TIME

Begging for Impeachment

Barack Obama
President Barack Obama pauses, as he announces new economic sanctions against key sectors of the Russian economy in the latest move by the U.S. to force Russian President Vladimir Putin to end his support for Ukrainian rebels, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on July 29, 2014. Manuel Balce Ceneta—AP

To improve its standing with voters, the White House tries to drum up some trouble for itself

At 10:02 on Friday evening, July 25, I received the following personal message from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: “THE IMPEACHMENT OF PRESIDENT OBAMA IS NOW A REAL POSSIBILITY.” The capital letters were in red. This was a blast email, of course, sent to everyone on the Democratic Party’s fundraising list, and also to political journalists. It referred to some very calculated remarks that White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer had made earlier that day about impeachment: “I think Speaker Boehner, by going down the path of this lawsuit [against the President], has opened the door to Republicans possibly considering impeachment at some point in the future.”

This was the beginning of a half-crazed weekend begathon by the Democrats. The next afternoon: “Sorry to email you early on a Saturday—but we’re on full RED ALERT at Democratic Head-quarters…According to our records, you haven’t chipped in since Republicans authorized a vote to sue President Obama.” (Or ever chipped in, for that matter.) And Sunday: “MAJOR UPDATE: House Republicans held a closed-door meeting to discuss impeaching President Obama.” On Monday I received a cranky email from Obama himself: “Joe Biden has emailed you. Michelle has emailed you. And now I’ve emailed you. We wouldn’t all be asking if it wasn’t so important. Right now, Republicans in Congress are trying to sue me for simply doing my job.” Later that day, the DCCC re-sent me that email: “Did you see this? President Obama emailed you this morning.”

Holy moley. There is cleverness to the onslaught, of course, a classic use of a political tactic known as jiu-jitsu: take your opponent’s feral vehemence and roll with it. No doubt, Pfeiffer is right. There is a chance that the Republicans will try to impeach the President, especially later in the summer, after he announces a major Executive Order that will affect a large number—millions, perhaps—of the illegal immigrants now in the country. There is speculation that it will be a further expansion of the legal status he conferred on children brought into the U.S. illegally by their parents; perhaps the parents will now be included. There is likely to be an explosion if he does this—the Central American refugee crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border has made immigration the hottest of domestic issues. It is also the most toxic issue for Republicans, who hope to win the presidency someday—and the Senate this November.

House Speaker Boehner has said there will be no impeachment. That’s why he instituted a rather silly lawsuit against the President over—yet again—Obamacare, which aides say could be expanded if Obama goes for broke on the border. Boehner is trying to placate the GOP base. But he also promised that there would be no government shutdown in 2013 and got trampled by his troops. The Speaker knows there’s nothing the Democrats would rather have than impeachment and immigration as the dominant issues in the fall campaign. He also knows there’s nothing Rush Limbaugh would rather have; indeed, it would be a ratings bonanza—the base would go berserk. And on the other end of the Republican evolutionary spectrum, a leading conservative thinker, Yuval Levin, has said the Executive Order that Obama is contemplating would be “the most extreme act of executive overreach ever attempted by an American President in peacetime.” There might be no stopping the primal fury unleashed by what the Republicans are calling “executive amnesty.”

So, this is smart strategy on the part of the Obama political operation, right? Well, grudgingly, yes. But it’s also cynical as hell. The White House is playing with fire, raising the heat in a country that is already brain-fried by partisan frenzy. There is something unseemly, and unprecedented, about an administration saying “Bring it on” when it comes to impeachment. Clinton’s White House certainly never did publicly, even though it was clear from polling that the spectacle would be a disaster for Republicans. Of course, President Clinton had done something immoral, if not impeachable, and Obama has not. Another impeachment ordeal would be terrible for the country.

Also terrible for the country, if all too common, is the DCCC’s impeachment begging—and the President’s constant fat-cat fundraising in a summer of trouble. What if he simply said, “I’m done with fundraising. This is an important election, but there’s just too much going on in the world right now”? His political folks would hate it, but I suspect it might be more effective, and presidential, than sending out tin-cup emails.

TIME In the Arena

In Gaza, a Just but Bloody War

Gaza Strip, Gaza City: Relatives of four boys, all from the Bakr family, killed by Israeli naval bombardment, mourn during their funeral in Gaza City, on July 16, 2014. . ALESSIO ROMENZI
Relatives of four boys from the Bakr family, mourning at their funeral in Gaza City, July 16, 2014. Alessio Romenzi

Hamas provoked this round, and Israel had no choice but to respond

Clarification appended July 27, 2014

Ori Nir is a man of Peace. He was born and raised in Jerusalem, spent many years as a prominent journalist for Ha’aretz, Israel’s finest newspaper, and is now the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now. He is not shy about disagreeing with the Israeli government, especially when it comes to the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the general bellicosity of Benjamin Netanyahu’s regime. But he hasn’t protested the current Israeli incursion into Gaza. “It is a just war,” he told me, “carried out with a great deal of care.”

This may seem surprising to people who don’t follow the Middle East as closely as Nir does, and you might rightly ask, Why is this incursion different from all other Israeli incursions? Because Hamas, which was in an existential jam this spring, needed a new strategy. It had lost its prime ally in the region when the Egyptian army overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood. (Hamas is the official Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood.) It also alienated another of its supporters, Iran, when it sided with the Brotherhood against Bashar Assad in Syria. Opposition within Gaza to Hamas’ corruption and misrule was also on the rise. What to do?

Provoke Israel. It had worked in the past. A kidnapping of Israeli soldiers on the northern border had led to Israel’s less-than-discriminate assault on Hizballah in Lebanon in 2006. Rocket attacks had provoked Israel’s two previous Gaza incursions, in 2008 and 2012. Hamas and Hizballah had “won” those wars because their fighters resisted the Israelis more effectively than conventional Arab armies had done in the past but also because the images of collapsed buildings and blood-soaked children had bolstered Israel’s growing reputation as an oppressor and a bully in the eyes of the world.

