TIME

In Praise of Steven Sotloff

I didn’t know Steven Sotloff, even though he did some work for Time. But I can recognize who he was from the photo in the Time.com story announcing his death–Sotloff in kevlar helmet, with ill-fitting body armor and the notebook–always the notebook–out there, up front. He wasn’t as dashing as the late and wildly courageous photo-journalist James Foley; somehow, writers never are. I’ve known many stringers like Steve Sotloff and admired almost all of them. They turn up in war zones or other difficult places, looking for adventure and hoping to make a splash…or just tell a compelling story. Many of the brilliant war correspondents whose words and photos have graced Time’s pages started off as stringers. Other stringers can also be academics, with a language skill or a love for the country in question. (Believe me, it is easy to fall in love with Syria and Syrians, or the Yemenis or, in a different era, the Vietnamese.) Still others are local nationals, who risk everything to work for the American media for a variety of reasons–money, truth, patriotism, professional pride.

But they all have one thing in common: they are lovers of freedom, personal freedom, their right to pursue the news. Often, to a fault. And I cannot forget another thing: their generosity. As a visiting bigfoot in dangerous places, I’d always meet these men and women at the hotel bar–or the military helipad, waiting for a lift–and I would ask them questions, and their enthusiasm, and knowledge, and humanity, were extraordinary. Their sense of the situation on the ground was, more often than not, the basis of the not-very-deathless words I’d later write. I’d buy them drinks; they gave me wisdom.

They are the precise opposite of those who now seek to murder them. They were–they are–quite a tribe, a tribe of humanists; I was proud, from time to time, to be considered an auxiliary member. I sometimes fear that the changing nature of the news business has made it more difficult for this tribe to thrive. The public doesn’t like bad news, unless it is phony news, involving Kim Kardashian or some other shameless cipher. The public can’t stand the truth of blood that isn’t carefully orchestrated by Hollywood–and the public can choose the news it consumes. But still the stringers come and risk their lives, all for the love of it…leading with their notebooks and cameras, out there, up front, as Steven Sotloff, whom I never knew, did before he was massacred by animals.

 

TIME politics

A Battle of Two Veterans

In an edgy political year, a former Marine tests a longtime Democratic pol for a seat near Boston

I first wrote about former marine captain Seth Moulton three years ago–and he got ticked off at me. The story was about the leadership potential of the post-9/11 generation of veterans. I described Seth, who is 35, as “the” Harvard valedictorian in June 2001. “That’s not right,” he corrected me. “I was a commencement speaker. There were others. You make it sound like I’m bragging.” I wasn’t surprised that he got up in my face, though. When I’d first interviewed him, he said of his generation of veterans, “We hate the divisive politics of the baby-boom generation. They’re running the country into the ground.” Oof, I replied.

Moulton’s commencement speech was notable because he used the occasion to announce that he was joining the Marines. He said it was his civic responsibility to serve his country. If he didn’t, someone else would have had to take his place in Iraq, a war he thought was “crazy.” He served four tours there, the first two as leader of a combat platoon involved in heavy fighting. But Moulton’s real distinction was his ability to put together teams of Iraqis to build things. General David Petraeus heard about this and asked Moulton to assemble a team–architects, engineers, construction workers–to build a fort on the Iran border. He would be competing against an American private contractor, who had won a similar contract on the border. Moulton’s Iraqi team finished the job in one-third the time as the private contractor and at one-fifth the cost.

Three years later, moulton is running for Congress in Massachusetts’ Sixth District, which covers the suburbs north of Boston. He is running as a Democrat against John Tierney, 63, a nine-term Democratic incumbent. The winner of the Sept. 9 primary will face Richard Tisei, a formidable moderate Republican who is gay and who nearly beat Tierney in 2012. I know the district well, having begun my career covering politics in Peabody, Mass., centuries ago. Indeed, I covered Tierney’s uncle: city councillor James “Silver Fox” Tierney, of whom the city purchasing manager once said, “If we’d had the wisdom to send the Silver Fox to the [state legislature], he might have put half the city on the payroll.”

