Richard Wolffe

Stories by Richard Wolffe

  • The Best-Laid Plans

    Chatting on a shaded veranda at one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, the American general spoke with disarming candor. It was mid-May in the dictator's hometown of Tikrit, already a month after the regime's fall, but no one could say when or how genuine peace would be established. Asked if the Army had a template for peacekeeping in Iraq, V Corps commander Lt. Gen. William Wallace laughed softly to himself. "Well," he answered, "we're making this up here as we go along."They had no choice. Bush advisers never guessed that the postwar reconstruction would be so difficult. After months of denial, senior officials now admit there has been serious frustration at the White House over the unexpectedly slow pace of restoring civil order and rebuilding the country. Many of the problems may have been inevitable consequences of Saddam's misrule. But the difficulties have been multiplied by conflicts and confusion within the administration. The brief term of retired Gen. Jay Garner, the...
  • Diplomatic Diary: Giving Peace A Chance

    The way the president greeted the first reports of a Palestinian ceasefire, you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. Standing beside the leaders of the European Union inside the gilded East Room of the White House, Bush poured scorn on the whole story. ...
  • The Next Flashpoint

    After three nights of protests in Tehran, the plainclothed militia decided to send a message to the students on the other side of the barricades. "First they tear-gassed the building, then they came in swinging their batons," says a gaunt-faced student who was in the Shahid Hemat dormitory on the night of Friday, June 13. A handful of his terrified dorm mates jumped out of a second-floor window. When they hit the ground, members of the Ansar-e-Hezbollah militia were waiting for them with brass knuckles, knives and electric batons. "There were people with stab wounds and broken noses. One guy was beaten unconscious," says the student, clasping his fingers together tightly. "I've never seen anything like it." Yet despite the crackdown, the protests--demanding greater political and social freedoms--spread to nearly a dozen cities across Iran last week.To many inside the Bush administration, however, the bloody clashes look like a godsend. For months President George W. Bush's foreign...
  • Firefight Over Iran

    After three nights of protests in Tehran, the plainclothes militia decided to send a message to the students on the other side of the barricades. "First they tear-gassed the building, then they came in swinging their batons," says a gaunt-faced student who was in the Shahid Hemat dormitory on the night of Friday, June 13. A handful of his terrified dorm mates jumped out of a second-floor window. When they hit the ground, members of the Ansar-e-Hizbullah militia were waiting for them with brass knuckles, knives and electric batons. "There were people with stab wounds and broken noses. One guy was beaten unconscious," says the student, clasping his fingers together tightly. "I've never seen anything like it." Yet despite the crackdown, the protests--demanding greater political and social freedoms--spread to nearly a dozen cities across Iran last week.To many inside the Bush administration, however, the bloody clashes look like a godsend. For months, George W. Bush's foreign-policy...
  • Diplomatic Diary: Stymied By Iran

    For an administration that likes to think of itself as straight-talking, there is something less than Texan about the way it handles Iran. One minute it's all apocalyptic and axis of evil. The next it's all nuance and inertia. One minute the president refuses to wait while dangers gather. The next he's hanging around for U.N. weapons inspectors to trawl for Iran's nukes.By any measure, Iran deserves to near the very top of the foreign agenda. Iran has a hand in every hotspot the United States is trying to clean up: Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East. Moreover, it poses enough threats to earn priority status all on its own. During the run-up to the war in Iraq, senior U.S. officials repeatedly justified the conflict by describing what they called "the nexus" between terrorists and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. If any regime brings together support for terrorists and the pursuit of such weapons, it's Iran. And unlike the current controversy about the pre-war...
  • Diplomatic Diary: Rerouting The Roadmap