This time is different, however, for several reasons. The initial provocation, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, was indefensible, as was a retaliatory murder of a Palestinian teen. In a moment of moral clarity, Hamas lauded its kidnappers, while a furious Netanyahu called the retaliation “reprehensible.” Indeed, Israel’s actions have been more prudent across the board. It confined its bombing at first to Hamas’ military facilities and leaders. Civilians were killed in the process–as was Hamas’ intent–but these were targeted strikes, not the free-range assault on Gaza City that had occurred in Operation Cast Lead in 2008. The ground campaign that followed was limited as well, confined to Shejaiya, a neighborhood on the eastern outskirts of Gaza City that was a warren of Palestinian fighters and the launch point for a very elaborate tunnel system from Gaza to Israel. The fighting has been brutal, to be sure. More than 500 Palestinians and 32 Israeli soldiers have been killed. But it was not an indiscriminate massacre. Israel was protecting its border, the right of any sovereign nation; its citizens were threatened by Palestinian assaults at the receiving end of the tunnels (several of which were attempted, and foiled, during the fighting). “I don’t like the civilian casualties that result from bombing the homes of the Hamas leaders,” Nir says. “And what’s happening in Shejaiya is horrible, but I think it falls within the normal rules of war. The moral bottom line seems clear.” And then, semi-amazed to be doing so, he quoted Netanyahu: “‘We’re using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.'”

There have been the predictable anti-Israel riots in Europe, mostly populated by Islamic groups; the parlor left has been appalled, on cue, by the alleged Israeli brutality–without questioning the deadly cynicism of Hamas. Meanwhile, Hamas has been outfoxed diplomatically: it opposed the cease-fire agreement proposed by Egypt, which Israel–and the Arab League–supported. If you’re really the aggrieved party, it’s not easy to explain why you won’t accept peace. By now, in a reasonable world, Hamas would have lost all remaining shreds of its tenuous moral credibility.

A cease-fire will be negotiated sooner or later, perhaps even by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. It is likely that nothing good will come of it. But Hamas’ weakness, its inability to dictate terms, does leave a tiny possibility for peace. The first step is to restore legal order in Gaza by returning the Palestinian Authority–ousted by Hamas in a 2007 coup–to power and bringing in the U.S.-trained Palestinian security forces who have done such an excellent job of bringing law and order to the West Bank. The next step is free elections in Gaza, which, given Hamas’ current unpopularity, might be won by more moderate factions, perhaps even Fatah.

This is the Middle East, of course. Israel remains intransigent on a West Bank agreement. Peace is a chimera; only the dead bodies are real.

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

Clarification: The views expressed by Ori Nir in this column are his own and not those of Americans for Peace Now.

TIME politics

The Border and Obama

The Week That Was From Latin America Photo Gallery
A young girl from Honduras waits for a northbound freight train to depart in Mexico as she makes her way to the U.S. border Eduardo Verdugo—AP

It's time to stop running away from the nation's troubles

The woman from Honduras was tiny and extremely pregnant. “When are you due?” asked Sister Norma Pimentel, the director of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley. “Ya,” the woman replied in Spanish: “Already”–she was past due. She had left Honduras to save her daughter, who is 12–peak poaching age for the killer gangs that are wreaking havoc in that country these days. “A man came into our house and tried to kill my girl with a machete,” the woman said. “I stopped him.” She showed Sister Norma her right hand, which was slashed down the middle and had healed crumpled. The man also slashed her daughter’s arm, but they managed to fend him off. The woman paid a coyote to get herself and her daughter across the border as soon as possible.

It seems clear to Sister Norma–and to the hundreds of volunteers who staff her processing center on the grounds of the Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas–that this summer’s tide of Central Americans crossing the border are refugees, not immigrants. They have fled, terrified, from countries that are the Latino equivalent of Syria or Iraq–but in Central America it’s anarchy, not religious fanaticism, they are fleeing, the rampaging of militant drug gangs. The refugees here are a lucky subset: they have verifiable family members in the U.S. The Border Patrol releases them to Sister Norma with bus tickets to the places where their families are living. Catholic Charities then provides a way station, a place to take a breath, take a shower and get a meal, new clothes and a medical exam. The center processes as many as 200 families a day. When a family arrives, the entire staff applauds. No doubt, Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh would be appalled, but when you see the relief and smiles and tears on the faces, which seem far more humble than menacing, you cannot help but be moved.

A woman named Libby Casanova brings her four children to volunteer every day. She is a pathologist in the real world but does intake at the center; she’s the first person the refugees encounter. “Many of them start to cry when they hear the applause,” she says. “They are so grateful.” Casanova brought her children on the first day so they could see that not everyone was as fortunate as they are–and the kids insisted on coming back and volunteering every day. “This place is making the entire community stronger,” Sister Norma says. And there is an infectious spiritual joy in the air. As Sister Norma says, “Jesus did not say, ‘I was hungry and you asked for my papers.’ “

Barack Obama should see the Catholic Charities mission in McAllen. He should also have a town meeting with the Tea Party nativists who are so angry and threatened by the rush of refugees–43,933 unaccompanied children alone since October–who began to appear from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. His job, after all, is to rise above the rancor and, well, lead. You don’t do this by making a speech to a favored audience. You do it by taking action, setting a personal example. All sorts of Protestant congregations are sending volunteers to Sacred Heart–perhaps he could encourage a Tea Party group to do the same. The President has gone to the scene of other human tragedies. He has acknowledged the suffering personally in the past. But not now, and you have to wonder why.

True political courage is near extinct. I saw the real thing for the first time on the night of April 4, 1968, when riots broke out across the country after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Senator Robert Kennedy decided to go into the heart of the Indianapolis ghetto–he was running for President at the time–and talk to the people. His aides and the local police pleaded with him not to do it. He was putting his life in danger, but he believed he had a responsibility to show up. He spoke for only five minutes, without a text–you can watch it on YouTube–and he calmed the crowd by quoting Aeschylus about the experience of excruciating pain that leads to deeper wisdom. Indianapolis was one of the few major cities that remained quiet that night.

