TIME

‘Are We Going Backwards?’

Raleigh, North Carolina

I love North Carolina. In my mind, the state will always be associated with my friend, the cartoonist and author Doug Marlette, who lived in Hillsborough and dragooned me into rooting for the Tar Heels basketball team. He died in a car crash–driven into a loblolly pine by a UMiss student, a classic southern way to go–a few years ago. Doug was a stone iconoclast, in the driest and most insidious way possible. I miss him every day and especially yesterday. What would Doug have made of this scene:

About 200 people had gathered to talk politics in the auditorium at the Galloway Ridge retirement community. I’ve watched politicians work rooms like this for 45 years, and I’d always seen the seniors as another country, a place I was visiting briefly and wanted to get away from as quickly as possible, with their walkers and oxygen machines and rambly minds. But I’m now age eligible to live in Galloway Ridge, if a bit on the young side–most of the audience had about ten years on me. And I realized this was the first time I’d covered a senior citizen meeting as a senior citizen. (Doug would have had something to say about that.) And there was another thing I had in common with the crowd. None of them were North Carolinians either.

I asked them how many had been born in North Carolina…about a dozen raised their hands. I asked how many were from New York? About 50. Most of the rest were from elsewhere in the north or from nearby states, lured by the pleasant conditions, sophistication–there are more retired PhDs in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area than any other place in the country, according to John Drescher, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer–and history of political and cultural moderation. (Doug might have drawn a cartoon of competing grits and bagel vendors.)

Folks like those I met at Galloway Ridge–snowbirds, they’re called down here–were one historic source of the moderation, but so was a brilliant strain of moderate politicians, mostly Democrats, who placed their bets on education. This has been true for fifty years, since governors like Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt ran things; both men were nationally recognized education experts. They believed that if you built a world-class educational system, especially at the university level, prosperity would follow. They were right–although, as in most other places, elementary and high schools never quite made the grade.

Kay Hagan, the incumbent Democratic Senator, calls education a “sacred priority” in the state, one that was trashed by a new breed of extreme Republicans when they took over the state legislature in 2010. And the first half dozen questions at Calloway Ridge were about education. “I feel we’re going backwards,” said Joan Lipshitz. “In just a few years, the Republicans have trashed 50 years of progress.”

Others agreed. “This used to be the vanguard of enlightened southern politics,” said Mike Zbailey. “That’s why we moved here. Now it’s in danger of becoming Alabama.” (Hey Alabama: I await your response. I’ll be there next week.)

But a real challenge came from a fellow named Tom Houk–hope I’ve spelled that right–who said that school system was busted. “Only 14% of African-American students pass their year-end tests; only 15% of Hispanics do. We need to provide them with better schools. Charter Schools.”

No one questioned the gentleman’s numbers, and I hope Tessa Berenson–this year’s trip wrangler, as Katy Steinmetz has gone on to writing cover stories and being an all-around terrific journalist for Time–will check them out. But Joan Lipsitz fired back that the schools needed more money to succeed. The Republicans were cutting budgets, skimping on teacher pay. “We need to support public education,” she said. (Charter schools are public schools, although some are run by profit-making ventures.)

There is where the conversation usually ends. Liberals want to spend more money. Conservatives want to see more accountability. (As a flaming moderate, I favor both.) And I tried to nudge the conversation forward, without much luck, asking this mostly liberal audience if they could see the point of more accountability. They weren’t giving much ground.

Earlier yesterday, I visited the Raleigh News and Observer, and one of the of the smart young reporters–an endangered species–raised the same question as Joan Lipsitz, “Are we going backwards?” Again, she was referring to the Republican legislature and education spending. But it was larger than that.

It’s a big question, a national question, one I’ll explore over the next few weeks on the road. In North Carolina, it’s the biggest question this year. Indeed, the Democrat Kay Hagan’s omnipresent radio ads focus on Republican Thom Tillis’s record on education spending in the state legislature–of course, it’s better for her to focus on North Carolina, rather than Washington, where the President whose name dare not be mentioned is still in charge.

