TIME In the Arena

An Explosion of Hot Air

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

The best GOP field in years begins an epic battle for the nomination to be replaced with something else soon

Nothing much is going on right now in the 2016 presidential campaign–unless you’re a Republican political junkie, in which case every day is Christmas or, perhaps, Halloween. Did you know that Donald Trump might actually run this time, instead of using our nation’s highest office to promote his reality-TV show? Or that the very former governor of New York, George Pataki, thinks he’s a candidate? Are you tremendously relieved that the GOP’s most persistent Dr. Strangelove–former U.N. ambassador John Bolton–has taken his hat out of the ring? I sure am. But that leaves 15 or more candidates either in it or circling. The great state of Iowa, which had a dozen wannabes speak at its annual Lincoln Day dinner on May 16, may lose its corn crop in the explosion of hot air. Given that a column is insufficient space to introduce you to the entire mob, here are some observations from a weekend in Iowa:

Jeb Bush, son and brother of other Bushes, is the Republican default position–if not quite the favorite to win. He is conducting a major thought experiment. It involves the proposition that a conservative who is not suffering from red-meat poisoning can win the Republican nomination. Bush has had tough times in recent weeks, mangling answers to inevitable questions like whether he would have gone to war in Iraq, but I watched him handle all sorts of questions at a town-hall meeting in Dubuque, and he did so with intelligence, patience–in the case of one persistent questioner who seemed to believe that the Gates Foundation was intent on wrecking the American education system–and fluency, including casual humor. He will spend the next year trying to convince Republicans that “he’s not so bad” and hope that, in the end, his opponents will seem worse.

Marco Rubio, the Senator from Florida, wasn’t in Iowa over the weekend, but he is the sort of guy Republicans would love to nominate. I suspect he may prove to be Bush’s most formidable opponent; next March 15, he and Bush will joust in Florida’s winner-take-all primary, and the loser will likely be eliminated. Rubio seems far more polished now than the water-gulping ninny who flubbed the Republican response to the State of the Union address in 2013. He seems to have done a lot of homework on the issues, especially foreign policy. A few days before the Lincoln dinner, he gave a very polished performance before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. His positions were stalwart neoconservative and, in some ways, nonsensical: Why on earth do we need more troops, aside from drone jockeys, cyberwarriors and special operators, in a world where set-piece battles have become obsolete? But he was quick. When the moderator, Charlie Rose, mentioned that Cuba’s Raúl Castro had joked that he was considering becoming a Roman Catholic again, Rubio said, “That’s gonna be a pretty long confession.”

Three other candidates impressed me in Iowa, for different reasons. One was Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, spectacularly defenestrated by her board. I’ve seen her speak several times now, and she more than holds her own in this crowd. She has a clipped, clear, efficient style, and more than any other candidate in the race, she really lays the lumber to Hillary Clinton. It should also be noted that Carleton Fiorina is a woman. She wore a dress to the dinner and addressed the women in the audience directly. A guy had recently told her that a woman was hormonally inappropriate for the Oval Office: “Can anyone think for a single instant that a man’s judgment was clouded by his hormones, including in the Oval Office?”

Unfortunately, Fiorina’s foreign policy appears to be as testosterone-addled as that of most of the other candidates in her party. The one exception is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who sounded unlike any of the other candidates in Des Moines, concentrating on his civil-libertarian opposition to the Patriot Act, which he may filibuster again. And while he stands with the others when it comes to economic issues, he does not brandish his talons when it comes to foreign policy–except against the warmakers. “Someone needs to ask Hillary Clinton–if she ever takes any questions–was it a good idea to topple Gaddafi in Libya?” Paul said. “I think it’s a disaster.”

And finally there is Lindsey Graham, who, till now, has been best known as an appendage of John McCain’s, flanking him at warmongering press conferences. The thing about Graham is that he’s a happy–no, hilarious–warrior. “The more you drink, the better I sound,” he told the Iowans, “so keep drinking.” He favors immigration reform, working with Democrats and calling drones to kill American jihadis. I suspect he won’t get lost onstage when the debates start.

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This appears in the June 01, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Republican

Energized Republicans Put On a Campaign Show in Iowa

Irreverence, optimism and Lindsey Graham's incest joke

DES MOINES—I’m a little worried about burying the lead here. Saturday night was the annual Lincoln Day dinner in Iowa, a major cattle call for Republicans who wish to be President. Twelve candidates attended. And Senator Lindsey Graham…no, wait.

The candidates ranged from very serious and plausible like Jeb Bush, who performed admirably, to has-beens (Rick Santorum), never was’s (George Pataki, the very former governor of New York, was there), to never-will-be’s (Rick Perry), to …to Lindsey Graham, who told a joke…no, wait.

As I was saying, the candidates ranged from Bush, to a soft-spoken and very accomplished surgeon named Dr. Ben Carson—whose slightly bemused presence seemed that of a Buddhist monk in a leather bar—to the inevitable Donald Trump, who was the only one to make a complete fool of himself: he announced that he, personally, somehow, contra the Constitution would—did I mention, personally?—slap—that is, without the Congress, and seemingly overnight, mind you—the Ford Motor company with a 35% tax on products imported from Mexico.

