TIME foreign affairs

Malaysia Airlines Ukraine Crash: Tragedy Fuels the U.S. Intervention Machine

John McCain
U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticizes the Obama administration during a Jackson, Miss., runoff rally in support of Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran at the Mississippi War Memorial in Jackson, Miss., June 23, 2014. Rogelio V. Solis—AP

Whatever happened in Ukrainian airspace doesn’t immediately or obviously involve the United States.

Apart from the probable cause of its destruction, we know almost nothing about the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 that was “blown out of the sky” yesterday over eastern Ukraine, according to Vice President Joe Biden. President Obama confirmed today that one American was among the dead and that separatists with ties to Russia are allowing inspectors to search the wreckage area. In today’s press conference, Obama stressed the need to get real facts — as opposed to misinformed speculation — before deciding on next steps.

Yet even with little in the way of concrete knowledge — much less clear, direct ties to American lives and interests — what might be called the Great U.S. Intervention Machine is already kicking into high gear. This is unfortunate, to say the least.

After a decade-plus of disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people (including almost 7,000 American soldiers) and constitutionally dubious and strategically vague interventions in places such as Libya, it is well past time for American politicians, policymakers, and voters to stage a national conversation about U.S. foreign policy. Instead, elected officials and their advisers are always looking for the next crisis over which to puff up their chests and beat war drums.

Which is one of the reasons why Gallup and others report record low numbers of people think the government is up to handling global challenges. Last fall, just 49 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust and confidence in Washington’s ability to handle international problems. That’s down from a high of 83 percent in 2002, before the Iraq invasion.

In today’s comments, President Obama said that he currently doesn’t “see a U.S. military role beyond what we’ve already been doing in working with our NATO partners and some of the Baltic states.” Such caution is not only wise, it’s uncharacteristic for a commander-in-chief who tripled troop strength in Afghanistan (to absolutely no positive effect), added U.S. planes to NATO’s action on Libya without consulting Congress, and was just last year agitating to bomb Syria.

Despite his immediate comments, there’s no question that the downing of the Malaysian plane “will intensify pressure on President Obama to send military help,” observes Jim Warren in The Daily News. Russia expert Damon Wilson, who worked for both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, says that no matter what else we learn, it’s time to beef up “sanctions that bite, along with military assistance, including lethal military assistance to Ukraine.” “Whoever did it should pay full price,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the head of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, says. “If it’s by a country, whether directly or indirectly, it could be considered an act of war.”

The immediate response of Arizona Sen. John McCain, the 2012 Republican presidential, was to appear on Fox News’ Hannity and fulminate that America appears “weak” under the leadership of President Obama and to imply that’s why this sort of thing happens. If the Russian government run by Vladimir Putin or Russian separatists in Ukraine are in any way behind the crash — even “indirectly” — said McCain, there will be “incredible repercussions.”

Exactly what those repercussions might be are anybody’s guess, but McCain’s literal and figurative belligerence is both legendary and representative of a bipartisan Washington consensus that the United States is the world’s policeman. For virtually the length of his time in office, McCain has always been up for some sort of military response, from creating no-fly zones to strategic bombing runs to boots on the ground to supplying arms and training to insurgents wherever he may find them. He was a huge supporter not just of going into Afghanistan to chase down Osama bin Laden and the terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks but staying in the “graveyard of empires” and trying to create a liberal Western-style democracy in Kabul and beyond.

Similarly, he pushed loudly not simply for toppling Saddam Hussein but talked up America’s ability to nation-build not just in Iraq but to sculpt the larger Middle East region into something approaching what we have in the United States. Over the past dozen-plus years, he has called for large and small interventions into the former Soviet state of Georgia, Libya, and Syria. He was ready to commit American soldiers to hunting down Boko Haram in Nigeria and to capturing African war lord Joseph Kony. In the 1990s, he wanted Bill Clinton to enter that Balkan civil wars early and often.

In all this, McCain resembles no other politician more than the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, whose hawkishness is undisputed. Like McCain, Clinton has long been an aggressive interventionist, both as a senator from New York and as secretary of state (where her famous attempt to “reset” relations with Russia failed spectacularly when it turned out that the “Reset” button she gave her Soviet counterpart meant “overcharged” rather than the intended conciliatory term). In the wake of Flight MH17 being shot down, Clinton has already said that the act of violence is a sign that Russian leader Vladimir Putin “has gone too far and we are not going to stand idly by.”

For most Americans, the failed wars in the Iraq and Afghanistan underscore the folly of unrestrained interventionism. So too do the attempts to arm rebels in Syria who may actually have ties to al Qaeda or other terrorist outfits. Barack Obama’s unilateral and constitutionally dubious deployment of American planes and then forces into Libya under NATO command turned tragic with the death of Amb. Chris Stevens and other Americans, and we still don’t really have any idea of what we were trying to accomplish there.

