the region when hostilities began. But they had been reassured by Lebanese contacts that Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbullah leader, didn't plan to "stir things up" while Hamas and Israel contended over a kidnapped Israeli corporal, according to a senior U.S. diplomat who would divulge the details only if he remained anonymous. "You had six and a half years of, if not calm, basically a stable deterrence between Hizbullah and Israel," the official told NEWSWEEK. "I did not expect this at all."If so, he was badly misled, and so was the...
  • Going Ballistic (Sort of)

    Is Kim Jong Il wacky? No American diplomat has talked to the North Korean dictator for years. But there have been moments when he's appeared quite sane, even sharp-witted. Six years ago the then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stood next to the diminutive "Dear Leader"--he's about her height--at a stadium in Pyongyang. In front of them thousands of acrobats and dancers performed feats of synchronization that would have made Barnum and Bailey envious. As part of the show, which was intended to impress the visiting Albright with the glories of the North Korean "revolution," a mass of performers held colored placards that showed Kim's Taepodong I missile lifting off in a 1998 test."That was the first launch of that missile," Kim said, turning toward Albright. Then, alluding to a 1999 deal with Washington that placed a moratorium on missile tests, he added, "And it will be the last."But it wasn't. Since then, Washington has refused to sit down with Kim one-on-one (the '99 missile...
  • Passing the Buck

    Good foreign policy should be metronomic in pace—measured, steady, dependable. That's especially true when you're the world's only superpower, and you want to keep things that way.  The key is to inspire respect, trust and faith in your judgement. That’s called leadership. But for six years now, George W. Bush's foreign policy has resembled a pendulum swinging out of control, lurching wildly from hubris to "help us." Despite the "stay the course" rhetoric, there's been little that is steady or dependable about it, and not surprisingly it has inspired little respect or trust around the world. In Bush's first term, the pendulum swung too far toward in-your-face unilateralism. Now, in his second term it has swung dramatically back toward the most squeamish sort of multilateralism—the kind of thinking that says, "Without partners, I don't dare make a move."We probably don't have to rehash the problem with too much unilateralism, the subject of a Time magazine cover story this week,...
  • The Myth of Al Qaeda

    The capture of Ibn Al-Shaykhal-Libi was said to be one of the first big breakthroughs in the war against Al Qaeda. It was also the start of the post-9/11 mythologizing of the terror group. According to the official history of the Bush administration, al-Libi (a nom de guerre meaning "the Libyan") was the most senior Al Qaeda leader captured during the war in Afghanistan after running a training camp there for Osama bin Laden. Al-Libi was sent on to Egypt, where under interrogation he was said to have given up crucial information linking Saddam Hussein to the training of Al Qaeda operatives in chemical and biological warfare. His story was later used publicly by Secretary of State Colin Powell to justify the war in Iraq to the world.The reality, as we have learned since—far too late, of course, to avert the war in Iraq—is that al-Libi made up that story of Iraq connections, probably because he was tortured by the Egyptians (or possibly Libyan intelligence officers who worked with...
  • Gaming Bush

    It was just an offhand comment, but the families of Pan Am Flight 103 victims were stunned. When State Department spokesman Sean McCormack was asked recently whether Libya would pay out the final $2 million it pledged to each family in compensation for the 1988 terror attack, he dismissed the question. "We're not party to this," McCormack said, before moving to the next subject. While technically true—the Pan Am 103 lawsuit has been a private matter for the courts, not the executive branch—his comment was disingenuous. Until last month, when Washington announced it would take Libya off its list of terror-supporting states, U.S. officials had forthrightly linked Muammar Kaddafi's return to international good graces with justice for the families of Pan Am 103 victims. (As recently as May 15, Assistant Secretary of State David Welch said flatly that the U.S. "did support those efforts" by the families.) Now, it appears, the families of the 189 Americans blown out of the sky by Kaddafi...
  • Diplo-Dancing With Iran