But Lindsey Graham, the Senator from South Carolina, came on like a cabaret act, encouraging the crowd to drink up, “The more you drink, the better I sound…” And then, after a series of energetic one-liners—this was like a post-modern deconstructionist version of a political speech—told one about his first case as a lawyer in South Carolina. It was a divorce case. “The husband asked,” the Senator said. “If we get divorced, can we still be cousins?”

Okay, it was somewhat bowdlerized. The version I first heard some years ago, was, “Can she still be my niece?” But still. Senator Lindsey Graham told an incest joke at a Republican Party dinner in Iowa, where the evangelical legions are assumed to be in control. In fairness, the 1,400 GOP activists assembled seemed more from the banker-businessman sector of the party, but still—I’ve been doing this for 46 years and I don’t think I ever heard a presidential candidate tell an incest joke before.

Actually, Graham—who was allotted 10 minutes, as were the other candidates—was wildly entertaining throughout. He ragged Iowa’s famously abstemious farmer-Senator, Chuck Grassley: “You know Chuck’s not paying tonight, or he wouldn’t be here.” He said he wanted to be President because “you get a house, a car and a plane.” He said that if you’re a jihadist who attacks us, “I’m not gonna call a judge”—a slap at civil libertarians—“I’m gonna call a drone and it will kill you.”

In the course of an evening during which every one of the Republicans decried Islamic terrorism without really saying what they’d do about it, Graham said he would put boots on the ground in Iraq and keep them there in Afghanistan. (Before tonight, he was better known for his bellicosity than his humor.) “How many of you think the Iranians want to build a peaceful nuclear power plant and how many think they want to build a weapon?” He said that those who believed the former “shouldn’t be allowed to drive in Iowa.” He also said he was convinced that as soon as the Supreme Leader got the bomb, he would use it against Israel. This is utter nonsense—and afterwards Graham told me he was more concerned about the Iranians leaking the technology to groups like Hizballah than a frontal assault on Israel (which would result in the almost-immediately evaporation of the city of Tehran, 12 million strong). But still, Senator, the ground rules are that you’re not supposed to say mega-scary things in public if you don’t really believe them.

I must say that Lindsey Graham is the cheeriest superhawk I’ve ever seen and while I’m pretty sure he won’t be nominated by the Republicans, I’m really glad he’s in the race.

As for the others, there was a pattern. They talked about an economy constrained by a nonsensical tax code and web of regulations; they talked about the threat of Islamic radicalism—and the seemingly more outrageous fact that the President refuses to call it that. There was much less anger and pessimism than in the Republican class of 2012. Rick Perry, the only one to attempt real churchified oratory, kept saying over and over again, with slightly scary fervor—an evangelist on Ecstasy?—how optimistic he was. And most of the others paid lip service to optimism—which used to be the true American religion—as well. (I should mention that Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie, who might have added even more juice to the proceedings, were absent.)

Rand Paul distinguished himself from the pack, as he almost always does, because he is different from the pack: he devoted much of his speech to the coming debate over the Patriot Act, which he sees as an infringement of First Amendment rights. And he launched a particularly effective attack on Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State: “Someone needs to ask Hillary Clinton if it was a good idea to topple Qaddafi in Libya,” he suggested, noting that Qaddafi has been replaced by “chaos,” with a significant slice of the (former) country in danger of falling under the control of ISIS.

OK, I’ll admit it: I was expecting a fairly endless evening of predictable and highly-processed red meat. But this was…fun. There is energy and irreverence—without the Limbaugh-Hannity bitterness—in this crop of candidates, although the field could certainly use some pruning. That will come in good time, of course. For now, though, I suspect Lindsey Graham is ready for Vegas…if not for the Nevada primary. He’s crazy good.

TIME Hillary Clinton

The Clinton Blind Spot

Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University on April 29, 2015 in New York City.
Kevin Hagen—Getty Images Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University on April 29, 2015 in New York City.

The former President's fundraising—for his family and foundation—could cripple his wife’s campaign

“You’re singing my song!” Hillary Clinton told students and educators at Kirkwood Community College in Monticello, Iowa, near the end of her first official event of the 2016 presidential campaign. High school students had been talking about how they were getting a leg up, taking college-level courses at the school and getting both high school and college credits for their work. One young woman said she was going to a four-year college next year and would be able to finish in two because of the credits she’d already accrued—thus cutting her college loans in half. A young man headed to Annapolis was getting a head start on the information–tech and engineering courses he’d have to take at the U.S. Naval Academy. Others, less skilled, were starting a vocational path while still in high school, taking courses in auto mechanics and welding that would make them skilled and officially credentialed craftspeople, with plenty of jobs waiting for them. “This is a new vision, a new paradigm!” the candidate exclaimed, referring to the melding of high school and community college. “This is the kind of thing that can get people excited about our educational system again.”

It was perfect Hillary Clinton. She wasn’t faking it. There was no cynicism in the moment. I’ve been watching her hold similar conversations on several continents for nearly 30 years. She’s a wonk; she gets off on programs that work. And it seemed to me that this was a perfect way to launch her campaign, doing something she loved to do—something profoundly unphony—-promoting a program that could really help middle-class Americans. Who could possibly object?

Almost everyone, it turned out. Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal called it “the most inept, phony, shallow, slickily-slick and meaningless launch of a presidential candidacy I have ever seen.” Others were less charming. No one—at least that I saw—talked about the policies she was promoting in Iowa. It was all about the cynicism of the launch, of Hillary Clinton pretending to be one of the people. “You’ve got to be cynical about the Clintons,” said a young journalist I admire.