    It's one thing to be committed to the dream of peace in the Middle East. It's something altogether different commit yourself to overcoming the biggest single roadblock on the Roadmap to a Palestinian state: security.Security (or the lack of it) is one of those rare things on which everyone agrees in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both sides want it for their own people. Both sides use it to intimidate the enemy. And the whole world knows that there can be no serious peace talks until the streets of Jerusalem and Jenin feel less like a war zone and more like civilization.The Bush administration has faced this simple truth for its entire time in office. Yet even now--as the president has ordered his most senior foreign policy officials to make the Middle East their highest priority--there are precious few new ideas about how to establish security in the region.For an administration that prides itself on taking the tough decisions and smashing the orthodoxy of the Clinton years,...
  • (Over)Selling The World On War

    George Tenet, the director of Central Intelligence, was frustrated. For four days and nights last winter, some of the most astute intelligence analysts in the U.S. government sat around Tenet's conference-room table in his wood-paneled office in Langley, Va., trying to prove that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to America. The spooks were not having an easy time of it. On Feb. 5, Secretary of State Colin Powell was scheduled to go to the United Nations and make the case that Saddam possessed an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. But the evidence was thin--sketchy and speculative, or uncorroborated, or just not credible. Finally, according to a government official who was there, Tenet leaned back in his chair and said, "Everyone thinks we're Tom Cruise. We're not. We can't look into every bedroom and listen to every conversation. Hell, we can't even listen to the new cell phones some of the terrorists are using."Tenet was being truthful. Spying can help win wars (think...
  • Diplomatic Diary: The 9-11 Effect

    Let's face it: terrorism works. It works in the short run, blowing up the Middle East road map along with dozens of Israeli citizens. And it works in the long run, bringing the terrorists closer to their political goals.What we've witnessed in the space of one brief, bloody week is yet another display of how effective terrorists can be. Not just in terms of killing people. But by changing the political landscape they leave amid the wreckage-whether it's Saudi Arabia in the East, Morocco in the West or Israel at the heart of it all.Take Israel. After five suicide attacks in less than 48 hours, the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon drove a stake through the heart of the road map process. Sharon, who postponed a trip to the White House this week, is now more determined than ever to rewrite the road map on more favorable terms, according to Israeli officials.Sharon never liked the plan as constructed, and his aides were openly scornful of the philosophy behind it. Whether it was...
  • Diplomatic Diary: Whatever Happened To Mideast Stability?

    Let's rewind the tape a few months. As the Bush administration geared up for war in Iraq, many senior officials spoke glowingly about what victory in Baghdad would mean for the Middle East peace process. "If there were a change of regime in Iraq, would it help us in the peace process?" Paul Wolfowitz, deputy Defense Secretary, asked rhetorically a year ago. "You bet it would."So now that Saddam is out, what has happened to the peace process? Colin Powell, on his second trip to the region in as many weeks, is finding out the hard way. Monday's suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia underscored just how hostile the region remains to Americans and U.S. policies--a message the Secretary of State has been hearing at almost every stop. President Bush may have released the long-delayed roadmap to a Palestinian state, and he may have won an astonishingly fast victory in Iraq. But the Middle East has slipped back into its bad old political morass with the same astonishing speed.In Cairo, Powell...
  • Diplomatic Diary: Lessons For The Future

    Maybe it's too soon to tell whether or not Colin Powell's latest visit there made any difference. Or maybe it's the same old hollow words, the same old empty gestures that have made the Middle East so frustrating for so long. ...
  • Nuclear Chicken

    What are they smoking?" asked one exasperated State Department official after last week's abrupt and abrasive talks with North Korea. "Which alternative universe do they inhabit?" He wasn't talking about the eccentric North Koreans and their nuclear brinkmanship. Instead the senior diplomat was frustrated by an equally tenacious foe: the conservative in-house critics of Secretary of State Colin Powell.It's a mark of just how deep the wounds go inside George W. Bush's supposedly self-disciplined administration. While Kim Jong Il pushes Asia to the brink of a nuclear arms race, Washington's best and brightest push each other over the edge of patience and civility. Of course, friendly fire between the State and Defense departments has ricocheted around the Bush administration for the past two years. But after the failure of the latest attempt to negotiate with the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang, the administration faces its worst infighting to date--worse even than the prewar skirmishes...
  • The Chinese Puzzle