Nowadays politicians are swaddled by their media consultants, who determine whether it is “safe” to be “courageous.” But acts of courage don’t come with a money-back guarantee. They are courageous because they’re potentially dangerous or, more likely, embarrassing. Courage’s reward comes subtly, in the form of trust as the public learns that a politician is willing to take risks to tell the truth. Obama is currently wandering about the country, trying to meet average people, but the choreography is more stringent than the Bolshoi’s. He said he didn’t want to go to the border because it would only be a “photo op” … on the same day his office published a photo of the President and Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper shooting pool. Who choreographed that?

There is a “teachable moment” available on the border, where there doesn’t seem to be much chaos these days. There have been fewer people in general coming across in recent years, but there is a specific “Other Than Mexican” (OTM in Border Patrol lingo) humanitarian crisis. The President could even take the opportunity to call a Central American summit to organize a peacemaking force for Honduras, which has become a regional security threat. Indeed, he could host it in Laredo. It is one thing to oppose intervention halfway across the world, in cultures thoroughly alien to our own; it is quite another to work with our neighbors to deal with a humanitarian disaster that is spilling across all our borders. This is one “foreign policy” issue that the public really cares about.

These are precisely the sort of things that Obama doesn’t seem to do anymore. There has been a skein of stories indicating he’s thrown in the towel. He’s so tired of head-banging with Republicans that he has taken refuge in late-night dinners with celebrities and intellectuals. Robert Kennedy did a lot of that too. But Kennedy never gave the impression that politics was distasteful, beneath him, as Obama too frequently does. Kennedy was all about passion; Obama seems all about decorum. He needs to go to the border–on a lot of issues. If he’s going to accomplish anything in the last two years of his presidency, he’s going to have to change his style, which will be near impossible for a man as entrenched behind his flacks-in-jackets as the President is. He’s right about photo ops. Enough already. But there are other “ops”–study ops, passion ops, conversation ops. He needs to do something dramatic to win back the country.

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

TIME politics

The Students vs. the Unions

New York City’s mayor handed teachers a big win. Struggling students will be the losers

Back in 2005, when New York City was pre-crash flush, Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered the United Federation of Teachers a raise in return for 150 extra minutes of classroom work per week. The mayor’s idea was to spend that extra time tutoring the kids who needed the most help–the bottom third of each class. UFT president Randi Weingarten agreed that the group sessions would be small, no more than 10 students per class. Schools chancellor Joel Klein wanted three 50-minute periods per week. The union wanted five 30-minute periods. They compromised on four 37½-minute sessions.

The program was never given a name, which made it easier for New York’s new “progressive” mayor Bill de Blasio to give it back–to eliminate the required 150 minutes of special instruction–in his negotiations with the UFT this spring. You might well wonder why. I tried to find out but received a heaping ration of gobbledygook from a source close to the mayor. He said that the program had been “inflexible” and “one size fits all.” That it was not “workable to the purpose.” Translation: it didn’t work. But how do we know that? No studies or evaluations were done. At his press conference announcing the new union deal, the mayor and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, gave several foggy reasons for the change: the time would be used for additional parent conferences and for “professional development” so the teachers could learn how to teach the new core curriculum. A lot of unspecific wiggle room was negotiated on both counts–part of the mayor’s drive toward “flexibility.”

But flexibility is not a trait often associated with teachers’ unions. The American Federation of Teachers, which Weingarten now heads, calls itself “a union of professionals,” but it negotiates as if it were a union of assembly-line workers. Let’s start with the 37½ minutes, especially that half-minute. What happens if the teacher is in midsentence–or is in the midst of a breakthrough with a student–when the bell rings? A professional finishes the lesson and is paid in personal satisfaction. (I’m sure that the overwhelming majority of teachers do so; these sorts of work rules insult their dedication.) A professional talks to parents whenever and wherever. A professional also doesn’t resist evaluation–but the current New York City union president, Michael Mulgrew, actually bragged that he “gummed up the works” on an evaluation agreement with the far more rigorous Bloomberg administration; de Blasio, of course, hasn’t sought to implement that deal.

The most damning aspect of de Blasio’s giveback is the “didn’t work” argument. We are talking about one of the ground-zero principles of a healthy school system: extra help for those who need it. If the program doesn’t work, you don’t eliminate it. You fix it. The mayor’s spokesman said the extra help would be continued in “flexible” ways. Apparently, “flexibility” is a mayoral euphemism for “I cave.” And given the current atmosphere, if it isn’t specified in the contract, it doesn’t exist. A mayor who actually cared about education would be seeking longer school days, longer school years, more charter schools (which have to be more rigorously monitored) and the elimination of tenure and seniority rules to make sure that the best professionals, not the longest-serving assembly-line workers, are in the classrooms.

Teachers’ unions are suddenly on the defensive across the country. The Supreme Court recently ruled–unfairly, I believe–that some home health care workers did not have to join the union that negotiated their contract. That could have an impact on all public-employee unions. In California, a district court judge recently threw out the state’s tenure rules. In his ruling, he wrote that the widespread protection of incompetent teachers “shocks the conscience.” A group called the Partnership for Educational Justice, which is led by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, is filing a similar suit in New York and promises to take the movement national. Brown’s group has hired Robert Gibbs, the former Obama press secretary, to run its communications strategy; other Obama stalwarts will soon join the effort as well. Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised the California decision, which caused the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, to call for him to be fired.

All of which raises an old labor-movement question for Democrats in 2014 and 2016: Which side are you on? Competent teachers should certainly be paid more, but the protection of incompetence is a national scandal, as is the unions’ resistance to teacher evaluations and charter schools, as is the quiet undermining of educational creativity by eliminating special programs for needy students. The Obama Administration has clearly edged away from the unions’ excesses. But what about the rest of the party? Which side are they on: the students’ or the unions’?