I was ready to push back against that. I’ve always thought that cynicism is what passes for insight among the mediocre. The Clinton I saw in Iowa was real. Sadly, though, we’ve been reminded in recent weeks that there is another, equally real Clinton. There are several, in fact. There is the Clinton who is cautious to the point of paranoia, who surrounds herself with sketchy sycophants and launches scorched-earth campaigns against anyone who would doubt her. There is the Clinton who adores her husband but—according to the book Game Change—believes she “cannot control” him. It was assumed at the time that she was talking about sex and keeping his occasionally impolitic opinions to himself. As it has played out, the real control issue was about money.

The charges leveled against the Clintons by Peter Schweizer in his book Clinton Cash, and confirmed by a raft of mainstream publications in recent weeks, cannot be dismissed as a right-wing hack attack. They are serious, though probably not criminal. The Clintons are too clever for smoking guns. The bottom line is that the Clinton Global Initiative was used not only to do great works around the world but also to enrich the Clintons. No doubt, there was a lot of self-delusion going on. Let’s take the case of Haiti, reported by Fox News. Bill Clinton was co-chair of a board to give out reconstruction contracts after the 2010 earthquake in that country. Some of the contracts went to Clinton Global Initiative donors, most of which were reputable and competent. A cell-phone contract went to an Irish businessman who had been a CGI donor; he asked Bill Clinton to make four speeches. The Clinton Foundation says several of the speeches were unpaid but acknowledges that contributions were made. No doubt, the lad was chuffed to be in the presence of Bill Clinton; no doubt, he made his contributions to the CGI in recognition of its excellent work. It is entirely possible that both men thought they were doing the Lord’s work. But their relationship also contained a friendly whiff of pay-for-play.

One of the most damning charges, if it turns out to be true—and I’ve not seen it disputed—is that since he left the presidency, Bill Clinton gave 13 speeches for $500,000 or more. He gave 11 of them while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. He was, and is, her closest adviser. You would have to assume a high-mindedness that surpasses all understanding to argue that these speeches, and the generosity of their funders, had not even a subliminal impact on the mind of the Secretary. Perhaps the most egregious, confirmed by the New York Times, was sponsored by Russian oligarchs—Schweizer claims some of them had KGB ties—for $500,000 as Clinton Global Initiative donors were selling their uranium-mining company, including U.S. assets, to the Russians. I believe that the Obama Administration’s “reset” with Russia was more than a shell game to enrich the Clintons, but you have to ask: What on earth was Bill Clinton thinking when he took the $500,000 from the friends of Vladimir Putin? What was he thinking when he accepted the “honorary” chancellorship and untold amounts of money from Laureate International Universities, whose affiliate was receiving ever increasing millions of dollars in aid from the State Department while Hillary Clinton was Secretary?

There is more than the appearance of impropriety here. There is the appearance of plutocracy. There is the reality of platinum–level membership in the society of the rich and self-righteous, whose predatory business practices can be forgiven because they “give back” gazillions—call them the egregiously charitable. Bill Clinton has always been a creature of appetites, but he never lived high until he left the presidency. He’s curbed some of the old excesses—-no more McDonald’s; he’s a sleek vegan now—but replaced them with new ones. It is difficult for a poor boy to say no when all these nice, smart, high-minded people are throwing money your way. It’s hard to say no to a private plane. It’s hard to say no when a “friend” invites you to his vacation home, all expenses paid, to rest and relax after all that tough work saving the world. It is very easy to lose touch with real life, with proportion, if you don’t have an acute sense of propriety and boundaries.

In recent days, I’ve spoken with a bunch of Democrats about the Clinton mess. Inevitably, their first reaction is political. The Clintons were “sloppy” but probably didn’t do anything illegal. It’s “good” that this came out early, they argue; it’ll be forgotten by the time the election rolls around. She’s still a lock for the Democratic nomination and probably the presidency, it is said. And how much worse is this than the parade of Republicans crawling to Las Vegas to kiss the ring of the loathsome Sheldon Adelson, in return for $100 million in campaign -contributions—or the Koch brothers’ auditions? Isn’t this what American politics is all about now?

There is a moral distinction, however, between campaign-related moneygrubbing and the appearance of influence peddling. And in practical political terms, while the Clinton Foundation crisis may not prove damaging during the primary campaign, it may come back to haunt Hillary in the general election—just as Bain Capital did Mitt Romney in 2012. True enough, my Democratic interlocutors say, but there’s a lot of real enthusiasm out there for Hillary. She’s historic. She’s smart and moderate and experienced. She’s probably better prepared for the presidency than any of her rivals. Then I ask them: Let’s leave the politics aside; how do you feel about the way the Clintons ran their foundation? “Nauseated,” said one. “Atrocious,” said another. “It’s no surprise,” said a third.

And I suppose that you do have to assume the worst about the Clintons—“to be cynical” about them, as the young reporter told me. How sad. Their behavior nudges up against the precise reason Americans, in both parties, have grown sick of politicians. It’s near impossible for Hillary Clinton to go around saying, with a straight face, much less a sense of outrage, that the “deck is stacked against” everyday Americans when Bill’s partying with the deck stackers. Even if the appearances of impropriety were for good causes, shouldn’t the arrant naiveté of it all disqualify her from the presidency?