    The most important VIP to visit Beijing last week arrived in a military uniform without fanfare or journalists in tow. Less than 48 hours before critical negotiations between the United States, North Korea and China got underway, the No. 2 man in Pyongyang's communist hierarchy, Vice Marshall Cho Myong Rok, met quietly with Chinese President Hu Jintao to ask for military assurances should the United States attack his country. Although details of their encounter remain sketchy, Cho clearly came away with less than he wanted. Publicly, Hu merely reiterated Beijing's desire that the Korean Peninsula remain "non-nuclear" but offered no overt assistance. His obvious intention: to warn "Great Leader" Kim Jong Il not to declare North Korea a nuclear power.Two days later Kim did just that. North Korea's delegate to three-way talks in the Chinese capital, a mid-level diplomat --named Ri Gun, told Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly over a meal that his country had developed atom bombs,...
  • Diplomatic Diary: Lessons Of War

    Will the real Syria please stand up? Depending on whom you believe, the Syrian Arab Republic is a repressive state that harbors Saddam Hussein's weapons, maintains its own arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and supports international terrorist groups. Or it's a multiparty democracy with an undying hatred for Saddam and his arsenal, and a simple desire to see an end to Israeli occupation of Arab lands.When Secretary of State Colin Powell visits Syria this week, he will be straddling these bipolar views of President Bashar Al Assad's regime. The Bush administration currently subscribes to the first view of Syria: a threat to the region and the world. The second--that the country is a modernizing, principled Arab state--is the self-styled view of the latest generation of Syrian officials. Whether Washington accepts the former or the latter, or ends up somewhere in between, will effectively set the course for its relations with Damascus. Powell told the Senate's foreign...
  • Second Guessing

    The search is on for krypton 85. At this moment American EP3 spy planes are probably sniffing for trace elements of that radioactive particle floating in the atmosphere near the North Korean shore. If they detect any atypical isotopes, the United States will have the chemical "fingerprints" it needs to prove that Pyongyang is making atom bombs.The North already claims to be doing so. At the end of a week in which nuclear tensions had fallen palpably in Northeast Asia, Pyongyang dropped its latest bombshell. "We are successfully reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase," North Korea's official news agency, quoting an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman, declared last Friday, suggesting that its stockpile might already have been largely converted to weapons-grade plutonium.But, as is often the case with North Korea, nothing is certain. White House and State Department officials say so far there is no evidence that Pyongyang has jump-started its mothballed...
  • North Korea: Should We Talk, Kim?

    Two perplexing outbursts from the North Korean government last week have Bush administration officials in a bitter debate about how to handle a possible three-way nuclear-arms talk with Chinese officials in Beijing this week. Just last week North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had opened the door to discussions with the United States by dropping his insistence on direct negotiations with Washington, D.C., alone. At the State Department, Colin Powell's aides were celebrating that shift as a foreign-policy triumph and began planning the three-way session. But then Kim dropped a diplomatic bombshell: the Hermit Kingdom's Foreign Ministry announced that it was successfully reprocessing its 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods because it needed a "powerful physical deterrent"--nukes, in other words--after the U.S. victory against Iraq. Moreover, the North made it clear that the Beijing meeting would be only a head-to-head session with the Americans. That undercut George W. Bush's desire for a...
  • Syria: The Road To Damascus

    The call went out from the mosques of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley as the Iraq war began: the time had come to defend Islam. And Zein Ali Othman answered. The unemployed 38-year-old veteran of the Lebanese Army, along with three others, was able, he said, to travel into Syria and across the country without stopping for the usual formalities. At the desert frontier with Iraq, he claims, they boarded a convoy of Syrian food trucks guided by local Bedouins and headed to Baghdad. Two days later Othman rejoined some 200 other volunteers from the Bekaa in Iraq's holy city of Najaf. A Shiite cleric gave them a choice. They could go fight the Americans or defend the shrines. Othman chose defense, and insists he never fired a shot. Most of those who chose to fight, he says, are dead.Did Syrian agents facilitate the volunteers' odyssey to and from the Iraqi battlefield? Othman, now back in his hometown of Baalbek, refuses to talk about that. But Washington has plenty to say on the matter....
  • Diplomatic Diary: Dealing With The Nuclear North