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

TIME

The Close Work of Diplomacy

Hillary Rodham Clinton Book Signing - Austin, TX
Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signs copies of her book "Hard Choices" at Book People on June 20, 2014 in Austin, Texas. Gary Miller—Getty Images

Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices is a reminder that foreign policy wins take time and perseverance

My favorite sentence in Hillary Clinton’s very diplomatic memoir of her time as Secretary of State is: “So I sat through hours of presentations and discussions, asking questions and raising concerns.” The hours of discussions took place at a U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a regular summit Clinton has labored mightily to create between the two most powerful countries in the world. She has spent dozens of hours with Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo, establishing a personal relationship because of a fundamental belief that regular meetings–architecture, the diplomats call it–can mitigate damage when crises occur. This is, in fact, her core diplomatic creed, the predicate for an orderly, “rules-based” world. You might say, Well, that seems obvious. Yes, it is. But if you want to know what Hillary Clinton is all about, this is it. Except when it isn’t.

You might also have noticed a certain tension, and perhaps irony, in the sentence. It sounds as if she might have wanted to be doing something else, and that is true: she was in the midst of a crisis. Just before the summit meeting, a blind Chinese dissident named Chen Guangcheng had evaded house arrest and phoned the U.S. embassy asking for refuge. If she granted it, she might blow up the strategic dialogue. “It appeared that I had to decide between protecting one man,” she writes, “and protecting our relationship with China.” She decided, crisply, that the U.S. could not turn away Chen. “In the end it wasn’t a close call,” she writes. “America’s values are the greatest source of strength and security.” So much for architecture. So much for Clinton’s inflexible image. She can be daring too.

There follows about 20 exciting pages–if you’re into the nitty-gritty of diplomacy–of two-track diplomatic haggling, as Clinton and her aides try to save the talks and figure out what to do with the dissident. Chen agrees to a plan to go to law school in China, then changes his mind. He gives interviews to the world media from his hospital bed, angering the Chinese. But they go forward with the summit, and Clinton has to decide between negotiating with the dissident and sitting through the reassuringly boring strategic dialogue. She chooses the “hours of presentations and discussions,” leaving the negotiations to her staff, who arrange a visa for Chen so he can study law in the U.S. The rules-based relationship with China is reinforced. Eventually Clinton’s patience pays dividends: the Chinese cooperate on issues like the Iran economic sanctions and North Korea.

So there is value, and even some entertainment, in Hard Choices, although you’d never know it from the reception the book has received. Clinton is partly to blame for that, as she allowed the memoir to be rolled out as part of a big presidential guessing game, with an elaborate embargo scheme that made it seem as if there were newsy revelations within. There aren’t. Read as a presidential manifesto, it is a tease. Read as a personal memoir, it is a desert. The journalists scouring the book for gossip found that she digs her fingernails into the palms of her hands to fight off jet lag during diplomatic meetings, and little else. Hard Choices has been roundly dismissed as boring. And yes, there are broad narcoleptic swatches of wallpaper-writing as every last country and issue–Here’s to you, Northern Ireland! Here’s to you, climate change!–are given their thousand-word shout-outs. The writing, which can be just fine when the ghostwriters are attempting narrative, lapses all too often into deadly speechwriterese: “Will Africa’s future be decided by guns and graft or growth and good governance?” Yikes. Memo to Democratic ghostwriters: It’s time to shed the alliterative Ted Sorensenian “Ask not” switchbacks and pass the torch to a new generation of readership.

But there is a lesson here too. It has to do with patience and perseverance and the close work of getting the details right. “It is easy to get lost in the semantics,” she writes, “but words constitute much of a diplomat’s work.” And some of the best passages in Hard Choices concern word wrangling, especially with the Russians. The work isn’t very dramatic or sexy; it is the governmental equivalent of solving a crossword puzzle. It is essential to successful statecraft, however–a point that George W. Bush didn’t seem to understand until his second term in office.

Amid the daily concussion of press coverage during crises, Clinton battles for the free world, comma by comma. At times, as in the negotiations over whether to use military force in Libya, she loses perspective. She begins highly skeptical about the efficacy of a strike against the Gaddafi regime, which is threatening to massacre civilians in Benghazi. She asks the right questions: “Who were these rebels we were aiding and were they prepared to lead Libya if Gaddafi fell?” She sides with Defense Secretary Robert Gates–always a safe bet–against the White House aides who favor intervention. Then she changes her mind, lured by the siren song of multilateralism. The Arab League wants U.S. military action in Libya–that’s a breakthrough! The Europeans, especially the French, are ready to roll. She never says explicitly that she changes her mind–Gates says she does in his memoir–but it seems that Clinton has fallen for the promise of closer cooperation with the normally intransigent Arabs and the unusual willingness of the Europeans to take up arms. Of course, within days, the Arab League criticizes the U.S.-organized bombing campaign, and the Europeans don’t have the military wherewithal for a sustained fight. She also neglects discussing the consequences of her decision: the anarchy that is now Libya, the rule by militias that eventually results in the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi. (Her chapter on Benghazi is comprehensive and logical, though few of the Fox hounds who see the issue as a matter of theology, not facts, will buy it.)

Clinton can be selectively disingenuous. Her chapter on Middle East negotiations dwells on the overreaction in the region and in the press when on Halloween night in 2009 in Jerusalem, she calls “unprecedented” Israel’s offer of a 10-month freeze on West Bank settlement except for Jerusalem. And yes, it may well have been unprecedented in technical terms, but other words more accurately describe the Israeli move: partial, grudging, unacceptable. The rest of the world considers Israel’s settlement building in contested areas an illegal provocation. But there is a more troubling, and personal, subtext here. Clinton doesn’t mention it, but she had established–and perhaps overstated–the Obama Administration’s hard line against the illegal settlements five months earlier, when she’d said, “[The President] wants to see a stop to settlements–not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions … That is our position.” Her acceptance of Israel’s partial freeze was a retreat from that hard line, a public retreat that dismayed the White House. “Why does she do that?” a senior Administration official asked me at the time, referring to her initial harder-than-necessary position and later “unprecedented” retreat.