No one can doubt John McCain’s — or Hillary Clinton’s — patriotism and earnestness when it comes to foreign policy. But in the 21st century, America has little to show for its willingness to inject itself into all the corners of the globe. Neither do many of the nations that we have bombed and invaded and occupied.

Americans overwhelmingly support protecting Americans from terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. They are realistic, however, that the U.S. cannot spread democracy or preserve human rights through militarism.

When the United States uses its unrivaled military power everywhere and all the time, we end up accomplishing far less than hawks desire. Being everywhere and threatening action all the time dissipates American power rather than concentrates it. Contra John McCain and Hillary Clinton, whatever happened in Ukrainian airspace doesn’t immediately or obviously involve the United States, even with the loss of an American citizen. The reflexive call for action is symptomatic of exactly what we need to stop doing, at least if we want to learn from the past dozen-plus years of our own failures.

President Obama is right to move cautiously regarding a U.S. response. He would be wiser still to use the last years of his presidency to begin the hard work of forging a foreign-policy consensus that all Americans can actually get behind, not just in this situation but in all the others we will surely encounter.

TIME politics

The Secret Language of Millennials

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Concert crowd Getty Images/Vetta

Boomers just don’t understand what younger people are saying about politics and culture.

Fifty years ago, baby boomers and their parents suffered through what was ubiquitously understood as “the generation gap,” or the inability for different generations to speak clearly with one another.

A new national poll of Americans ages 18 to 29 — the millennial generation — provides strong evidence of a new generation gap, this time with the boomers (born from 1946 to 1964) playing the role of uncomprehending parents. When millennials say they are liberal, it means something very different than it did when Barack Obama was coming of age. When millennials say they are socialists, they’re not participating in ostalgie for the old German Democratic Republic. And their strong belief in economic fairness shouldn’t be confused with the attitudes of the Occupy movement.

The poll of millennials was conducted by the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit publisher of Reason.com, the website and video platform I edit) and the Rupe Foundation earlier this spring. It engaged nearly 2,400 representative 18-to-29-year-olds on a wide variety of topics.

This new generation gap certainly helps explain why millennials are far less partisan than folks 30 and older. Just 22% of millennials identify as Republican or Republican-leaning, compared with 40% of older voters. After splitting their votes for George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000 (each candidate got about 48%), millennials have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates in the 2004, 2008 and 2012 elections. Forty-three percent of millennials call themselves Democrats or lean that way. Yet that’s still a smaller percentage than it is for older Americans, 49% of whom are Democrats or lean Democrat. Most strikingly, 34% of millennials call themselves true independents, meaning they don’t lean toward either party. For older Americans, it’s just 10%.

Millennials use language differently than boomers and Gen X-ers (those born from 1965 to 1980). In the Reason-Rupe poll, about 62% of millennials call themselves liberal. By that, they mean they favor gay marriage and pot legalization, but those views hold little or no implication for their views on government spending. To millennials, being socially liberal is being liberal, period. For most older Americans, calling yourself a liberal means you want to increase the size, scope and spending of the government. (It may not even mean you support legal pot and marriage equality.) Despite the strong liberal tilt among millennials, 53% say they would support a candidate who was socially liberal and fiscally conservative. (Are you listening, major parties?)

There are other areas in which language doesn’t track neatly with boomer and Gen X definitions. Millennials have no firsthand memories of the Soviet Union or the Cold War. Forty-two percent say they prefer socialism as a means of organizing society, but only 16% can define the term properly as government ownership of the means of production. In fact, when asked whether they want an economy managed by the free market or by the government, 64% want the former and just 32% want the latter. Scratch a millennial “socialist” and you are likely to find a budding entrepreneur (55% say they want to start their own business someday). Although they support a government-provided social safety net, two-thirds of millennials agree that “government is usually inefficient and wasteful,” and they are highly skeptical toward government with regards to privacy and nanny-state regulations about e-cigarettes, soda sizes and the like.

For all the attention lavished on the youthful, anticapitalist Occupy movement a few years ago, it turns out that millennials have strongly positive attitudes toward free markets. (Just don’t call it capitalism.) Not surprisingly, they define fairness in a way that is less about income disparity and more about getting your due. Almost 6 in 10 believe you can get ahead with hard work, and a similar number want a society in which wealth is parceled out according to your achievement, not via the tax code or government redistribution of income. Even though 70% favor guaranteed health care, housing and income, millennials have no problem with unequal outcomes.

Like most older Americans, too, millennials are deeply worried about massive and growing federal budgets and debt, with 78% calling such things a major problem.

It would be a real shame if we can’t have the sorts of conversations we need to address and remedy such issues because different generations are talking past each other. Millennials are different from boomers or Gen X-ers: culture comes first and politics second to them. They are less partisan, and they are less hung up about things such as pot use, gay marriage and immigration. But in many ways, they agree with older generations when it comes to the value and legitimacy of work, the role of government in helping the poor and the inefficiency of government to do that.