    A month ago Condi Rice was in deep trouble, and she knew it. The secretary of State's strategy for stopping Iran's nuclear program--by uniting major nations against Tehran--was in danger of falling apart. During a dinner meeting on May 8 at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed anger over Vice President Dick Cheney's awkwardly timed blast at Vladimir Putin a few days before. The Russians, essential to the U.S. tactic of isolating Iran, seemed to be jumping ship. Even America's European allies were voicing doubts about Rice's approach. In April, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier openly called on Washington to reverse its quarter-century-old refusal to hold official talks directly with Iran, endorsing a British suggestion. In private the French signaled they agreed.Rice faced a separate mutiny from the rear: mounting skepticism in the White House that diplomacy could work at all, along with tough resistance to direct...
  • A Chance for Healing

    To the Bush administration’s credit, they’ve learned humility when it comes to touting breakthroughs after the killing or capturing of insurgent leaders. After Saddam Hussein was nabbed in his spider hole in December 2003, Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno of the Fourth Infantry Division declared that the insurgency was "on its knees," adding: "In six months you are going to see some normalcy." That prediction was dead wrong, as were so many others, like Marine Gen. John Sattler’s claim that the 2004 siege of Fallujah had "broken the back" of the insurgency.This time around, everyone from the president on down was careful to note that, as Bush said today, “the difficult and necessary mission in Iraq continues” even after the death of the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. Gradually, as the subtle truths about counterinsurgency have begun to seep up and down the ranks—you don’t “break the back” of an insurgency, or crush it or rout it, instead you slowly drain it of life—the...
  • Our New Pen Pal

    Americans and Iranians don't talk to each other--officially, anyway. Apart from a furtive arms-for-hostages deal in the Reagan era, the two sides haven't sat down since Ayatollah Khomeini incited his youthful Islamist radicals in Tehran--among them Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current president--to confront the Great Satan in 1979. So the question arises: what was Mohammad Nahavandian, a close adviser to Iran's top nuclear negotiator, doing wandering around Washington last month? U.S. authorities say they had nothing to do with his visit. In fact, they claimed to be a bit shocked to learn that Nahavandian had a green card entitling him to enter and leave the United States freely. Nahavandian himself, who had taught economics at George Washington University before he joined the government in Tehran, said he was here on private business, including showing his son some sights of America, according to U.S.-based Iranians who met him.But that's not the whole story. During his several-week...
  • Washington's New Watchword: Containment

    An old word is gaining new currency in Washington: containment. You may be hearing a lot more of it as the Bush administration hunkers down for its final two years. Containment of Iraq’s low-level civil war, which shows every sign of persisting for years despite the new government inaugurated this week. Containment of Iran’s nuclear power, which may lead to a missile defense system in Europe. Containment of the Islamism revived by Hamas and Hizbullah, by the Sunni suicide bombers in Iraq, as well as by the “Shiite Crescent”—as Jordan’s King Abdullah once called it—running from Iran through Southern Iraq and into the Gulf.During the cold war, containment doctrine was based on the premise that the Soviet Union was a powerful force that was going to be around for a long time to come. Containment’s chief author, George Kennan, concluded that the best Washington could do was to keep the Soviet bloc penned up in its sphere of influence until it expired of its own internal problems (though...
  • An End to The Pain?

    It was a triumph for U.S. diplomacy. A last-minute intervention by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick may help end the genocide in Darfur, an arid region of Sudan beset by civil war. Khartoum agreed to permit U.N. peacekeeping troops to replace the ineffective African Union force. But who will supply--and pay for--the U.N. troops? A senior administration official, anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the media, says Bush "personally wants a NATO role, but we're not seeing a lot of troops coming with that--more limited advisers." Without a sufficient force, the deal will likely fall apart.
  • Iraqi Nukes: Fallout From U.S. Strikes