Because she is human. She does not always come equipped with a natural politician’s body armor or habitual flight to the anodyne. She has an advocate’s fervor–especially when it involves women and children. She’s got a temper. She displays it in Africa when asked about her husband’s position on a complicated World Bank issue, a question that seems to denigrate her importance. “Wait, you want me to tell you what my husband thinks? … My husband is not Secretary of State.” She knows this is wrong and apologizes quickly to the young man who asked the question. But I would guess that one of the reasons Clinton seems so buttoned-up in public is a fear that she’ll unleash an arrant display of imperfection. Unfortunately, this deprives the public of her wicked sense of humor and commonsense candor–which is on occasional display, but on a very short leash, in Hard Choices. She is happy to admit her glaring, well-known mistakes, like her support for the war in Iraq. But she is wary of copping to lesser, if more telling, diplomatic misjudgments–on Libya or her support for the second Afghanistan surge. Again, Gates’ book is more candid: Clinton supported an even larger number of surge troops than he did. She does not mention that in Hard Choices.

She admits to disagreements with President Obama–on whether to arm the Syrian rebels, for example–but the disagreements are ridiculously civil and vague, especially when compared with the blue rages that Gates describes himself throwing in his memoir. The only memorable verbal scuffles she describes are with foreigners. And these are either resolved over time or not, equably.

That the Hard Choices book-tour extravaganza has been a bit of a bomb has more to do with the public atmosphere than it does with the book, which is a cut above the sort of thing you’d expect from a Secretary of State–although several cuts below Gates’ riveting candor. Its most important lessons–about patience, management, the importance of details, the slow building of personal relationships–are precisely the skills that we seem to ignore in the public arena these days. We are impatient with anything beyond simple declarative sentences, the more hortatory the better: “Assad must go.” But diplomacy and good government exist in a mind-numbing haze of clauses and nuance. Clinton makes the case that she has mastered the placement of commas and that she has the patience to negotiate with opponents, foreign and domestic. That is the purpose of the book: to demonstrate that she would bring these quiet attributes to the presidency. In this moment of blare and paralysis, it is a subtly clever argument to make. Too subtle, perhaps.

TIME Military

The Sacrificial Lambs

What the Bergdahl affair tells us about the hidden costs of a decade of war

Imagine that you are Robert Bergdahl. It’s not hard if you’re a parent. For the past five years, you’ve been terrified and obsessed. Your son Bowe has been captured by the Taliban, and you will do anything–anything–to get him released. You are a former surfer, a former truck driver, a Republican. Bowe has always been a delight and a worry, smart, fragile, ephemeral. Before he joined the Army, he lived in a Buddhist monastery. Before he left for Afghanistan, he made a deep-dive study of the local culture, history and language.

So you decide to do a Bowe-like thing. You try to show respect toward his captors. You learn their language and history. You grow your beard out in scraggly Salafist fashion. You learn that one of his captors has lost a son–shades of Homeland!–to an American missile strike. You may have been touched by Stockholm syndrome: you now know this war has been a horror on all sides. You give a speech at an Idaho Republican Party fundraiser and ask for compassion for Bowe’s captors. There have been at least three years of negotiations between the U.S. government and the Taliban, a prisoner swap for Bowe’s release that might lead to peace talks. But nothing has happened.

And then he’s released. Suddenly, you’re standing before cameras in the Rose Garden with your wife Jani and the President. In gratitude, you say the words in Arabic that precede any public speech or film or performance: “In the name of Allah, the most merciful and compassionate.” Your hometown of Hailey, Idaho, is readying a parade to honor Bowe. But all hell breaks loose. First, it’s all about Bowe. He’s a deserter. He may be a traitor. He left his body armor on his cot and walked out of his combat outpost; he left a note saying he was done fighting. (Later, it turns out he left no note.) Some members of his platoon, understandably infuriated, are on television–an organized Republican public relations assault–saying all sorts of terrible things about him. (Later, the New York Times reports that the platoon was troubled, “raggedy” even before Bergdahl left it.) There are reports that your son became a semi-spokesman for the Taliban, that he was allowed to carry a gun. (Later, there are reports that he tried to escape twice and was placed in a cage, in darkness, shackled, for weeks at a time.)

Next, they come after you. Sean Hannity says you uttered a “war cry of Allah” in the Rose Garden. Hannity has two Islamic “experts” on his radio show who don’t refute the claim. One of them asserts that you “radicalized” your son just as the mother of the Boston Marathon bombers “did.” But Hannity knows a main chance when he sees it. Back to the war cry: “And you think the father interpreted it that way and purposely said that in the Rose Garden, and it was sending a message and the President–you could see the President smiling there as he says it.”

So, somehow, after five years of mind-bending parental torture, you have become a pawn in a right-wing meta-story: the President is a secret Muslim sympathizer. Oh, and you may be a Muslim terrorist sympathizer too. You’re getting death threats. Your town cancels the parade. Finally, in your defense, a former pastor of yours tells the Christian Post that you and Jani have been “really hurt,” that you are practicing Christians. “I’ve prayed with both of them regularly,” he says. “They both have been through a torture mill that I cannot begin to comprehend–five years of a living death. It has affected their health, both physically and mentally.”

And the worst is yet to come: now there are reports that Bowe doesn’t want to talk to you, that the Army psychiatrists don’t think he’s ready for a family reunion. You’ve alluded to troubles he would have coming back, so this might not be a total surprise. But you are now experiencing the media equivalent of that steel cage in which Bowe was confined.

It is possible, of course, that Robert Bergdahl became a Taliban sympathizer during the years his son was held in captivity; it’s possible Bowe was complicit as well–we’ve seen this story before. If so, he’ll be court-martialed. But we don’t know the facts yet. And we have leaped, with reflexive bloodlust, to crucify an American family that has already suffered too much–a scapegoat sacrifice to a decade of blood, during which we leaped into Iraq, which seems to be slipping back into civil war, and distended the war in Afghanistan, all based on things we surmised but didn’t really know.