Everyone agrees that there are crises everywhere: Social Security and Medicare are going bust, and the economy has been on life support for years. The best solutions will engage and involve Americans of all ages. The Reason-Rupe poll points to some places where generations are talking past each other and others where there is wide agreement. Giving its finding, a close read might just help narrow today’s generation gap so we can get on with improving all generations’ prospects.

TIME politics

Politics Make Us Petty—But Americans Actually Agree on More Than Ever

Primaries
Karen Dimon walks to her car after voting at the Meadowthorpe precinct at Meadowthorpe Elementary School in Lexington, Ky., May 20, 2014. Lexington Herald-Leade—MCT/Getty Images

An increasing number of Americans are calling themselves independents, and there are huge and growing areas of consensus developing not just on once-controversial social issues but also on the proper role of government.

A new national survey of 10,000 Americans tells you what probably already thought: “Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades.”

Pollsters at Pew Research report that “92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.” And the percentage of people who hold “consistently” conservative or liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades, to 21 percent.

Yet such rank partisanship and ideological extremism tell an incomplete and ultimately misleading story of contemporary America. Yes, those who identify themselves as members of Team Red or Team Blue are more at one another’s throats than ever (just check out C-SPAN if you don’t believe me). But an increasing number of Americans are calling themselves independents, and there are huge and growing areas of consensus developing not just on once-controversial social issues but also on the proper role of government in everyday life.

Gallup reports that in 2013, 42 percent of Americans identified themselves as politically independent, up 10 points from 1988. Over the same period, those willing to call themselves Democrats dropped from 36 percent to 31 percent and those calling themselves Republican fell from 30 percent to 25 percent. While it’s true that self-described independents often lean toward either the Democrats or Republicans, the number of “pure” independents has been growing for more than a decade and stands above 10 percent.

And there’s no question that people are leaving the major parties in droves. Between the 2008 and 2012 elections, USA Today reports, more than 2.5 million voters left the Democrats and the Republicans. “Registered Democrats declined in 25 of the 28 states that register voters by party,” according to USA Today’s tally. “Republicans dipped in 21 states, while independents increased in 18 states.” As politics gets more viciously partisan, more Americans are saying no thanks.

Then there are the areas in which consensus already exists or is growing rapidly. As political scientist Morris Fiorina explains in his book Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, Americans actually generally agree on many topics that inflame political partisans. Consider abortion, gay marriage, gun control, and pot legalization. Research from Pew itself shows only “modest generational differences in views of abortion gun control.” Fifty-five percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage (up from just 42 percent in 2004) and 58 percent support legalizing pot (up from 34 percent a decade ago). When it comes to Congress, few topics seem to engender more rage than immigration, but it turns out that 71 percent of voters — including 64 percent of Republicans — support comprehensive immigration reform.

When it comes to larger questions of the role of government in everyday life, for the past four years about 55 percent of Americans believe the “government is doing too much” and only 38 percent believe it should be doing more. That generally skeptical view of government is borne out in the record high level of people — a whopping 72 percent — who agree that government poses a bigger threat to our future than big business (21 percent) or big labor (5 percent).

Fiorina’s Culture War? helps to explain how politics can be getting more polarized even as Americans seem to agree on many, maybe most, big issues. “The answer,” he writes, “is that while voter positions have not polarized, their choices have.” The ways that the Democratic and Republican parties select their representatives and build their platforms is more fully in the hands of partisans who push more extreme candidates and policies. That means that the typical voter is faced not just with the lesser of two evils but two major-party choices that don’t really represent her beliefs.

Partisan and ideological polarization is a sour note in an America that is increasingly singing in harmony about things such as immigration, the drug war, marriage equality, and more. No wonder, then, that more and more of us refuse to say we’re Republican or Democrat, or to trust Washington, D.C. — that hotbed of the worst sort of to-the-death politics — with our lives and our futures.

TIME Media

Don’t Accept Jonah Hill’s Apology!

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon - Season 1
Jonah Hill during an interview with host Jimmy Fallon on June 3, 2014. NBC—NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

And don’t take celebrities seriously in the first place.

Jonah Hill, the Oscar-nominated actor, just did two things for which celebrities are famous. First, he called a paparazzo a homophobic slur (“Suck my dick, you faggot!” as captured by TMZ). Second, he appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to apologize for what he’d said.

Hill says he’s always been in favor of equality for gays, so his “heart’s broken” that he said what he said. He’s also got a big movie coming out next week (22 Jump Street, a sequel to the very funny and very successful 21 Jump Street), which surely adds to his case of the sads and helps explain the urgency with which he’s trying to create a teachable moment from his unseemly outburst.

Addressing not simply The Tonight Show’s studio audience but all humanity, Hill counseled: “If someone says something that hurt you or angers you, use me as an example of what not to do. Don’t respond with hatred or anger, because you are just adding more ugliness to the world.”

If only he’d taken that advice before filming Get Him to the Greek.