Well, maybe not when you look at the Republicans in the race, the anger and myopia that have come to brand their party. Wouldn’t Hillary be better than someone who’d blithely court more wars that can’t be won and shouldn’t be fought? Or someone who would “abolish” the Internal Revenue Service or allow “creation science” to be taught in the schools? That is the tragedy of this situation. Bill and Hillary Clinton have made policy mistakes, but for the most part they have been creative, judicious and sane in office. They are fine public servants. But now—because of their sloppiness and carelessness and tendency to lawyer the truth—the very best-case scenario for Hillary Clinton is that she might be elected President as the lesser of two evils.

This appears in the May 11, 2015 issue of TIME.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story, published in error online, incorrectly described the financial dealings between Bill Clinton and an Irish businessman who has been a Clinton Global Initiative donor.

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TIME Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton Begins Campaign Her Way in Iowa

Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on during a roundtable discussion with students and educators at the Kirkwood Community College Jones County Regional Center in Monticello, Iowa, on Apr. 14, 2015.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Democratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on during a roundtable discussion with students and educators at the Kirkwood Community College Jones County Regional Center in Monticello, Iowa, on Apr. 14, 2015.

MONTICELLO, Iowa — People ask: What is Hillary Clinton really like? No one knows all the private intricacies, and only a fool would speculate in a blog post. But I have watched her work for nearly 30 years and one thing I can say with confidence: the Hillary Clinton who began her presidential campaign in Iowa on Tuesday and listened carefully to a handful of people talk about the wonders of the local community college system is a familiar, uncynical and entirely credible character. I’ve seen her do the same on countless occasions in the past, in venues from Pakistan to Arkansas. People ask: What does Hillary believe? She believes in programs, both governmental and non-, that actually work. That is a very large part of who she really is.

“You’re singing my song!” she celebrated, toward the end of the hour-long meeting. High school students had been talking about how they were getting a leg up, taking college-level courses at the Jones County branch of Kirkwood Community College. They were getting both high school and college credits for their work. One young woman said she was going to a four-year college next year and would be able to complete it in two because of the credits she’d already accrued—thus cutting her college loans in half. A young man headed to Annapolis was getting a head start on the information tech and engineering courses he’d have to take at the U.S. Naval Academy. Others, less skilled, were starting an vocational path while still in high-school, taking courses in auto mechanics and welding that would make them skilled, and officially credentialed craftspeople, with plenty of jobs waiting for them. “This is a new vision, a new paradigm!” The candidate exclaimed, referring to the melding of high school and community college. “This is the kind of thing that can get people excited about our educational system again.”

But what about Benghazi? the folks at Fox might ask. She had nothing to say about that. (Perhaps because, as Congressional committees keep finding, there is nothing to say about that.) And what about this small-ball strategy in Iowa–why was she doing it? Why no big speeches, crowds, rallies? There will, of course, be tons of speculation. And what about those pesky emails? Well, those may be the product of another part of her personality — a less attractive, more secretive part — and the tragic desire to keep a “zone of privacy” may haunt her down the road.

But not today. Today was Hillary Clinton’s fantasy of how a presidential campaign ought to be. It was about something government did that was actually okay–community colleges–and a new wrinkle to make them even better. She paid obeisance to the traditions of the spectacle, mostly for the pressies following her. She was asked: why was she running? Her response was not scintillating. She had four goals: to create the economy of the future, to support families and communities (which was sort of what she was doing at Kirkwood C.C.), to squeeze all that money out of the political system, even if it took a constitutional amendment to do so and finally, to protect the country from foreign threats. You can’t get much more vague than that. There were those, mostly on the left, who wanted her to be more specific, especially about the economy and the financial sector’s depredations. She will have to say more in time.

Today, though, was about contrasts. There was none of the usual political rhetoric, which, when pressed, she delivers in unconvincing fashion. She did not give a full-blown speech as the Republicans Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio have done in recent days. But that was probably a good thing, because: who believes in rhetoric anymore? She made no promises. Her announcement video, notable for its inclusion of every last Democratic identity group, was refreshing for its upbeat tone–a real contrast to the bummer Republicans who’ve spent the last eight years saying that the country was in crisis, falling apart (much as the Democrats used to do, before Bill Clinton came along). And she used an interesting word: you. Her new slogan is: It’s Your Time.

It used to be said that the most powerful word in American politics was we. Franklin Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” The Constitution begins, “We The People…” But we has gotten to be treacherous in these cynical times — people don’t want to be included in the same category as the politicians. What do you mean we, red-tie man? So, in the primacy of the service economy, it’s the time of You, which is a lot better than “I” or “my,” the overuse of which has been a subtle problem for Barack Obama.

It is the simplest of messages: I’m going to focus on you, listen to you, propose things that make sense to you, eat at Chipotle’s as you do. Clinton’s words and her motivations will be torn, twisted, analyzed and ripped to shreds — sometimes with good reason — but if she can continue to focus on the you, on the programs that make sense without promising the moon, she has a chance not only to be formidable this year, but admirable as well.