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

TIME

Jim Webb’s Spirit

Jim Webb
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., is interviewed by the press in the Senate subway in Washington, Nov. 13, 2012. Chris Maddaloni—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

I mentioned Jim Webb briefly in my column about Hillary Clinton’s “inevitability” this week as a potential presidential candidate. He deserves more than that. Webb is a terrific writer, a great war novelist. He is an Annapolis graduate, a Marine combat veteran of Vietnam. He has worked as a Congressional staffer, Secretary of the Navy (under Reagan) and, most recently, Democratic Senator from Virginia.

Webb is a classic, passionate Scots-Irishman, a heritage he celebrated in a book called Born Fighting, a title that he might have saved for his most recent book, I Heard My Country Calling, which is a partial memoir, focusing on his youth, his time at Annapolis and Vietnam. It’s a compelling book, not just for the story that it tells, but for the simmering anger that is never far from the surface with Webb. He’s pissed-off, like many veterans, at the slovenliness of civilian society–the lack of honor and discipline, the lassitude that has allowed a national slide toward plutocracy.

For many civilians, his politics seems rather exotic and unpredictable–as expected, he was a strong advocate for veterans when he served as Senator (His son is also a Marine, who served in Iraq). But he was also a strong advocate for normalizing relationships with Burma and for more equitable prison sentencing standards. And he is a stone populist, with a platoon leader’s obsession with the welfare of all his Marines, and the importance of a national sense of community that isn’t shaped by the power of money.

He ends I Heard my Country Calling with a story about his Aunt Lena, who lived her life in an Arkansas shack. He writes about visiting her in 1976, after having gone to work for a Republican Congressman. She wouldn’t let him insider her house. “How can you do this?” she asks. “Getting involved in Congress up there with that bunch. And then working for a Republican?” (Aunt Lena was, apparently, the last of the Yellow Dog Democrats.)

“You’ll forget us anyway,” she said. This was her real point. “They all do. Wear a pretty tie, get a big head, get a nice salary, make all those promises and then lie through your teeth so that you can stay up there.”

Hence Jim Webb’s Aunt Lena Test: Would she let me in the house today?

No doubt, Webb–like all of us–has some days when he wouldn’t even knock on Lena’s door. But I also believe that her spirit lives in his head, which is a rare thing for a politician. He really tries to tell the truth as he sees it. I’m not sure he’ll be an effective national candidate, or even that he’ll run, but I respect him as a man of honor (and as a writer, obviously)–and Lord knows, we could certainly use some honor in this race to come.

TIME 2016 Election

The Myth of Inevitability

Silhouetted by a stage light, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the University of the Western Cape about U.S.-South Africa partnership, Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012, in Cape Town, South Africa. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)
The Myth of Inevitability: Nothing is certain in 2016 Jacquelyn Martin—AP

Nothing is certain for Hillary Clinton in 2016

We have reached, believe it or not, the first crucial moment in the 2016 presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton has written a book. It will be launched, with Vesuvian hoopla, on June 10. Her schedule will be incredible for the weeks thereafter–an hour interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, for starters; Good Morning America the next morning; a town meeting with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. There will be joint appearances with Bill and Chelsea. And attention, Costco shoppers! Hillary Clinton will be signing copies of Hard Choices at Costco’s Arlington, Va., store on Saturday, June 14.

We are sure to be smothered by Hillary (or Hillary!, as an old campaign button had it) well past the summer solstice. There will be reviews and nonstop attempts to tease policy and controversy from the substance of the book, which concerns her time as Secretary of State. Her account of the Benghazi controversy has already been leaked. In it, she says she was “ultimately responsible” for the insufficient security at the consulate there, even though it was well below her pay grade. Happily, she fights back against the bizarre Republican campaign to find a scandal amid the tragedy. This is called getting out in front of the story, a common political strategy. Hard Choices is, like almost everything else Clinton, a campaign. How it is promoted and received will say a lot about the campaign to come, if it is to come.

As always, there will be a festering low road of speculation about Clinton herself, her health, her hair, her husband. And as always, a squalid tabloid underbuzz: Did she ask Chelsea to become pregnant to give her campaign a soft, grandmotherly tinge? Will new Whitewater papers reveal that the real estate deal was really a conspiracy to sell heroin? Monica Lewinsky has already reappeared and disappeared, coming out of seclusion to tell her story for the umpteenth time. The Clintons have long held an unprecedented primacy in academic journals and supermarket tabloids. That’s why we can’t take our eyes off them. They have big thoughts; they are creative policymakers who balance budgets; they care about the average guy, his widow and orphan. And yet their private world often seems laced with circus-sideshow overreach, both purposeful and accidental: Bill Clinton abandoned McDonald’s to become a vegan. Hillary’s top aide, Huma Abedin, married the tweeting exhibitionist Anthony Weiner.

Inevitably, there will be political speculation. Does this book mean she is running? Does her book tour prove that she “takes all the oxygen” out of the Democratic race? Is she “inevitable”? Is the Benghazi chapter “enough” to quiet the controversy? Will she learn to love the media–and will the media stop being so trashball in its Clinton coverage?

As a veteran Clinton watcher, I approach the coming spectacle with a combination of obsession, exhaustion, dread and exhilaration. This is going to be horrible fun–and crucial, as the Clintons always are. If she runs.

For the sake of magazine sales, let’s say she’s running. She’s got it locked, right? She’s the Democratic nominee at the very least, right? Ask any Republican and they’ll tell you she’s a cinch. They’ve already started their general-election campaign against her. Karl Rove is speculating that the fall she took at the end of her time as Secretary of State caused traumatic brain injury. Others fantasize that she conspired to have Lewinsky tell her story now, to get it out of the way–as if anything could. And congressional Republicans have dragged Benghazi back into public view, with stacked hearings that will amount, no doubt, to a hill of beans. Most Democrats think that she’ll not only waltz to the nomination but also crush anyone the Republicans put up, except maybe Jeb Bush–and hasn’t the Bush family saga become a moldy oldie over the decades?