I assume Hill’s act of contrition is sincere, but who cares about his hard-won, PR-friendly insight into the human condition? Why should we take his apology any more seriously than we take his ugly outburst?

That goes for any celebrity, whether it’s Alec Baldwin, whose chronic and highly entertaining rage-aholism gushes more regularly and spectacularly than Old Faithful, or Gwyneth Paltrow, with her natterings about how being famous is like surviving war and her paradigm-shattering discovery that emotional “negativity changes the structure of water.

Celebrities don’t seem to understand their role in the modern world. They are not here to educate us or to make us aspire to a higher level of consciousness or dream of a world where sharks are treated with kindness rather than fear.

They’re here to entertain us, both on- and offscreen. That’s what they get paid so well for, and they can stop apologizing for it. As economist Tyler Cowen wrote in What Price Fame?, today’s renown is nothing like its premodern antecedent. Centuries ago, fame stemmed from martial prowess and involved brutish, dictatorial leaders forcing subjects to worship them as demigods and to mindlessly follow their directions.

With the exception of a handful of former Soviet republics and certain precincts of Hollywood, that’s thankfully all behind us. In modern societies, we get to make our own decisions about work, love and the meaning of life. “Contemporary stars are well-paid but impotent puppets,” wrote Cowen, who “serve their fans rather than making their fans serve them.”

Celebs like Hill, Justin Bieber (recently caught hurling racial epithets), James Franco (who called a theater critic a “little bitch”) and others should learn to take themselves as seriously as their fans do. Which is not very.

That’s not to say celebrities aren’t occasionally capable of genuine insights into the stuff of life. Back in 1993, the chronically controversial basketball great Charles Barkley created a scandal that was unrelated to his various drunken-driving incidents and episodes of unsportsmanlike conduct. The Round of Mound of Rebound got in trouble for stating a self-evident truth. “I am not a role model,” he announced in a Nike ad.

That wasn’t his job, he explained. He was just a guy who was good at putting a ball through a hoop. Barkley also never hesitated to point to his own role models: “My mother and grandmother were two of the hardest-working ladies in the world, and they raised me to work hard.”

Truer words were never spoken by a celebrity. Or forgotten as quickly.

TIME health

You Say Potato, Mrs. Obama. I Say, Please Stop Micromanaging Our Diets and Our Schools

If you’ve ever wondered just where the role of government ends and where the ability of adults to choose things for themselves and their children begins, don’t bother. The answer, at least according to First Lady Michelle Obama, is nowhere.

Marching under the banner of Science with a capital S, Obama believes the federal government should be able to tell you what to eat. Or, more precisely, not eat. At least if you’re poor enough to be on relief or if you’re remanded to the custody of a K-12 public school.

Writing in the New York Times, Obama warns that “right now, the House of Representatives is considering a bill to override science by mandating that white potatoes be included on the list of foods that women can purchase using WIC dollars.”

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. Obama agrees that “there is nothing wrong with potatoes.” It’s just that according to the Institute of Medicine (a.k.a. “science”), the “low-income women and their babies and toddlers” served by the WIC program would be better off if they chowed down on “nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables.”

When it comes to schoolkids, Obama is just as emphatic that decisions are best made in Washington, rather than in the countless cafeterias of the nation’s 100,000 public schools. Some House members, she writes, “want to make it optional, not mandatory, for schools to serve fruits and vegetables to our kids. They also want to allow more sodium and fewer whole grains than recommended into school lunches.”

The First Lady believes that the various programs she’s championed over the past few years (like Let’s Move!, which hectors kids to exercise) are producing “glimmers of progress” in the War on Fat People, especially among children ages 2 to 5. The fact is, however, that there is no clear link between any of the programs she promotes and the trends she applauds.

According to a new Centers for Disease Control study, the obesity rate among kids that age is 8%, down from 14% in 2003. That’s all well and good, but the authors caution that one year doesn’t make a trend, especially since that group makes up “a tiny fraction” of the population. Indeed, the same report also notes that obesity rates among Americans 19 years old and younger had already stopped climbing by 2003 and have been flat ever since, at about 17%. Other accounts suggest that youth obesity rates peaked even earlier, in 1999. Over the same general time frame, adult obesity rates have stayed steady, at around 30%. This all came after a tripling of rates between the 1970s and 1990s.

Obama is welcome to take credit for a general flattening of trends that began years before her husband became President. However, when she starts urging the federal government to limit individual choices and centralize control in the federal government, attention should be paid. “As parents, we always put our children’s interests first,” she writes. “We wake up every morning and go to bed every night worrying about their well-being and their futures.”

If she really believes that, then why not treat poor people with the same respect that we treat middle-class and upper-middle-class folks? If we’re going to supplement their incomes, why not give them a cash payment and let them figure out how to make the best use of it?

Similarly, if we can’t trust our schools to figure out how best to fill their students’ stomachs, why the hell are we forcing our children to attend such institutions in the first place? When is the last time you heard kids who attend schools of choice—whether private, religious or public charters (which enroll disproportionately high numbers of low-income students)—even mention food?