I wonder what “going backwards” really means. It runs crosswise to the American spirit. Progress is our most important product. But is progress always more? Might it sometimes mean different, more effective, more efficient? Democrats are the conservatives on this issue: they don’t want to change the inspired obsession of Hunt and Sanford. Republicans are both progressive and reactionary–some legitimately believe that the old assembly-line system of public education needs to be customized for the information age and a competitive system of charter schools is the way to do it. Others just don’t want to spend the money (especially on black kids).

Tomorrow I’ll take a closer look at the Republican candidates in North Carolina.

And I’d like to thank Dr. Richard Merwarth for setting up the meeting at Galloway Ridge, one of the largest groups I’ve met with on these road trips.

 

TIME Foreign Policy

Obama, ISIS and 9/11

The President laid out a measured, prudent approach to handle the ISIS threat last night. A lot was unstated–as it should be–concerning the role of US special ops on the ground and surreptitious alliances with countries like Iran, whose interests now coincide with our own in the region. The McCainiac Republican reaction–more! bigger! now!–is so far beyond foolish that it needn’t be taken seriously. If John McCain had been elected President–and actually governed the way he runs his mouth–we’d have troops stuck in perpetuity in Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and quite possibly Iran, not to mention Ukraine and Georgia (if we were lucky enough to avoid a nuclear exchange with Russia). McCain, in his tussle with Jay Carney on CNN last night, said we’d had troops in Korea and Bosnia for many years and nothing awful had happened–true enough–but neither Bosnia nor Korea (nor Germany, or Japan, he might have added) have the history of rampaging western imperialism that the Middle East does.

And that history of imperialism represents the greatest obstacle to success for Obama’s plan. George W Bush’s foolish invasion of Iraq, plus the increasing power of communication among jihadists, unleashed the possibility that the straight line borders and imaginary countries drawn by Europeans in the Middle East 98 years ago might erode (as the border between Syria and Iraq has now vanished). This is the most critical problem with the President’s plan: It assumes that Iraq is a country, that it will be able to organize a plausible, multi-sectarian government and Army–his proposed “boots on the ground” in the war against ISIS. It also assumes that Syria, in its current borders, is a country. But it’s equally possible that Syria splits apart into Sunni and Shia (plus Druse and Maronite) zones, perhaps compromising the future existence of Lebanon and Jordan. And that the Kurds split off from Iraq. And maybe even that the Shi’ites in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province make common cause with their Arab Shi’ite brothers across the “border” in southern Iraq. Or, worst of all, that we’re on the cusp of a regional Sunni-Shia conflagration–which our actions might help precipitate. The possibilities are myriad, and defy anything we now assume.

It is a safe bet that this area will have fractures and bloody amputations, stuggles over new borders and perhaps new countries for the rest of this century. The forces pushing toward a tribal and sectarian rationalizing of borders are far too primal for the U.S and the West to control completely. Does that mean we shouldn’t try? No. We should try–humbly–and with low expectations. We should certainly try to take out as many of ISIS’s assets as possible and proceed–as the President suggested we should–in the same targeted manner we have in Somalia and Yemen. Keeping the terrorists on the defensive is very much in our national interest.

There is constant talk of hard and soft power, but in the 13 years since 9/11, we have learned of a third source: viral power. Terrorism is a constantly metastasizing virus. It can be suppressed but it is too mutable to be swept away. It is difficult to fight with conventional means, under the traditional rules of war. What the President was trying to communicate last night was that this struggle is not going to end with a signing ceremony on the deck of a battleship. As John Kerry said in 2004, it will continue as a low-grade fever for many years, quite possibly for the rest of our children’s lives. It is a chronic condition that will have to be managed, until the real nations in that benighted region are sorted out, built, governed and controlled–not by us, but by the people who live there. Our job between now and then is to be realistic, defend our national security interests and to help, diplomatically and economically, to build a stable peace, if such a thing is possible.

TIME nation

Missed Chance on Immigration

Obama had an opportunity to do something great. Instead, he hid behind the politics

A few weeks ago, I was accosted by a guy who said, contemptuously, “I know why you still have your job.” I asked him why, stupidly. Turned out, he didn’t really want to tell me–although he insisted he knew–because he said I’d just deny it. But in the midst of his splutter, other facts emerged. I was part of the liberal media establishment, working in clandestine fashion with President Obama. Our secret mission was to stage an ethnic revolution by allowing all sorts of immigrants through the border and getting them to vote. “People like me tell the truth,” the man said, “and people like you call us racists.” An interesting rhetorical ploy, since it did appear by all the evidence that he was one, although I didn’t mention that … because he’d just deny it.