That is what politics is like in Boston, or used to be. John Tierney isn’t as colorful as his uncle. He has been reliable but not particularly inspiring. He has been a lockstep liberal vote. When you ask him about the paralysis in Washington, he will cite several recent cases of bipartisan triumph–the Veterans Affairs reform bill–but ultimately blames it all on the Republicans, with some good reason. He is a strong favorite to win the primary, well organized, well funded and well endorsed, by Senator Elizabeth Warren among others.

But he has two very serious problems. The first is the tinge of corruption, which stems from his wife’s rather sketchy family–two brothers, one on the lam in Antigua, who were indicted for their involvement in illegal gambling activities. Tierney’s wife Patrice pleaded guilty to helping her brother file false tax returns as part of the case. The brothers said the Congressman knew everything. A close friend of Tierney’s described the brothers as “dirtbags” who were getting back at Tierney because he refused to help them. The scandal was the big issue when the Republican Tisei nearly beat Tierney in 2012. It remains semitoxic.

In August, retired general Stanley McChrystal endorsed Moulton–the general’s first venture into partisan politics–and said the race was about “character.” I asked Tierney what he felt about that, and he said, “Well, [Moulton] worked for the guy.” Which was not true: McChrystal noted how painful it was for an Army officer to endorse a Marine.

Tierney’s other problem is that this may just be the year when the public starts to toss out incumbents on general principle. I saw several people approach Moulton during a day of campaigning and tell him that it was time for Tierney to go. Moulton has, sadly, become more prudent about what comes out of his mouth–and he has refused to distinguish himself from Tierney on most issues. He’s running on freshness and dynamism. He’s shown some of that in his campaign, joining his staff and volunteers in public-service projects throughout the district. And with more decisions looming on Iraq, he says, “the veterans on the committees that make those decisions shouldn’t only be Republicans.”

At a lovely Democratic Party reception in Gloucester harbor, the local establishment came together to support Tierney. He gave a relatively rousing stump speech, but his friends seemed worried. Jean Villa, a local activist who ran his first campaign, said, “I’ve been talking issues with him forever. He knows his stuff.” But, she added, “I always have a sense of how a race is breaking. This time, I’m just not sure.”

TIME nation

Beyond a Simple Solution for Ferguson

Why we need to address race relations in a thoughtful, provocative way

At first, it seemed a perfect metaphor for 400 years of oppression: a white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager multiple times. He is shot with his hands up, it is reported, at least once in the back. The young man is a “gentle giant” with no adult criminal record. He seems guilty of nothing more than walking while black, albeit down the middle of the street. This takes place in a town that appears to have been cryogenically preserved from the 1960s, before the Voting Rights Act was passed. An estimated 67% of its citizens are African American; its government is melanin-deprived. The mayor of Ferguson, Mo., is white; 50 of the 53 police officers are white. Demonstrators come out to protest the atrocity–nobody is calling it an “apparent” atrocity yet–and the police respond in gear that makes a St. Louis suburb look like Kandahar.

But the perfection of the metaphor is soon blurred by facts. The gentle giant, Michael Brown Jr.–nicknamed Bodyguard by his friends–seems pretty intimidating in a surveillance video, in which he is seen taking cigarillos from a convenience store, tossing the diminutive clerk into a snack display as if he were a bag of Doritos. The alleged robbery occurs 10 minutes before the confrontation with the cop. The inevitable Rev. Al Sharpton says the video is an attempt to “smear” the young man. Then more facts emerge, and other eyewitnesses allegedly describe a more aggressive Michael Brown–more like the fellow in the video. An autopsy, requested by Brown’s parents, shows six bullet wounds; the kill shot is into the top of the victim’s head–which raises another possibility, that the officer, Darren Wilson, fired in self-defense. And now we have a metaphor of a different, far more difficult sort: about the uncanny ability of Americans to talk past each other when it comes to race relations, and also about the struggle between facts and metaphoric truths.

Sharpton has made a living off metaphoric truths since the late 1980s, when he promoted a terrified young woman named Tawana Brawley, who claimed that she had been raped by six white men, including the local prosecutor. Her story was later shown in court to be false, but the metaphoric truth was undeniable: black women have been casually violated by white men in America for 400 years. The undercurrent was strong enough that few black leaders rose up to take on Sharpton. The fetishizing of black sexuality by white men (and women) was too close to the bone, an infuriating historic truth.