    To the outside world, the eternal struggle over American foreign policy may seem perplexing. But for those at the heart of it all, every punctuation mark in every policy paper represents part of a much bigger challenge: how to exert American power in the world. Even the smallest battles are fought as if the entire direction of U.S. policy depended on their outcome.Take North Korea. You might be forgiven for thinking that it would be relatively easy to find agreement within President George Bush's administration on how to deal with the weird world of Kim Jong Il, one of the planet's last Stalinist leaders. After all, the administration managed to hold itself together in the buildup to war in Iraq--a conflict that most of the rest of the world found unpalatable.But the policy debate over how to deal with the communist North is once again tearing apart the administration's foreign policy team. Often, in journalistic shorthand, it gets boiled down to a simple formula: hawks versus doves...
  • Looking For A Leader Amid The Ashes

    Nobody blinked when Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told President Bush's senior advisers that he would be flying free Iraqis into southern Iraq at the start of this month. After all, the U.S. military needed all the help they could muster to separate friend from foe on the road to Baghdad. But Franks never mentioned that his group of free Iraqis would be led by Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial former banker who heads the London-based Iraqi National Congress, senior administration officials tell NEWSWEEK. Many of Bush's closest aides were surprised by the news that Chalabi and about 700 of his fighters were already operating in the newly liberated regions of Iraq. Onboard Air Force One, flying back from Northern Ireland with the president last week, Condoleezza Rice could only sputter as she was quizzed about Chalabi's activities. "I'm sorry, I was in Moscow. I'm a little bit unsighted on this," said the normally polished national-security adviser. "I just don't...
  • Diplomatic Diary: Target Syria?

    Throughout the long buildup to war in Iraq last year, the Bush administration insisted it was sorely misunderstood. While the Arab world and much of Europe accused the United States of warmongering, the administration clung to another mantra. Far from seeking war, the White House insisted, America wanted peace. All the drumbeats of war and all the military buildup in the region were part of a strategy, Washington said, that could be distilled into a single phrase: diplomacy backed by the credible threat of force.Now that the war is over, the residents of Damascus are experiencing their own taste of that style of diplomacy. What started with a cursory warning by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during the war--about the flow of arms through Syria to Iraq--has rapidly evolved into a full-blown diplomatic assault on the Syrian government. President George W. Bush himself, as well as Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and Secretary of State Colin Powell have each stepped up the...
  • Iraq: Who's Going To Lead The New Government?

    In the heavyweight prizefight over Iraq's future, the winner of round one seems to be Secretary of State Colin Powell. For months the Bush administration has been deeply split over how to move from a U.S. military occupation to a new government run by Iraqis. One of the biggest rifts is over what the role of Iraqi exiles--led by the London-based Iraqi National Congress--will be in the newly liberated Baghdad. While some Pentagon officials support a prominent role for the INC and its controversial leader, Ahmed Chalabi, Powell's State Department and the CIA favor a government led by Iraqis currently living in Iraq.At least for now, Powell has won the support of the White House. On March 12, President Bush formally signed off on a plan to create an interim authority that would balance the role of Iraqi insiders and exiles. Given the sheer number of Iraqis living inside the country, compared with the relatively small numbers of exiles, administration officials say that "balance" means...
  • Dispatch From Camp David, Talking Past Each Other