But wait a minute. Aren’t the Clintons approaching their sell-by date too? Aren’t we about to become tired of their personal and policy baggage and retinue of overcaffeinated too-loyal aides spewing talking points on cable news? It can and will also be argued that the Clintons are out of touch with millennials and their handheld virtual society, out of touch with the growing populism of the Democratic Party, too closely aligned with Wall Street and untrammeled free trade, too hawkish, too closely aligned with an unpopular incumbent President. (Of course, Obama could easily rebound.) It can and will be argued, as always, that Hillary is stiff, programmed, overcautious. Exhibit A: her book-tour schedule.

It is possible, maybe even probable, that all these arguments will have the same effect on the Clinton juggernaut as a flea on a rhinoceros. Clinton is said to be the best-prepared politician to run for President in our lifetime, and that is probably true. She knows the issues, foreign and domestic; no one will outwonk her. She has the potential to run the table when it comes to big donors and endorsements. She has a presidential temperament–prudent, patient and tough. She is both funny and wise: ask anyone, Republican or Democrat, who has ever sat in a policy meeting with her. She started as a lousy stump politician but became a real trouper in the crucible of the 2008 primary campaign against Obama, especially in Pennsylvania, where she started hanging out in bars and bowling alleys and taught white working-class males that she was no quitter. Indeed, the lessons she learned in the 2008 primaries may be her quiet competitive advantage in 2016. Finally, she is a woman–an aspect of her candidacy that was foolishly underplayed by her advisers in 2008. As such, she lives in history.

Some presidential campaigns are about inevitability. Others are about energy. The best have both, but it’s rare: inevitability tends to crush energy. It makes candidates cautious. In 2000, George W. Bush raised a ton of money and secured a ton of endorsements. He was skating toward the nomination, according to the polls. “It’s amazing how close we came to losing,” says Matthew Dowd, who worked for Bush. “We were hanging on by our fingernails after McCain beat us by 18 points in New Hampshire, but McCain made some mistakes in South Carolina,” and Bush turned vicious, “and we were lucky to win.” Lest we forget: an inevitable candidate named Hillary Clinton was blindsided by Barack Obama’s energy in 2008.

Obama may be her greatest challenge in 2016 as well. It’s been reported that she has scrubbed Hard Choices for any negative references to the President. But any candidate following a two-term President has to figure out a “kinder, gentler” way to distinguish herself from her predecessor. People always want a change, a fact Al Gore and John McCain found out the hard way. It will be trickier if Obama remains unpopular. Inevitability is reality’s first casualty. If Obama makes a big mistake overseas or the economy flops, Clinton’s first job will be to say what she’d do differently, without offending the Democratic base who’ll remain loyal to the President no matter what.

Even if Obama successfully navigates his last two years in office, Clinton is likely to face more than one energy candidate in 2016. Former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, profiled by Michael Scherer on page 36, is as entertaining as a presidential candidate should be allowed to be, and substantive too. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has a new book out–aha! (perhaps)–and is wowing the Democratic left at their partisan powwows. And former Virginia Senator Jim Webb–who also has a new book out, aha!–has not ruled out a presidential campaign. All three would challenge Clinton from the populist left, a force that is growing noisier within the party, if not more populous. The moderate governors, like New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, probably won’t run if Clinton does.

Any of the three populists could run an exciting and perhaps even successful campaign against Clinton. She has real vulnerabilities and, yes, hard choices to make on policies she is assumed to have inherited from her husband, especially regarding the primacy of Wall Street and free trade. Bill Clinton essentially deregulated Wall Street while he was President–repealing the Glass-Steagall laws and refusing to regulate the exotic derivatives that helped cause the stock-market crash of 2008. Will Hillary Clinton move away from those positions? Is she willing to walk away from the egregious buckraking and speechmaking she and her husband have done with the global megarich in the service of the Clinton Global Initiative? “If not, she’s red meat in this new age of economic populism,” says David “Mudcat” Saunders, a Democratic consultant who has been close to Jim Webb in the past.

I recently asked Webb what he saw when he looked at America a year after he left the Senate. “Groundhog Day,” he said. Nothing had changed. In his book I Heard My Country Calling, Webb writes about a country “governed by a club of insiders who manipulate public opinion in order to serve the interests of hidden elites who hold the reins of power.” That could be a call to arms for Democratic populists and Tea Partyers alike. It is a bit over the top–hidden elites?–but it is a voice to be reckoned with in a ticked-off America.

There is also a bubbling-up of what the historian Fred Siegel calls gentry liberals, the old alliance of guilt-ridden limousine riders and (mostly African-American) minority groups who are itchy to file grievances again after 50 years of remarkable progress. A 2003 Brookings Institution study showed that if you graduate from high school, wait until marriage to have no more than two babies and have a job (any job, and there are plenty out there), the chances of your living in poverty are 3.7%. Those sorts of stats–and there are plenty of others like them–are downplayed by a new generation of African-American activists and by mayors like New York City’s Bill de Blasio, who has lifted some of the work requirements imposed by Bill Clinton for people on welfare. The left argues that times have changed. The economy has changed. It’s harder to get a job. Will Clinton modify her long-held positions on welfare and the importance of two-parent families?

Then there is her foreign policy. Robert Gates’ fabulously candid memoir about his time as Secretary of Defense has some juicy tidbits–like the fact that Clinton stood to his right on the Afghan surge in 2009. He favored adding 30,000 more troops; Clinton and General Stan McChrystal favored 40,000. Her support of the war in Iraq, except for the 2007 surge there, is also on the record–but Gates has her admitting that her opposition to the surge was “political.”