But we have developed new historic truths over the past 50 years. A great many bodega owners won’t see Michael Brown as a metaphor for anything. They see potentially threatening customers every day. Blacks represent 13% of the population but commit 50% of the murders; 90% of black victims are murdered by other blacks. The facts suggest that history is not enough to explain this social disaster.

You can’t convict a terrified, undertrained cop of murder for trying to defend himself, if that’s what the facts show–but all too often in the past, we’ve exonerated racist thugs who were clearly guilty. We can’t ignore the barbarity that got us here: lynching was a fact, too, not a metaphor. Oddly, the election of Barack Obama–poor guy–has blunted the conversation about race relations, at least on the white side. We elected a black man with a Muslim name to be President. What other country would do that? The conversation has also been blunted, honorably, by the President himself in the face of some of the most tawdry race-baiting since Selma. And it has been blunted by leaders of the black community, who don’t want to harm Obama’s presidency by criticizing him. In a recent New Republic article, Jason Zengerle makes a strong case that hatred of Obama mobilized Alabama conservatives to take over the state legislature in 2010 and strip black officials of the power they had gained since the 1960s.

Race remains an open wound. There is a new generation of black intellectuals who are raising the issue in thoughtful, provocative ways. “The Case for Reparations” by the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates is compelling, even if the case is not a particularly strong one. We’ve had 50 years of drastically improved political, educational and employment opportunities for blacks, which have produced a burgeoning middle class, but a debilitating culture of poverty persists among the urban underclass. Black crime rates are much higher than they were before the civil rights movement. These problems won’t be solved simply by the recognition of historic grievances. Absent a truly candid conversation about the culture that emerged from slavery and segregation, they won’t be solved at all.

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

TIME Iraq

An Evil That Must Be Stopped

ISIS is the most serious threat to American interests in a decade. Why we must counter it

Ryan Crocker, who probably knows the Middle East better than any other living American diplomat, recently cut to the chase about the situation in Iraq. “This is about America’s national security,” he told the New York Times. “We don’t understand real evil, organized evil, very well. This is evil incarnate. People like [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have been in a fight for a decade. They are messianic in their vision, and they are not going to stop.”

We’ve been in the fight for more than a decade too. It began as a proportionate attempt to retaliate against those who attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001. We successfully ousted the Taliban government that supported Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, but Osama and many of his top aides escaped. The war against al-Qaeda should have continued as a targeted special-forces operation, but the flagrantly disproportionate Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq changed all that … and the Obama surge in Afghanistan didn’t help much, either. Suddenly we found ourselves locked in the middle of civil wars in both countries (or perhaps I should say “countries”). The President was right to extricate our combat troops from those futile fights.

But the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS–or the Levant, ISIL, if you prefer) has changed the game again. Terrorism has a new name, and now, for the first time, it has a well-organized, well-funded, well-armed military with the ability to take and perhaps hold territory. There have been reports of al-Qaeda elements linking up with the Islamic State. There are reports of hundreds of would-be jihadis from around the world joining ISIS, including dozens from the U.S. ISIS is considered so extreme that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda’s central command, has condemned it. The Islamic State is metastasizing and committing mass atrocities with astonishing ferocity. It aspires to attack the U.S. and will, no doubt, soon attempt to do so. This is a threat we cannot ignore.

Yes, we’re sick of war, sick of the region and particularly sick of Iraq–but, as seemed clear in the days after 9/11, and less clear since, this is a struggle that is going to be with us for a very long time. It doesn’t need to be the thunderous, all-consuming fight that the Bush-Cheney government made it out to be. It will require a strategic rethink of who our friends and enemies are in the region. We may find that Iran is part of the ISIS solution rather than part of the problem–a problem that Saudi Arabia’s support for Sunni extremism helped create. We may even find ourselves on the same side as Syria’s disgraceful Bashar Assad: ISIS is the greatest threat to his continued rule.

There are real dangers here. We don’t want to take sides in what may well become a cataclysmic regional war between Sunni and Shi’ite. We don’t want to become the “air force of Shi’ite militias,” as former CIA director David Petraeus has said. The best way forward would be to work through a reconstituted Iraqi government, led by newly appointed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. But we’ve seen the danger of arming the Iraqis in the past; those arms are now being used against us by ISIS. In the best-case scenario, al-Abadi builds a government that wins back the trust of Iraq’s Sunnis, but that won’t happen overnight.