    The administration may be making contingency plans to bomb Iran's nuclear sites if diplomacy fails. Apart from the geopolitical fallout of such a strike, there's reason to worry about the environmental impact. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Tehran's activities, is raising questions about dangers stemming from U.S. strikes on Iraq's biggest nuclear site during the 2003 invasion. In a report to be posted on the IAEA's Web site this week, the agency states that about 1,000 Iraqi men, women and children in a village near the former Tuwaitha nuclear research facility are living inside an area contaminated by radioactive residue and ruin. "I can only guess that a lot of the damage at Tuwaitha was from bombing," Dennis Reisenweaver, an IAEA safety expert, told NEWSWEEK. "Any time you damage a facility that uses radioactive material, you have potential for spreading contamination." He said the agency was looking at other damaged Iraqi sites as well, but did not yet...
  • A Radioactive Dilemma

    In the minds of some Bush administration officials, the solution to America's new foreign-policy crisis lies with people like "the Larry King of Iran." That's what Ahmad Baharloo's executive producer, Maryam Velgot, calls the ruggedly handsome host of the Persian-language show "Roundtable With You" on Voice of America. Baharloo, an Iranian exile in Washington, will soon be a prime instrument of the administration's new democracy-promotion campaign in Iran. Of the $85 million President George W. Bush has requested from Congress for the campaign, about $50 million will go to expanding Farsi television programs on VOA, and Baharloo is a star performer.Beginning in June, Baharloo's interview-and-call-in show will be beamed into Iranian homes seven days a week instead of just one. The goal: to blanket the repressive, cleric-run state with open dialogue and glad tidings from America. Asked whether any Larry King-type character--even the real one--could do much to engender democratic...
  • 'Compassionate Colonialism'

    When most Americans look at Iraq, they see a frightening faraway chaos, howling on the horizon like a desert dust storm. But U.S. Army Spc. Rocio Lucero has been in the eye of the storm, and she knows its nature as well as anyone. As we sit in an Iraqi police station in the Bab al Sheikh district of Baghdad, she looks around and notes casually, without a smidgeon of nostalgia, that this dingy office was her home for a year. From the beginning of the invasion in March 2003 until March of the following year, her military police unit was based here 24-7, ducking mortars and regularly taking fire.Now her platoon comes here to check on things every few days. Their mission has been narrowed to backing up Iraqi police patrols that drive out in front, 100 yards ahead, while trying to persuade the locals that their own government, not Washington, now supplies their guns and uniforms. The insurgents and the Shiite death squads still grip many neighborhoods, but in between bombings and...
  • Clash of Ideas

    There are presently two sectarian wars under way that will decide America's future: one in Iraq, and one inside the Republican Party. The issues are intimately related. If Iraq erupts into full-blown civil war or breaks up, the war within the GOP will be effectively settled. The last ounce of credibility will be drained from George W. Bush's great revolution over the use of American power. The neoconservative program that Bush adopted will instantly become an odd historical footnote, going the way of the Know-Nothings and the Mugwumps. Bush will find himself lumped in the rankings with Warren Harding, or worse. America will go through another post-Vietnam-like period of drift, overhanging debt and self-doubt. And the GOP, having exorcised the alien neocon demon that possessed it, will pretty much revert to its origins, adopting a Jeffersonian caution about world affairs that will hand the reins back to the realists (who, in truth—with the possible exception of Henry Kissinger—were...
  • Real and Surreal

    There’s nothing like roaring into Baghdad aboard a Rhino. A Rhino is a giant, heavily-armored bus that can withstand IEDs (small ones), and it is now the favored means of keeping Western visitors from getting blown to bits by these homemade bombs on the dangerous road between Baghdad International Airport and the secure Green Zone at the city’s center. “Rhino” is an appropriately Disney-ish name for these wheeled monstrosities, adding to the surreal feeling one gets in moving from the howling chaos outside the Green Zone into the theme-park-like confines within. You drive through several checkpoints, leaving behind tracts of litter and rubble and the desperate, dark faces of ordinary Iraqis trying to earn a few dinars. There, behind high concrete blast walls and razor wire, you find quiet streets and the heart of the American occupation: a double-sized Olympic pool with a palm-fretted patio restaurant, food courts and a giant coffee lounge where lessons in belly dancing and martial...
  • Breaking the Silence