During the debate over Obamacare’s individual mandate, we had a fiery national conversation over whether the government could force you to buy broccoli. But even when the Supreme Court effectively said it could, nobody believed it could make you eat the stuff. That debate, it seems, took place in a simpler time.

TIME politics

Where the War on Pot Will Go to Die

Republican lawyer and marijuana advocate.
Some pot and a pipe from one of the first medical marijuana stores in California. The Washington Post—The Washington Post/Getty Images

In some states, there's an untenable mismatch between the crime and the time, but does anyone think that pot—medical or recreational—will still be illegal in 10 years?

Now that a majority of Americans—54% and climbing, according to Pew Research—believe that marijuana should be treated like beer, wine and liquor, it’s time to ask: Where does the war on pot go to die?

What episode will trigger that final skirmish that kicks over the hollowed-out edifice of marijuana prohibition like the Berlin Wall? What will be the final outrage against common sense and common decency that triggers an Arab Spring for weed in these U.S.? Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia already have medical marijuana (with more to come), and full legalization has gained 13 percentage points in just the past five years.

Ironically, whatever ends the war on pot won’t happen in Colorado or Washington, which have already legalized recreational pot and have received vague promises from Attorney General Eric Holder that the feds won’t bust people and businesses who comply with state laws. Colorado is further along in the retail process than Washington (where pot shops won’t open until mid-July), and so far the only problem of note is that the state is raking in 40% more tax revenue than originally projected.

Look instead to places such as Round Rock, Texas, where 19-year-old Jacob Lavoro faces a sentence between five and 99 years for allegedly selling a 1.5-lb. slab of hash brownies. Under state law, selling up to five pounds of plain old pot is punishable by no more than two years in the clink and a $10,000 fine. But hash, a concentrated form of pot, is considered a controlled substance, and even the tiny amount in Lavoro’s brownies qualifies him for what amounts to a potential life sentence. Through a convoluted rationale, you see, the law can count all the brownie ingredients—the eggs, butter, flour, cocoa—as hash.

Oh well, everything’s bigger in Texas, including the unconscionable mismatch between the crime and the time. If he were only a couple of states away, Lavoro wouldn’t be facing jail, he’d be a successful entrepreneur. That sort of mind-blowing disjuncture is exactly the sort of thing that takes the fight out of the war on pot.

Or look to recent comments made by FBI director James Comey, who admitted that he can’t hire the 2,000 cybercrime fighters the bureau needs to protect America because of workplace drug tests. “I have to hire a great workforce to compete with those cybercriminals, and some of those kids want to smoke weed on the way to the interview,” Comey said. He was upbraided by Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) for providing yet “one more example of leadership in America dismissing the seriousness of marijuana use.” Whatever you can say about Comey, he’s in good company in acknowledging the ubiquity of pot smoking in today’s America. According to the latest government data, 43% of Americans—including the three most recent Presidents—have tried pot at least once. And when asked whether alcohol or marijuana is more harmful to society, fully 63% say booze and just 23% say pot. How much longer can the Jeff Sessionses of the world hold back the tide of public opinion?

And, finally, look to California, which passed the nation’s first medical-marijuana ballot initiative way back in 1996 and saw 46.5% vote in favor of recreational pot in a 2010 proposition. In 2011, federal agents raided the operations of business of dispensary owner and medical grower Aaron Sandusky. This came after repeated promises by the Obama Administration that it wouldn’t go after medical-pot providers who were operating within state law. And even though officials from the city of Upland, which had tipped off the feds, later admitted in court that Sandusky was operating properly within state law.

Sandusky refused on principle to cop a plea because he thought he was in the right. Tried in federal court, he was unable to offer a defense based on California state law. Sandusky ended up pulling a 10-year sentence. In March of this year, he lost his final appeal. If he’s lucky and stays on good behavior, he’ll be out in 2021. Does anyone think that pot—medical or recreational—will still be illegal by then?

As it happens, Sandusky is doing time in Texas’ Big Spring Federal Correctional Institute, which is only a four-hour drive from Jacob Lavoro’s hometown of Round Rock. As Lavoro ponders whatever deal prosecutors might offer him, he’d be smart to visit Sandusky and ask what life behind bars is like. Because while the war on pot is surely in its final stage, there will still be plenty of casualties before peace is declared.

MORE: Inside a Christian Pot Shop

TIME foreign affairs

The Nigerian Schoolgirl Kidnappings Are None of Our Business

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about the kidnapped school girls by the Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram, during a press availability at the U.S. State Department in Washington, DC, May 8, 2014. SAUL LOEB—AFP/Getty Images

The goal of U.S. foreign policy should always be tightly tied to protecting American lives, interests and property.

“It’s a heartbreaking situation, outrageous situation,” said President Barack Obama, referring to the kidnapping of more than 250 schoolgirls in Nigeria by the radical terrorist group Boko Haram.