That is probably the ultimate argument against Clinton. She can be prohibitively “political” and far more cautious than she needs to be. The trouble is, presidential campaigns can’t be managed like book tours. They tend to be overwhelmed by events and trivialities. There is a constant gotcha contest with the press. In a recent Politico article about Clinton and the press, one of her advisers is quoted: “Look, she hates you. Period. That is not going to change.” To make things worse, her top communications adviser, Phillippe Reines, argued that Clinton didn’t really hate the press. She brought bagels to the back of the bus. But bringing bagels to the back of the bus is an embarrassingly transparent ploy. Bringing candor to the back of the bus might be a little more successful. I’ve seen her candor more than once, but always off the record. That will have to change. If Hillary Clinton hopes to succeed, she’s going to have to drop the veil–spontaneously, quite possibly in a crucial moment, like a debate–and trust the public to accept who she really is. Absent that, there is no such thing as inevitability.

TIME Veterans

The Next VA Secretary

+ READ ARTICLE

Eric Shinseki’s long and troubled tenure as Secretary of Veterans Affairs has come to an end. He left, apologizing for the mess he allowed to fester. This is a sad moment for an honorable man, who could not make the transition from military to civilian leadership. The question now is, how bold will the President be when it comes to replacing Shinseki? (Sloan Gibson, the Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, who graduated from West Point in 1975, will be acting secretary until the Senate confirms a replacement.)

A few years ago, I wrote a TIME cover story about the Iraq-Afghanistan generation of veterans. It was a different sort of story, far more concerned with their civilian leadership potential than with their difficulties adjusting to civilian life. I wrote the story because I had embedded with the troops downrange and watched them apply the principles of “counterinsurgency” warfare in Iraq and, especially, in Afghanistan. Their job was, in effect, to govern the towns where they were deployed. They had public works funds at their disposal. They crowd-sourced the towns–for the first time in history, most likely–asking the people what sort of services they wanted. Then their leaders had to sell the people’s needs to the local Shuras, which often wanted something else (something that would line their own pockets). I watched Army Captains negotiate and contend with stubborn bureaucracies under fire.

One day in the town of Senjaray, just outside of Kandahar, I watched Captain Jeremiah Ellis negotiate with a local for the use of his house–and I realized: if he can do that here, he can run for mayor back home. Or be the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

This generation of military veterans have been trained in the political skills that Eric Shinseki’s generation forgot after Vietnam. They have been trained in how to unlock stuck bureaucracies, how to talk to average folks, how to make moral decisions based on incomplete information under fire. I’ve spent the past few years writing a book about them and I know several who would be brilliant as VA Secretary–indeed, who have experienced and thought through the problems of the system. I’m not going to name names; there are plenty others I don’t know, who might be every bit as good. But the President should take a risk, inject some energy into his flagging Administration, and appoint one of them.

He probably won’t. He has become far more cautious about his appointees: they tend to be people he knows and trusts. But Robert Gates’ recent memoir demonstrates how invigorating an outsider can be in the claustrophobia of the White House. The President and First Lady care deeply about this generation of veterans; I know this for a fact. Now it’s time for Obama to demonstrate his faith in them by appointing an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama’s West Point Speech Was Not Exciting

U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the commencement address to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point's Class of 2014 on May 28, 2014, in West Point, N.Y.
U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the commencement address to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point's Class of 2014 on May 28, 2014, in West Point, N.Y. Susan Walsh—AP

And he will be criticized for that. There was nothing “new” in his address to the West Point graduates, some will say. Others–neo-conservatives and blood curmudgeons like John McCain– will say that it was a ratification of the President’s policy of weakness and retreat. And while those of us who generally agree with the President on foreign policy might have hoped for some pyrotechnics, a more passionate defense of his policy, the substance of the speech was solid, just as the net substance of his actions overseas have been.

He began with a deliberate oversimplification:

Today, according to self-described realists, conflicts in Syria or Ukraine or the Central African Republic are not ours to solve. Not surprisingly, after costly wars and continuing challenges at home, that view is shared by many Americans.

A different view, from interventionists on the left and right, says we ignore these conflicts at our own peril; that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.

As a “self-described” realist, I can’t think of a member of my sect who believes that the conflicts mentioned are “not ours to solve.” We’re just extremely reluctant to use military force or—in the case of Syria—military supplies to solve them. There are other diplomatic, humanitarian and economic means that we need to use more effectively. The one initiative he did announce, the $5 billion counter-terrorist partnership fund, is a step in the right direction (especially if it helps ease the Syrian refugee crisis).

If there is a realist gripe against the President, it’s his handling of the details—his foreign policy staff isn’t very smart or subtle when it comes to the close work of diplomacy. Indeed, that’s an actual point of agreement between realists and interventionists: too often the President’s words have no consequences. He says “Assad Must Go” and Assad stays; indeed, Assad is bolstered by a chemical weapons deal that Obama blunders into. His Secretary of State, John Kerry, says something dangerously undiplomatic almost every week. Everything is ad hoc, in the moment; there is very little long-term strategic thinking.

That said, this was a realist speech. The President made no threats or promises that he couldn’t carry out, which was a relief. He refused to cave to his feckless domestic opponents–and he paid no commitment other than lip service to the human rights activists who represent a significant strain on his foreign policy staff. He offered no bright line “Obama Doctrine,” which is probably a very good thing. The last President who stood at West Point and offered a Foreign Policy Master Plan was George W. Bush, who made the case for pre-emptive war in 2002. We know where that led. The only appropriate doctrine in a world where the American military–and military spending–is peerless has to be subtle and humble: We’ll take each case as it comes. We’ll lead coalitions to help solve the problems of the world, but we also reserve the right to defend ourselves unilaterally against direct security threats. We will be prudent in word and deed. We won’t bluster about our “indispensability” but will prove it through our actions.

If there is a bright line test for presidential success in foreign policy, it’s Hippocratic: First do no harm. Obama has passed that test, with a few painful, if relatively minor, exceptions. He has ended wars, not started them, while using appropriate levels of force–drones, special operations–to continue the battle against Islamic radicalism. He has been calm and yes, realistic. He has been unfairly bludgeoned by opponents “engaged in partisan politics” and by a media that, all too often, looks at foreign policy as a “winning the day” proposition when the real purpose of diplomacy is to slowly win the future. He allowed himself to be pushed into making this speech by those forces. But he did not allow them to change his policy, for which we should be grateful.

 

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