I report this decidedly unpleasant incident because it is pure distillate of the latest stage of anti-Obama paranoia. The first was that the President was not an American and was quite probably a secret Muslim. The second was that he was a socialist, trying to have the government take over everything–like health care–so that money could be transferred to the deadbeats. Now he’s trying to undermine American democracy by having all these furriners fake their way into our voting booths. The real news here, I think, is that immigration–not Obamacare–will be the hottest of buttons in the November elections. According to a recent Gallup poll, immigration is now the No. 1 issue for Republicans. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that only 3% of Republicans and 2% of Democrats thought Obamacare was the biggest problem.

For the first 190 years of U.S. history, opposition to immigration was mostly about religion–Catholicism and Judaism. For the past 50 or so, it’s been mostly about race–Mexicans and other Latinos. Nativists have always existed in both parties, and they’ve gotten particularly noisy over this ugly summer, as terrified Central American refugees flowed toward the border–which is really why the President decided to postpone his plans to expand immigration rights until after the November elections. The fate of several moderate Democrats, in states where aversion to illegal immigrants is fierce, will determine whether the Senate goes Republican. Nativists have won temporary victories in the past, but it has become clear that there are no limits to the basic American principle: the things we have in common are more important than the things that divide us. Most academic studies show that immigration is a net plus for the economy (unless there is an illegal deluge, which there hasn’t been, despite the recent refugees). “Give us … your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” has been at the heart of the American exception, along with democracy and freedom.

The President has eloquently spoken of this basic principle in the past. With a mom from Kansas and a dad from Kenya, he embodies it. But he has abandoned the high ground and seems a bit panicky now, dodging immigration reform even though he believes in it, thereby offending all sides. There are various explanations, none of them very noble, for Obama’s diminishing ability to convince anyone of anything. I think the problem has been there from the start: he is not a natural politician and, consequently, places too much faith in those who are alleged experts in the art. He buys their discombobulated, amoral strategies. He uses their language: he talks about “optics” when he plays golf instead of spending a vacation day in quiet reflection after an American journalist is beheaded. He sounds cynical. He almost never makes a straight-ahead moral argument. That was true on health care, where he never mentioned the fact that the program was a matter of simple fairness: the poor had medical coverage through Medicaid; the working poor and many self-employed were stuck.

On immigration, he announced his prevarication by telling Chuck Todd, “And I’m being honest now, about the politics of it,” while insisting politics had nothing to do with his delayed action. A working politician should never use the words honest and politics in the same sentence. In this case, the President’s disingenuous claim led to a cascade of rhetorical malarkey. Disappointed Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell blasted Obama for not going through with his Executive Order even though he and most Republicans thought it was illegal. Why would he do that? Because he thought unilateral action by Obama on immigration would help Republicans in November.

There has always been politics. Some of us love its primal intricacy and elegance. But politics without moral content becomes an exercise in competing cynicisms, with progress an occasional, almost accidental, consequence. And in such an atmosphere you have to wonder why Barack Obama is playing games with one of the core issues that define who we are as a country.

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

TIME

Join Joe Klein’s 2014 Road Trip

TIME's political columnist plans Southern swing ahead of midterm elections

I’m heading south this year, starting on September 19th–in search of fun, insight and American stuff. As always, if you’d like to meet with me and talk politics, let me know… Also, I’d love to hear about any debates, barbecues, picnics, festivals or rituals coming up in your states. We start 9/19 in North Carolina…9/22 in Georgia, 9/24 in Alabama, 9/26-28 in Tennessee, 9/29-30 Mississippi, 10/1-3 Louisiana, 10/4-5 in Arkansas, 10/6-7 in Kentucky.

The schedule is subject to change, depending on political events…and you. If you’d like to get together, please contact me at Joe_Klein@timemagazine.com…or trip wrangler Tessa.Berenson@Timeinc.com.

I’m looking forward to several weeks of politics from the ground up, good music and great food.

 

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

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.

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