    Andrew Natsios has taken a lot of flak over his role in Iraq. The longtime director of America's foreign-aid program has been pilloried for his April 2003 remark, in an ABC News interview, that the U.S. government would spend no more than $1.7 billion to rebuild Iraq. In the ensuing three years, Natsios, a lifelong Republican, has played the loyal soldier for the administration. He regularly defended the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq even as he was lumped with other errant prognosticators like Paul Wolfowitz (That's “wildly off the mark") and Dick Cheney ("We will be greeted as liberators"). After Natsios resigned in January to take a teaching post at Georgetown University, he maintained his silence about Iraq.But this week, for the first time, Natsios publicly gave vent to his long-suppressed frustrations over the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq occupation. In an interview with NEWSWEEK on Tuesday, he harshly criticized the Coalition Provisional Authority led by L....
  • New Rules for Nukes

    George W. Bush doesn't seem to have many friends in Pakistan. To greet him on his visit last week, Islamic and secular political parties came to an unprecedented agreement to paralyze the country with a strike. Thousands of people rallied at what Urdu newspapers called "Bush Dog Go Home" protests, and a suicide bombing killed a U.S. diplomat in Karachi. Pakistani authorities virtually locked down Islamabad in order to protect the president, emptying the streets and detaining some 4,000 people.Bush still has a devoted ally in Pervez Musharraf, who hung banners along the vacant motorcade route showing the two leaders smiling side by side. But even the Pakistani president's loyalties may soon be divided. The day before Bush flew to Islamabad in the dead of night, with his wing lights off and the window shades down, Musharraf delivered an address in his native Urdu to Pakistan's National Defense College. He had just returned from a trip to China, Pakistan's old cold-war arms supplier. ...
  • What’s Putin’s Game?

    Why, it was almost like being back in the U.S.S.R. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sat down with President Bush for a half hour in the Oval Office on Tuesday, talking about all manner of issues, his boss Vladimir Putin must have been smiling with satisfaction in the Kremlin. U.S. presidents very rarely deign to see mere foreign ministers from any country, certainly not for more than a quick grip and grin (the last such meeting Bush had was in June 2005, with Pakistan’s foreign minister). But Bush is suddenly very interested in what Russia is doing in a lot of places.It’s been a long slog for Putin, the ex-KGB colonel who came out of nowhere in 1999 but who now enjoys an almost Soviet-style personality cult, all built on his promise of resurrecting Russia’s greatness. When the Bush team came into power in early 2001, they barely had time for Putin, quite consciously snubbing him on their first trip to Europe and all but branding Russia a rogue state. Now Bush is having...
  • What To Do?

    As the leading powers meet in Vienna today and tomorrow to address Iran's nuclear program, the most serious problem they face is not what is going on in Tehran. It is that no one on the Western side seems to know what to do about Tehran. The major negotiators at the International Atomic Energy Agency meeting are now looking to the United States, which convinced the Europeans to take a harder line against Iranian enrichment a year ago. Washington is touting its diplomatic isolation of Tehran as a success (and so it has been, helped by the over-the-top rhetoric of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). But the Bush administration doesn't seem to have any good ideas about where to go next with this isolation. It is a tool, yet the Americans seem to treat it as an end, not a means. As the debate heads into the U.N. Security Council, policy is at a standstill.Washington has said it isn't close to considering military action. Nor is it even ready to propose economic sanctions, as...
  • Clumsy Leadership

    Revolutionaries need several ingredients to succeed: charisma, for one; organization, for another. But what they need most of all is an incompetent regime, one that makes their ideas look good by comparison. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," William Wordsworth famously wrote after the French Revolution, romanticizing the " enfants de la patrie " who marched on the Bastille. But no one ever quotes the next line in his poem about the "meager, stale, forbidding " old regime that collapsed so easily there.  The early Bolsheviks were nobodies in Russia before the 1917 Revolution, but thanks to the combined ineptitude of Tsar Nicholas II and Alexander Kerensky—the first one representing bumbling monarchy, the latter the most indecisive sort of democracy—Lenin and Co. established their "dictatorship of the proletariat" with a swiftness that surprised even them.Listening this week to the latest excerpts from Osama bin Laden's and Ayman al Zawahiri's taped messages, it is hard not to...