    It was scheduled as a cozy dinner, a chance for a more personal conversation between the two wartime leaders and a handful of their closest aides, before the next day's heavy lifting. So when George W. Bush and Tony Blair gathered inside Laurel Cabin at Camp David, just a week into their audacious war in Iraq, the small talk turned to one of the most irritating features of the battle so far. Not the guerrilla-style raids of the Iraqi militia or the blinding sandstorms, but the breathless dispatches from reporters embedded with the military about every little glitch along the road to Baghdad.United under fire, Bush and Blair found it easier to gripe about their common enemies than to agree on the details of what comes next in Iraq. The way their aides tell it, the two leaders have developed an intimate relationship as they share the burdens of war. There was the secluded walk in the woods of the Catoctin Mountains, the sun-dappled ride in the golf carts, the stolen conversations...
  • Moving On

    It sounded like they were an old married couple who had just undergone a successful counseling session. "Expressions such as mending fences and defusing tensions have been used in the run up to today's meeting," said Lord Robertson, the NATO secretary-general who met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Brussels today."'Continued' and 'cooperation' are much better words. There may have been strains, but there have never been any irreconcilable differences among us."That may be a low bar in judging the current state of the transatlantic alliance after months of dispute between the United States and some of its major European allies. After all, France took NATO to the edge of an extraordinary rupture by refusing to plan for the defense of Turkey's border with Iraq ahead of the war. Perhaps that explained why Robertson seemed delighted to report that a meeting of the North Atlantic Council--the decision-making group of foreign ministers--had passed by with "a complete lack of...
  • Diplomatic Diary: Powell On Tour

    After all the rancor of the run-up to war in Iraq, this might just be the time for the world's major powers to reach out to one another. Yes, the prospect of the world's foreign ministers hugging one another at the United Nations may seem a distant dream. But for now, there are a few olive branches on hand.In Washington, Colin Powell has been blitzing the international and domestic media since the war began, in an effort to restore some confidence in U.S. diplomacy. And the U.S. Secretary of State began America's re-engagement with the world in earnest today with a trip to Turkey and Belgium. In Brussels, Powell will effectively convening an extraordinary summit of European Union and NATO foreign ministers on Thursday to discuss the war in Iraq and especially its aftermath. Having faced criticism for not traveling enough during the U.N. negotiations, Powell is preparing for the next round at the U.N. with plenty of face-time with European allies."It will take a great deal of...
  • Diplomatic Diary: Remember Diplomacy?

    You'd think the diplomacy had come to an end once the war began. After all, as Winston Churchill once quipped, it's a choice between talking and fighting: "To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war." Yet as the war in Iraq shifts from a first week of euphoric reporting to a second week of heavy fighting, the diplomacy shows every sign of sparking back to life.Tony Blair, the British prime minister, arrives at Camp David later this week for a hastily-arranged session with the president. At the top of Blair's agenda: not the war itself, but the soft stuff that follows after the shooting ends. At a press conference in Downing Street, Blair spent as much time discussing the humanitarian situation in Iraq as the military operations in his opening remarks. Compare that with Bush's brief speech at the Pentagon where he presented his additional war budget. There the president devoted just two lines to the issues of "relief and reconstruction in a free Iraq."Blair's concerns revolve around three...
  • Washington: Powell In The Bunker

    Beyond his ornate waiting rooms, and behind his vast outer office, there's a small, intimate study where Colin Powell retreats from the public posturing of international politics. It's rare for any foreign official to enter the secretary of State's inner sanctum. Yet last week Powell ushered the obscure foreign minister of Guinea in for some quality time alone amid Henry Kissinger's memoirs and the Dean Acheson biographies. Just four months ago, Powell was celebrating one of his biggest victories with an extraordinary 15-0 vote against Iraq at the United Nations. Now he was being forced to entertain one of the leaders of a tiny West African nation--the former French colony that happens to hold this month's presidency of the Security Council--to stave off one of the most frustrating and public defeats of Powell's diplomatic career. Despite his precious face time with Powell, the Guinean minister emerged sounding like a dove. "We are trying to solve the problem peacefully," Francois...
  • Diplomatic Diary: A New World Order?