That’s absolutely true, but why in the world is Obama directly involving the U.S.—“we’ve already sent…a combination of military, law enforcement, and other agencies”–in the search for the girls, who are reportedly being sold into slavery?

The goal of our foreign policy, and especially interventions involving soldiers, should always be tightly tied to protecting American lives, interests and property. If the past dozen years and actions of the two most recent presidents should have taught us anything, it’s that the U.S. is not particularly adept at solving its own domestic problems, much less those in faraway lands. That’s the reason why Gallup reports a 40-year low in trust in Washington’s foreign policy, with just 49 percent of Americans saying they have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of confidence in the government’s ability to handle international problems.

As usual, the Obama White House hasn’t been fully forthcoming with details about the American intervention—it’s unclear how many soldiers have been dispatched or whether the Nigerian government has even officially signed off on U.S. involvement—but the president has left no doubt about his priorities. “As a father of two girls, I can’t imagine what their parents are going through,” he told the press. “We’re also going to have to deal with the broader problem of organizations like this.”

As a matter of fact, the U.S. does not have to rid the world of Boko Haram, no matter how disturbing and repellent its actions are. As with the once-fashionable hunt for Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (remember that?), this is a battle to be fought by the nations directly affected, with help from regional and transnational bodies such as the UN. Until Boko Haram shows itself ready, willing and able to do real damage to America, its destruction should not be our goal. There is simply too much awfulness going on in all the corners of the world for the U.S. to wade into such situations.

For virtually the entirety of the 21st century, the U.S. has racked up a perfectly miserable record in bringing stability and calm to countries roiled by terrorists and civil war. Even supporters of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars don’t claim the U.S. left those countries better off. Obama’s unilateral and unconstitutional decision to wage war in Libya didn’t just result in the death of U.S. Amb. Chris Stevens and other Americans in Benghazi, it has created a situation where “so many jihadists are flocking to Libya, it’s becoming ‘Scumbag Woodstock.’”

Obviously, any American presence and action in Nigeria will be on a vastly smaller level, but there’s no reason to expect it to be any more successful (indeed, 100 U.S. special forces are part of the hunt for Kony). But involving ourselves in Nigeria will create yet one more distraction for a government that hasn’t figured out how to deal with far more consequential situations involving Iran, Syria, Ukraine, Russia and Venezuela, not to mention myriad domestic problems.

At least since the end of World War II, the U.S. has all too often thought of itself as the world’s policeman, a sort of beat cop who can fix all the big and small ills of the planet. How many more times must we be humbled before realizing that the world is beyond such simple surgical fixes? And, that in trying to take care of every heartbreaking, outrageous situation such as the one in Nigeria, we are likely as not both to fail and to compound the misery of this world.

TIME politics

A 2016 Bush-Clinton Match-Up? Gag Me.

Former US President George H.W. Bush(2nd
2005 inaugural ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. DON EMMERT—AFP/Getty Images

Americans will be paying off the debts of these two dynasties for a long time, and it's far from clear that the next generation under either Jeb or Hillary would do better.

Corrected May 8, 2014

For those benighted fools calling for a 2016 presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, it’s worth underscoring how uninspiring and backward-looking any new showdown would be. The short version? About as memorable and entertaining as Grudge Match, the recent Sylvester Stallone-Robert DeNiro “comedy” about over-the-hill boxers getting together for one…last…fight that you skipped when it was in theaters and now assiduously avoid on cable.

It’s also worth recalling just how underwhelming the first match-up between these two families was. Hampered by the dog-on-leg perspicacity of Ross Perot and a willingness to break his “no new taxes” pledge, George H.W. Bush pulled just 37.5% of the vote. Suffering from a zipper problem more expansive than an El Camino’s astroturf-lined flatbed and touting such accomplishments as moving Arkansas all the way to 48th out of 50 states in per-pupil education expenditures, Bill Clinton snuck into the White House with just 43% of the vote. (In 1996, despite facing Bob Dole, the least inspiring presidential candidate since the Yippies ran “Pigasus” in 1968, Clinton still only managed 49%, becoming the only two-term president to never win a majority of the popular vote.)

It’s not exactly clear if anybody outside a preternaturally lazy press corps and close family members are really pushing for a fourth showdown between the Clintons and the Bushes. “I hope Jeb runs,” older brother and former President George W. Bush says. “I think he would be a great president.” It’s true that back in the day many pundits had expected Jeb, not George, to be the next Bush in the White House. Despite success as a large-state governor, George had always come off as Fredo Corleone to Jeb’s Michael. But still: Who listens to the advice from the guy who left office with the lowest final approval rating ever?

When it comes to Hillary, it’s not even clear that she has locked down Bill’s unconditional backing. “I don’t know what Hillary’s going to do, but whatever it is, I expect to support it,” Bill said last year, the sort of tepid statement that would likely provoke a spousal spat on the off chance that they ever see each other again.