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TIME

Bye-Bye Great Satan

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

A deal with the U.S. undermines Iranian hardliners, and gives reformers hope

There comes a moment at an Iranian Passover seder when people gleefully start beating one another with leeks to celebrate the Jewish people’s liberation from Egypt. Go figure. I was expecting a particularly brutal whupping from my friends Roya Hakakian and Dr. Ramin Ahmadi on the night after the Iran nuclear-deal framework agreement was announced. They know I favor the deal; I figured they would oppose it. Both are refugees from the Islamic Republic. Ramin, in particular, has been cited in the Iranian press as a subversive agent, paid by the CIA to conduct secret antiregime training sessions for young Iranians in Dubai and elsewhere.

The charges are laughable: Ramin is an Iranian leprechaun, if such a thing is possible–born a Muslim but converted to Judaism when he married Roya. He’s on the Yale University medical faculty, a poet and writer. He does favor regime change, but through peaceful means–and he has trained more than 200 young Iranians in nonviolence workshops. His students have gone home to lead the Tehran street protests in recent years. So I asked with some trepidation, “What do you think of the deal?”

It’s fantastic!” Ramin said, with a slightly naughty smile. “It’s very positive.” Really? “Yes,” he said. “It totally undermines the regime’s credibility.” For years, the hard-liners who actually run the show–the Supreme Leader and his Revolutionary Guards Corps generals–have presented America as the Great Satan. It was the prime rationale for repression: order and discipline were necessary to meet the U.S. threat. This was an argument that seemed to hold little water with the majority of Iranians, who favor reform; in my experience, and according to some polls, Iranians are the most pro-American Muslims in the region. Western news and culture–fed by satellite dishes, which are ubiquitous–are dominant in the society. “The question is,” Ramin went on, “how can America remain the Great Satan if you’re making deals with them?” That’s why people were dancing in the streets of Tehran. “It was the prospect of a better economy, for sure, but it was also the hope that this was the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic.”

Ramin’s argument was bolstered by an obscure but significant point raised by Mehdi Khalaji, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is the son of an Iranian ayatullah who has been imprisoned by the regime. Khalaji, writing with Patrick Clawson, notes that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani used the word tavafogh rather than a more legal formulation to describe the nuclear deal. “Tavafogh by itself resonates in Iranians’ ears as something more than a legal agreement,” they write. “The word is also used to describe conciliation between two people who have been at odds. In addition, it has the connotation of peace, as contrasted with strife.”

That is why the elected Iranian government–Rouhani and his Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif–will face opposition from the more extreme factions of the regime, like General Mohammad Reza Naqdi of the Basij religious militia, who suddenly popped up after the deal, calling the Americans “liars,” and also said “erasing Israel off the map” is “nonnegotiable.” The Basij is a domestic street gang known for unprovoked attacks on students and journalists; Naqdi is the Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Iran, and he gave immediate ballast to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refrain that the Iranians can’t be trusted. Given the surprising strength of the deal–especially the reduced number of centrifuges allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful use–Netanyahu needed all the help he could get. He was forced to resort to the spurious argument that the framework would launch a nuclear-arms race in the region. Actually, that’s what will happen if a deal isn’t reached–and this deal could still, easily, collapse over the not-so-small print.

The weird ideological confluence between Likudnik neoconservatives and the Iranian hard-liners in opposition to the deal is instructive. It is reflexive, uninformed, pessimistic. By contrast, Ramin Ahmadi’s view seems improbably fresh and fiendishly delightful. Over dessert, after the leek beating had subsided, he laid out the uncertain new landscape that the Iranian left suddenly had in common with the desperately-seeking-Satan hard-liners. The left–which has tolerated the regime because it hates American imperialism–was now liberated to hate both the regime and the Americans, which was perverse good news: they might join the moderate opposition in the streets. The hard-liners were split, awaiting definitive word from the Supreme Leader. “The people dancing in the streets believe their lives will immediately improve. But the sanctions won’t go away overnight–and even then, it will take time for the economy to recover,” Ramin concluded. “Nothing crushes a dictator more effectively than rising expectations.”

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

Read next: U.S. Cannot Be Trusted, Iran’s Supreme Leader Says

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This appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Iran

Nuclear Deal or No Deal

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

Why the U.S. cannot walk away from negotiating with Iran

As March dwindled down toward an unmet deadline, I found myself growing nostalgic for the early days of the Iran nuclear negotiations. The going was tough, of course, but an interim deal was produced–and a wonderful deal it was. Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium. It agreed to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It stopped construction on its heavy-water nuclear reactor. It acknowledged, tacitly, that the lion’s share of economic sanctions would remain in place until a final agreement was done. That was 16 months ago, and much to the surprise of skeptics, Iran has abided by the deal. And almost as surprising, the global coalition–including the Russians and Chinese–has held together and stuck to its guns, much to the credit of the oft-maligned Obama negotiating team. “It is ironic,” an Arab diplomat told me. “The interim deal is better than the deal you’re negotiating.”

Well, of course it is. There is no way Iran would permanently agree to stop its program in return for limited sanctions relief. It has the right, as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to process low-grade uranium for peaceful purposes. And so we have had this messy haggle over how many centrifuges Iran will be allowed to operate going forward, where they will spin and how quickly we will lift the sanctions.

There have been nonnuclear issues on both sides. The proud Iranians have to concede without seeming to concede. The Americans and the rest of the world, but mostly the Americans, have to acknowledge that after 36 years, the Iranian theocrats–caricatured by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and assorted Republicans as half-crazed religious fanatics–can act responsibly.