    Sometimes the glare of the moment is so sharp that it's hard to see two steps ahead. Yet President Bush's address to the world on Monday went far beyond the blinding flash of war. While we were all trying to focus on Bush's warnings to Iraq--and especially on the fate of Saddam Hussein and his sons--Bush was mapping out an even bigger, bolder vision for the whole planet.For six long months of painful diplomacy, the administration has veered between two policies: disarmament and regime change. In theory, both have the same goal--to eliminate the threat of weapons of mass destruction. But in practice, they could not be more different in how they are executed and how they impact the rest of the world.Over all those months of internal debate and international wrangling, the administration--and other governments--was really grappling with a simple question: is it possible to disarm or restrain a hostile regime peacefully? If the answer is yes, then you might support weapons inspectors,...
  • Diplomatic Diary: Lining Up The Votes

    With a broad grin, the French foreign minister walked out of the Security Council chamber looking like he owned the place. Indeed, Dominique de Villepin seemed so cocksure of victory last week that he left the debate over Iraq's future before the crucial wavering nations--especially the three African countries--had said their piece.Either the French are playing a perfectly-pitched game of psychological warfare, or they know they can easily defeat the second United Nations resolution against Iraq, which is likely to come to a vote later this week.Having promised to block the resolution--and what he called its "automatic use of force"--the suave French minister held a trilingual question-and-answer session with the world's media. After taking questions in English and French, de Villepin was so keen to show off his command of languages that he called out for a Spanish question--and was prepared to wait for a reporter to dream one up. As if his linguistic displays were not ambitious...
  • Periscope

    DiplomacyBest Friends Forever?Russia has become the focus of the Bush administration's hard-knuckle diplomacy inside the U.N. Security Council, according to senior State Department officials. With little more than two weeks to go before a vote on the latest resolution against Iraq, the United States and its allies remain far short of the nine votes they need to win their go-ahead for war. (Even a vote, thought to be a safe bet, that would have allowed the transport of U.S. troops through Turkey stalled in the Turkish Parliament last weekend; a new vote was scheduled this week.) So it was no coincidence that President Vladimir Putin's chief of staff, Aleksandr Voloshin, visited Washington last week as the diplomatic traffic between the White House and the Kremlin intensified.Though Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov threatens to veto a U.S. attack, the man to watch, in judging Moscow's intentions, is Voloshin. According to sources, the Bush administration's new game plan is to win...
  • North Korea: Crossing The Line

    The Bush Administration refuses to call it "a red line," but that's the message it's sending to North Korea as the Stalinist state inches closer to reviving its nuclear site at Yongbyon. The red line in question is the reprocessing that could turn the North's 8,000 spent fuel rods into enough weapons-grade plutonium to produce six nukes. In Asia last week, Secretary of State Colin Powell told Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul to pass on a simple message to Kim Jong Il: don't start your reprocessing plant. "I think they've all been in touch with North Korea about the danger of moving forward," Powell told reporters.Some administration officials say they refuse to call it a red line because it would look as if Washington were threatening military strikes. Others admit there is a far simpler explanation: while the message is clear, the policy response is not. "What exactly do you want us to do?" asks one exasperated administration official.Word games have been common when handling North Korea....
  • Diplomatic Diary: The Price Of Friendship

    If it was hard to put a price on Turkey's cooperation in the coming war in Iraq, how do you put a price on Tony Blair's cooperation with George W. Bush?That is the cold calculation facing the White House as it enters the diplomatic endgame surrounding Saddam Hussein's regime. Turkey famously extracted a promise of $6 billion to allow 62,000 U.S. troops onto its territory with the aim of launching a northern offensive against Iraq. And while that figure has so far failed to win the Turkish parliament's support, it begs a tougher question for President Bush's advisers: how much to spend on the Brits?At this stage, almost every step of United Nations negotiations--and almost every presidential phone call to world leaders--is an attempt by Bush to pay the British prime minister in a different sort of currency for the so-called special relationship with London. It's no secret that Blair, faced with a steady decline in his polls, a parliamentary rebellion and huge public demonstrations,...