In an interesting new profile, Politico magazine asks, “What Is Hillary Clinton Afraid Of?” The authors talk a lot about the former Secretary of State’s well-known disdain for the press, and strongly suggest that it’s Clinton’s fear of having to revisit Whitewater, Vince Foster, Webb Hubbell, Travelgate, Troopergate, Paula Jones, Juanita Broaddrick, Gennifer Flowers, our great national conversation about Peyronie’s disease and a thousand other barely remembered scandals, slights and humiliations that is keeping her from running for president.

Well, there’s also her truly awful record in the Obama administration, too. Nobody can seriously argue that America’s foreign policy and standing in the world soared to new heights on Clinton’s watch. Even her attempt to “reset” relations with Russia was botched (the “reset button” she presented her Russian counterpart actually translated as “overcharged”). And as recently released emails suggest, questions about Benghazi, the highest-profile debacle on Clinton’s watch, are far from dead. So maybe Hillary Clinton is less afraid of the press and more worried about having to defend the rotten record she compiled as part of an administration whose president keeps getting less and less popular.

For his part, former Florida Gov. Jeb is not just fighting “Bush fatigue,” an affliction typically reserved for actors in adult movies, but a long layoff from elected office (he stepped down in 2007). Then there’s extreme partisan right-wing outrage over his willingness to defend illegal immigration as “an act of love.” Speaking for many conservatives, Mark Krikorian of National Review dubbed such talk “gibberish” and “horse flop.”

Unlike the Democratic field, which seems to be there for Clinton’s taking (though she was in that position in 2008), the GOP field is thick with contenders ranging from Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Gov. Chris Christie, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee. Recent polls show Bush in a tie with Sen. Rand Paul but it’s anybody guess how things will shake out. Bush has issues on the family front too. They are different from Clinton’s to be sure, but no less important. His wife is famously reluctant to see him take a shot at the White House, and one of his children has had drug-related problems that would certainly get a full airing, especially due to charges of special legal treatment and Bush’s strong anti-drug stance.

If it’s far from clear what sort of personal calculus at which Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton may yet arrive, there should be no question that a Clinton-Bush race would be bad for those of us not related to either. America has never been particularly fond of dynasties (apart from psychotics, who really likes the Yankees or the Kennedys?), and representatives of one or both of these families have been running for president basically since at least 1980. More importantly, their clans have been central players in an increasingly vicious and rancorous era in politics whose chief effect has been to drive a record number of Americans to declare themselves to be political independents. If we’re so concerned about inequality in America, what sort of message does it send to strivers that we can’t go a decade without gifting a Bush or a Clinton free housing, use of a private jet and the mother of all expense accounts?

Turning back to such dated and damaged goods would also be yet one more cruel joke that Baby Boomers are playing on Gen Xers and Millennials. The generation born between 1946 and 1964 – Hillary was born in 1947 and Jeb in 1960 – are waging nothing less than class warfare on younger Americans. The crew that grew up singing along to The Who’s “My Generation” (which proclaimed “I hope I die before I get old”) is now refusing to exit the center stage of American life gracefully — or at all.

The old-age entitlements that boomers are beginning to collect en masse will be tapped out way before today’s young workers turn 65, but only after beggaring those same workers through payroll taxes and worse and worse payouts. Obamacare, which caps what older people can be charged for health care, is specifically designed to make young Americans pay more than market rates to subsidize premiums for older folks who are, as a class, far wealthier and able to pay their own way. Under Jeb’s brother and Hillary’s former boss, the Boomer-led government has racked up debt that younger Americans will be paying off for generations if not centuries to come.

The fact that more and more young people are living with their parents is usually seen as something approaching a tragedy for both kids and parents. You can’t move out if you don’t have a job. Now comes word that Baby Boomers are refusing to retire because they feel forever young. Can’t the White House at least be one place in America where a younger American can finally move out to?

Correction: The original version of this post cited the percent of electoral votes George H.W. Bush won in 1992. It has been corrected to reflect his popular vote.

TIME Religion

God Is Dead. Except at the Box Office.

While Hollywood is finding God, Americans are losing their religion. But that’s not a bad thing.

These days, God is dead everywhere except at movie theaters. But rest easy, America, that doesn’t mean we’re spiraling into an amoral abyss or a lawless society. Indeed, by most indicators of anti-social behavior, things have never been better.

Even as polls and church-attendance records show the U.S. is becoming a more secular, less pious country, current films such as Heaven is for Real (based on a best-selling account of a four-year-old boy’s supposed trip to the afterlife) and Noah (based on the Old Testament’s account of the Great Flood) have done boffo business.

Noah is closing in on $100 million, the line that separates mere hits from blockbusters, and Heaven is for Real easily bested Johnny Depp’s poorly reviewed meditation on computer-enabled immortality, Transcendence. God’s Not Dead, a drama about a college freshman challenging his professor’s atheism, is also performing strongly, and so is Son of God, the latest cinematic version of the life of Jesus.