The atmosphere surrounding the negotiations has also been complicated by a significant upheaval in the region during the past 16 months. The unnatural straight-line national borders drawn 99 years ago by the British and French are disappearing in the sand. The true regional fault line, between Sunni and Shi’ite, is emerging. A full-blown sectarian war looms. The U.S. would be crazy to take sides in this struggle, but events–the rise of ISIS, a barbaric Sunni army–have conspired to nudge us toward the Shi’ite side of the equation. A nuclear deal with Iran suddenly has import it didn’t have before. “It would give Iran international credibility,” says Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. diplomat who has negotiated with Iran in the past, “to go along with the increased influence it has in Iraq and Yemen.” Burns believes we should make the deal if we can, “but the Administration has to focus on rebuilding our relations with the Sunni powers like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.” (On March 31, Obama lifted the arms embargo against Egypt, which is fighting ISIS-related forces in Sinai and Libya.)

On April Fools’ Day, no less an international expert than Howard Dean opined that the Obama Administration should walk away from the talks and let the sanctions continue to bite Iran until it begs for mercy. A week earlier, the incredible–that is, not credible–former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton modestly proposed that we should just bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities and be done with it. The frustration with the negotiating process was understandable. By persisting at the table, the U.S. seemed more slouchy than strong–especially as the Iranians appeared to walk back parts of the agreement and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei acknowledged a chant of “Death to America” from a handpicked crowd with a simple “Indeed.”

It would be nice to think that melodrama–walking away from the table, bombing Iran–would have some sort of conclusive effect. But Dean’s plan assumed that the international sanctions would remain in effect if we walked away–a very unlikely proposition, as the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers made it clear that they were satisfied with the outline of the deal the Americans and Iranians were still squabbling over.

Bolton’s bomb throwing assumed that Iran would react as Iraq and Syria did when Israel bombed their nuclear reactors–that is, not at all. But Iran is completely different from the almost-states of Syria and Iraq. It is a real place. It has natural borders on all but one side. It has a 4,000-year history and a distinct culture. It is Persian, not Arab. It has a sophisticated, well-educated populace, which may not like the authoritarian government but is proud and patriotic and very sensitive to disdain from Western imperial powers. Indeed, if we were to bomb its nuclear facilities, the Iranians would quickly rebuild them and rush toward the creation of a nuclear deterrent.

One way or another, that is a reality we have to deal with, even if it involves ongoing negotiation–a prospect that shouldn’t be so painful as long as the lovely interim agreement remains intact.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland


This appears in the April 13, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Disgrace in Victory

Israel's Prime Minister won a tragic election by vilifying Arabs and defacing Israel’s history 

A few years ago, I drove from Jerusalem to the West Bank, to the city of Bethlehem, to have dinner with TIME’s Palestinian stringer, the late Jamil Hamad. He was a gentle and sophisticated man, soft-spoken, and levelheaded when it came to politics. After dinner, I drove back to Jerusalem and had to pass through the bleak, forbidding security wall. An Israeli soldier asked for my papers; I gave her my passport. “You’re American!” she said, not very officially. “I love America. Where are you from?” New York, I said. “Wow,” she said, with a big smile. And then she turned serious. “What were you doing in there,” she asked, nodding toward the Palestinian side, “with those animals?”

And that, of course, is why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “won” the Israeli election. That is how he won the election even though there was a strong economic case against him, and people were tired of his ways, and about 200 former Israeli military and intelligence leaders publicly opposed his dangerously bellicose foreign policy. He won because he ran as a bigot. This is a sad reality: a great many Jews have come to regard Arabs as the rest of the world traditionally regarded Jews. They have had cause. There have been wars, indiscriminate rockets and brutal terrorist attacks. There has been overpowering anti-Jewish bigotry on the Arab side, plus loathsome genocidal statements from the Iranians and others. But there has been a tragic sense of superiority and destiny on the Israeli side as well.

This has been true from the start. Read Ari Shavit’s brilliant conundrum of a book, My Promised Land, and you will get chapter and verse about the massacres perpetrated by Jews in 1948 to secure their homeland. It may be argued that the massacres were necessary, that Israel could not have been created without them, but they were massacres nonetheless. Women and children were murdered. It was the sort of behavior that is only possible when an enemy has been dehumanized. That history haunted Netanyahu’s rhetoric in the days before the election, when he scared Jews into voting for him because, he said, the Arabs were coming to polls in buses, in droves, fueled by foreign money.

It should be noted that those Arabs represent about 20% of the population of Israel. About 160,000 of them are Christian, and some of them are descendants of the first followers of Jesus. Almost all of them speak Hebrew. Every last one is a citizen—and it has been part of Israel’s democratic conceit that they are equal citizens. The public ratification of Netanyahu’s bigotry put the lie to that.

Another conceit has been that the Israeli populace favors a two-state solution. That may still be true, but the surge of voters to the Likud party in the days after Netanyahu denied Palestinian statehood sends the message that a critical mass of Israeli Jews supports the idea of Greater Israel, including Judea and Samaria on the West Bank. This puts Israeli democracy in peril. The alternative to a two-state solution is a one-state solution. That state can only be Jewish, in the long run, if West Bank Arabs are denied the right to vote.

There will be many—in the Muslim world, in Europe—who will say that the results are no surprise, that Israel has become a harsh, bigoted tyrant state. It has certainly acted that way at times, but usually with excellent provocation. It is an appalling irony that the Israeli vote brought joy to American neoconservatives and European anti-Semites alike.