In the worst-case scenario, the U.S. military would have to fight the Islamic State from a Kurdish base; support for the peshmerga forces is essential. Any direct U.S. military action should be measured and proportionate–an insinuation rather than an invasion, taken in concert with allies who are capable of sophisticated covert operations. This time, as opposed to 2003, more than a few of the regional players on both sides of the sectarian divide want our help in the war on ISIS. The President may hope that he can keep U.S. involvement at current levels–air strikes and the presence of 800 special operators on the ground, who are mostly scouting the enemy and working up new targeting sets. But no one should be surprised if we find ourselves on a slippery slope toward more violence. There will be no escaping this fight, unfortunately.

There has been endless debate about who “lost” Iraq and Syria. Even Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are squabbling about it. We don’t have the luxury of wasting time or political energy on that now. There is not a politician, policymaker or journalist who hasn’t been wrong about Iraq at some point. What’s needed is a clear and united sense of national purpose … as clear and united as it was on Sept. 12, 2001. Our war against al-Qaeda-style extremism isn’t over; it may have only just begun.

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

TIME Foreign Policy

Back to Iraq

Our war against al-Qaeda-style extremism isn't over. It may have only just begun

+ READ ARTICLE

Ryan Crocker, who probably knows the region better than any other living American diplomat, cut to the chase about the situation in Iraq:

“This is about America’s national security…We don’t understand real evil, organized evil, very well. This is evil incarnate. People like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” the ISIS leader, “have been in a fight for a decade. They are messianic in their vision, and they are not going to stop.”

We’ve been in a fight for more than a decade, too. It began as a just attempt to retaliate against those who attacked America on September 11, 2001. It was proportionate, at first–if not terribly effective when it came to taking out Osama Bin Laden. The war against Al Qaeda should have been a special forces operation, from start to finish. But the flagrantly disproportionate Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq changed all that…and the Obama surge in Afghanistan didn’t help much, either. Suddenly we found ourselves locked in the middle of civil wars in both countries (or perhaps I should say, “countries”). The President was right to extricate our combat troops from those futile fights.

But the rise of ISIS (or ISIL, if you prefer) has changed the game again. We are back to the original enemy: a reconstituted version of untrammeled Sunni extremism, which–as Crocker says–poses a direct terrorist threat to the United States, a threat we cannot afford to ignore.

Yes, we’re sick of war, sick of the region and particularly sick of Iraq–but, as seemed clear in the days after 9/11, and less clear since, this is a struggle that is going to be with us for a very long time. It doesn’t need to be the thunderous, all-consuming struggle that the Bush-Cheney government made it out to be. It will require a strategic rethink of who our friends and enemies actually are in the region. (As others have suggested, we may find that Iran is part of the solution rather than part of the problem–this is one case where America’s and Israel’s national security interests may diverge). And it will require a far smarter response than our first attempts to deal with Al Qaeda. It will have to be measured, proportionate–an insinuation rather than an invasion, acting in concert with true allies who also understand the threat and are capable of sophisticated covert operations.

During a conference call with a National Security Council expert yesterday, a reporter asked why this mission to protect the Kurds and Yazidis, and the Americans in Erbil, was different from the chaos in Libya, where we evacuated our embassy staff from Tripoli. The answer should be obvious: the chaos in Libya is a civil war among competing tribes. It is part of a regional struggle to redraw the straight lines on the maps that were drawn by Europeans 100 years ago. It will be a bloody fight for a generation and, in most cases, will be peripheral to our national interests. But when a terrorist group establishes an actual state, as seems to be the case with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, it is an entirely different story. The world cannot tolerate a safe haven from which attacks can be launched against religious minorities, as is now happening, or against other countries (including the US)–which is the stated intent of the ISIS leadership. That is why we took action against the Taliban government in Afghanistan 13 years ago. The urgency is no less now–and, indeed, is perhaps greater, given the honed strength of this extremely well-armed and well-funded terrorist organization.

There has been, and probably will be, endless debate about who “lost” Iraq. We don’t have the luxury of wasting time or political energy on that now. What’s needed is a clear and united sense of purpose…as clear and united as it was on September 12, 2001. Our war against Al Qaeda-style extremism isn’t over; it may have only just begun.

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.

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