When I was a little boy, my grandmother would sing me to sleep with the Israeli national anthem. It still brings tears to my eyes. My near annual visits to Israel have always been memorable. About a decade ago, I was at a welcoming ceremony for new immigrants—­thousands of them, Russians and Iranians and Ethiopians. And I thought, if Ethiopians and Russians could join that way, why not, eventually, Semites and Semites, Jews and Arabs?

That was the dream—that somehow Jews and Arabs could make it work, could eventually, together, create vibrant societies that would transcend bigotry and exist side by side. The dream was that the unifying force of common humanity and ethnicity would, for once, trump religious exceptionalism. It was always a long shot. It seems impossible now. For the sake of his own future, Benjamin Netanyahu has made dreadful Jewish history: he is the man who made anti-Arab bigotry an overt factor in Israeli political life. This is beyond tragic. It is shameful and embarrassing.

Read next: What Netanyahu’s Victory in Israel Means for the World

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TIME politics

The Art of the Deal

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

Benjamin Netanyahu offers stark warnings (and perhaps an assist) on a pact with Iran

Is there anybody here from Texas?” the Prime Minister of Israel asked the 16,000 assembled for the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual policy conference. Of course there were. Whoops and cheers erupted. It is one of Benjamin Netanyahu’s conceits that he knows how to do American politics, how to both present himself in a user-friendly way to the American public and play the back alleys of power in Washington. He has had some success with this, but not always. His attempt to intervene in the 2012 presidential campaign on Mitt Romney’s behalf was disastrous. His strong speech on March 3 to members of Congress, assailing the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, may be better received, both in America and, more to the point, in Israel, where he faces a difficult re-election campaign. “People are tired of Bibi. I’m tired of Bibi,” said an Israeli attending the AIPAC meeting. “But I have two sons in the military, and I have confidence that Netanyahu will make decisions that will keep them as safe as possible. I don’t feel the same about any of the opposition leaders.” Certainly no other potential Israeli leader could have made so powerful an appeal to Congress.

And despite the cheesy political context of the moment, there are aspects of Netanyahu’s speech that should be cheered even by those of us who believe that President Obama is pursuing the right course in seeking a nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu’s bluster and bombing threats have been invaluable to the negotiating process. He’s been a great scary-tough cop to President Obama’s sorta-tough constable. And Obama has needed all the help he can get. “The Persians believe that the time to get really tough is just before a deal is cut,” an Israeli intelligence expert who favors the deal told me in December. “So tell me why your President is sending nice personal letters to the Supreme Leader at exactly the wrong time?”

On the very day that Netanyahu spoke, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif “rejected” the 10-year restrictions on Iran’s nuclear-energy program that he’d spent the past few months negotiating. If the haggle were taking place in the bazaar in Tehran, this would be the time for the U.S. to “call their bluff,” as Netanyahu said, and perhaps even counter with a 15-year deal. There would be danger in hanging tough; the Iranians could easily walk away, even though this is a deal they desperately need. The Iranian people, not just the Ayatullah’s regime, are extremely sensitive to perceived humiliation by the West; a certain, often justified, paranoia is part of the Persian DNA. “They think they invented bargaining,” a South Asian diplomat told me. “They push it too far.”

So Netanyahu’s speech was, at least, a useful reminder about the art of the deal in the Middle East. It was also a useful reminder that Iran’s extremist Shi’ite leaders are no picnic, though nowhere near the threat to American security that Sunni radicals like ISIS are. It is easy, in the midst of the current near embrace, to overstate the case for Iran. It is the most middle-class, best-educated country in the region, aside from Israel and Turkey, with the best-educated and most professional women; it also has a cheerily pro-American populace. But it is, along with Cuba, the greatest mismatch between a people and a government of any country in the world. The regime’s support for Hizballah, the Houthis in Yemen and other Shi’ite militant organizations is indefensible. A nuclear deal with Iran might grease the way for the diminution, through democracy, of the Supreme Leader’s regime–or it might further empower the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which controls at least 20% of the economy and would be enriched by the lifting of sanctions.

But here is what Netanyahu cannot argue: that his position represents a step forward. Indeed, it is in fact the exact opposite. Right now, under the interim agreement negotiated by the U.N. and U.S., Iran has stopped–in fact, it has reversed–the enrichment of highly enriched (20%) uranium. It has allowed extensive inspections of all its facilities. It has agreed to stop plans for a plutonium reactor. There is a good chance, if the deal is made, that it will continue in this mode, in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Netanyahu’s rhetoric that a deal would “pave” the way toward an Iranian bomb is a ridiculous overstatement; his “plan” would guarantee an Iranian rush to arms.

Revolutions grow old. It is difficult to sustain fanaticism. The Iranian people are tired of their global isolation. It may be that their semi-democratically elected leaders, as opposed to the theocratic military regime, are ready to rejoin the world. There is nothing to lose by testing that proposition–if the Iranians stop playing around and make the deal.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland


This appears in the March 16, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME politics

Jeb Bush’s Sense and Sensibility

Joe Klein is TIME's political columnist and author of six books, most recently Politics Lost. His weekly TIME column, "In the Arena," covers national and international affairs.

The candidate’s grown-up tone is a breath of fresh air amid so many strident conservative voices

In a week during which Rudolph Giuliani went crusader-ballistic questioning President Obama’s patriotism–indeed, questioning his upbringing–Jeb Bush gave a speech about foreign affairs, the third serious policy speech he’s given this winter. Giuliani got all the headlines, of course. That’s how you do it now: say something heinous and the world will beat a path to your door. And Bush’s speech wasn’t exactly a barn burner. His delivery was rushed and unconvincing, though he was more at ease during the question period. He was criticized for a lack of specificity. But Bush offered something far more important than specificity. He offered a sense of his political style and temperament, which in itself presents a grownup and civil alternative to the Giuliani-style pestilence that has plagued the Republic for the past 25 years.

It has been the same in each of Bush’s three big speeches. He is a political conservative with a moderate disposition. And after giving his speeches a close read, I find Bush’s disposition far more important than his position on any given issue. In fact, it’s a breath of fresh air. I disagree with his hard line toward Cuba and the Iran nuclear negotiations, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say about reforming Obamacare. His arguments so far merit consideration, even when one disagrees with them.

There is none of John McCain’s chesty bellicosity. Bush makes no false, egregious claims, on issues foreign or domestic. He resists the partisan hyperbole that has coarsened our politics. He even, at one point in his foreign policy speech, praised Obama for the position he has taken on–get a map!–the Baltic states. He proposes a return to the bipartisan foreign policy that was operational when this nation was at its strongest. And he criticizes Obama for the right things: his sloppy rhetoric, his lack of strategy. You don’t say “Assad must go” and then let him stay. You don’t announce a “pivot” toward Asia–what are you pivoting away from? You don’t put human rights above national security, as Obama has done in his arm’s-length relationship with Egypt, which is actually fighting ISIS on the ground and in the air.

Bush’s economic vision is traditionally Republican. He believes the economy is more likely to grow with lower taxes than with government stimulus. He doesn’t bash the rich, but he doesn’t offer supply-side voodoo, either. The American “promise is not broken when someone is wealthy,” he told the Detroit Economic Club. “It is broken when achieving success is far beyond our imagination.” He is worried about middle-class economic stagnation, about the inability of the working poor to rise–his PAC is called Right to Rise. His solution is providing more opportunity rather than income redistribution. We’ll see, over time, what he means by that. And he favors reforming the public sector, especially the education and regulatory systems, as a way to create new economic energy. “It’s time to challenge every aspect of how government works,” he told a national meeting of auto dealers in San Francisco.

This would be a good argument to have in 2016. It is a fundamental challenge to what the Democrats have allowed themselves to become: the party of government workers rather than a defender of the working-, middle-class majority. Bush has already drawn fire for his record as an education reformer, with his support for charter schools and educational standards. But his argument goes beyond that to a more fundamental critique of government. He has praised the work of Philip K. Howard, whose book, The Rule of Nobody, is a road map for de-lawyering and rethinking the regulatory system.

Again, the way Bush talks about governmental sclerosis is the important thing. It’s no surprise he’s in favor of the Keystone pipeline and hydraulic fracking–he’s invested in fracking–but listen to this: “Washington shouldn’t try to regulate hydraulic fracking out of business,” he told the auto dealers. “It should be done reasonably and thoughtfully to protect the natural environment.” There is no call to blow up the Environmental Protection Agency or ignore science. But there is awareness of a radical truth: that there is no creative destruction in government. The civil service laws written in the 19th century, the regulations written before the information age, are ancient, slow-motion processes that have corroded the government’s ability to operate effectively.

Bush’s fate will tell us a lot about the Republican Party. He does not seem to be an angry man, and the need to screech has been the great Republican vulnerability in recent presidential campaigns. His candidacy takes crazy off the table–no nutso talk about vaccinations or evolution or the President’s patriotism. Even if you disagree with him, his civility demands respect.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland


This appears in the March 09, 2015 issue of TIME.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME

Clay Hunt’s Legacy for Veterans

President Barack Obama is about to sign the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act today. I never met Clay, but I’ve spent part of the past three years living with his memory, talking to his parents and friends, for a book about the Post-9/11 generation that will be published in October.

Clay was integral to some of the best veterans organizations out there. He was one of the first members of Team Rubicon, the disaster relief organization co-founded by his best friend, Jake Wood. His work for Team Rubicon was subsidized by a six-month fellowship from The Mission Continues, a brilliant organization that encourages veterans to heal themselves through public service. He was also a spokesman for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

It was IAVA and, especially, its great leader Paul Reickhoff, who led the charge to get this necessary bill funded. It is cause for celebration, I suppose. I wish Clay were here to celebrate…but he does leave a legacy beyond this bill, a spiritual legacy that includes a mission for all of us. He left it in writing. His mom, Susan Selke, passed it along to me–and I’m sure if Clay were here today, this is what he would say:

If I had one thing to say to my fellow veterans, it would be this: Continue to serve, even though we have taken off our uniforms. No matter how great or small your service is, it is desired and needed by the world we live in today. Volunteer to mow your elderly neighbor’s lawn for them. Spend a day at a soup kitchen helping feed the homeless, many of whom are veterans themselves. Work on a trail maintenance project. Start a service organization. It doesn’t matter what it is, it only matters that you are continuing to put others before yourself, just like you did when you were in the military. Actions like that are the only sure ways to bring about the positive social change that our country and our world need so badly these days.

–Clay Hunt

 

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