Expect to see more Christian and religiously themed movies as a result. “If there’s a sense that there’s a growing market and a growing hunger for more films like this,” a Columbia TriStar Pictures executive tells The Christian Post, “then the desire to continue to provide more films will increase, and decisions will be made to be able to make more films like this.”

Yet there’s no reason to think that such movies will do anything to stanch the broad and ongoing decline in religiosity. And there’s even less reason to worry about the trend toward a less godly country.

Gallup reports that fully 77% of Americans agree that religion “is losing its influence on American life,” and that just 20% think religion is gaining influence. Mainline Protestantism has especially taken it on the chin over the past 50 years. In 1965, over half of Americans were “active members” of Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and similar denominations, according to The Catholic World Report. That number is now below 10%. While independent bible-based churches and the Catholic Church show some growth (largely due to immigrants), Pew Research reports that “the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace.” Indeed, such “nones” now comprise 20% of the population and one-third of adults under the age of 30.

Those numbers will keep growing. With each successive generation – from the “Silents” born between 1928 and 1945 to Gen-Xers born between 1965 and 1980 – Americans have gotten less and less religious. Millennials, who were born between 1981 and 1994 and outnumber Baby Boomers, are embracing secularism for a variety of reasons, none of which is likely to disappear.

Millennials are far more likely than previous generations to view organized religion as intolerant, sexist, and homophobic. That attitude isn’t helped by traditional Islamic theology, the Catholic Church’s position on female priests, or political candidates such as Ray Moore, who is running for lieutenant governor of South Carolina and calling for Christian parents to remove their children from public education (“Pharoah’s school system”).

Sociologists agree that religion is generally less important in societies where basic existential needs – food, clothing, shelter, education, work – are covered. Even with the global financial crisis of the past few years, the fact is that Americans and other residents of the developed world are still doing extremely well by any standard. Even the poorest countries are gaining ground, which suggests that they too will become more secular over time.

While it’s understandable that believers would worry about secularism’s effect on non-believers’ souls, the widespread sense that a godless society is a lawless society is clearly wrong. A line routinely (though controversially) attributed to Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky sums up the fear of many religious people: “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” Yet the plain fact is that over the same period during which America has gotten less religious, crime of all sorts has declined massively, teens are waiting longer to have sex, abortion rates are down, the divorce rate is at a 30-year low, and philanthropic giving remains strong despite economic lassitude.

Christians and other believers can take pride in the fact that moviegoers are shelling out millions of dollars to watch films dealing with religious themes – and that an entertainment industry long hostile to such topics seems ready and willing to deliver whatever the audience wants. And they can also take solace in the fact that, even as America has become an increasingly godless society, it’s become a nicer, safer place to live.

TIME politics

Nick Gillespie: We Deserved Better Than Kathleen Sebelius

We should expect at least as much from our government as we do from a gadgetmaker

With her announced resignation, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius will soon be forgotten by all but late-night comedians desperate for a punch line. That’s not simply because of her leading role in the epically failed rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s website, HealthCare.gov. It’s the fate of virtually all Cabinet officials, especially those who head departments like HHS.

But whether you’re among the 36% of Americans who have a favorable view of Obamacare or the 53% who do not, it’s important to underscore the lessons of Sebelius’ tenure. Her widely acknowledged incompetence in overseeing the implementation of a major new program is one of the reasons that record numbers of Americans think the government has too much power and have low and declining levels of trust in the government to do the right thing. Whether you’re liberal, conservative or libertarian, that’s not a good thing.

Last fall, when HealthCare.gov went live and then crashed again and again, Sebelius’ response was not to take responsibility or explain why the job was botched so badly but to plead for slack from customers. “Hopefully [website users will] give us the same slack they give Apple … If there’s not quite the operational excellence right away, we’ll continue to press for that,” she told the media. “Apple, you know, has a few more resources than we have to roll out technology, and a few more people who’ve been working on the system for a while, and no one is calling on Apple to not sell devices for a year or to, you know, get out of the business because the whole thing is a failure.”

That reaction helped explain why HHS botched the job so badly to begin with. The government spent upwards of $677 million on the design and implementation of HealthCare.gov, so Sebelius’ claim wasn’t just misleading but strikingly out of touch with reality. The fact is that if Apple put out rotten products year after year, it would be out of business, as the rotting hulks of once giant bankrupted companies can attest. That President Obama parroted the same line didn’t help matters.

As the HealthCare.gov debacle continued, Sebelius also claimed that it took her a while to break the news to Obama that the website was buggier than a porch light on a summer evening. Despite the lack of extensive tests that commercial operations run on sites before they go live, Sebelius told CNN that the President had no warning that the site wasn’t up to its challenges. That helped explain the President’s weak response to the debacle but hardly excuses either his or his Secretary’s actions.

Supporters of the Affordable Care Act are quick to brush aside the early problems with implementing the President’s signature legislative achievement. “Kathleen Sebelius is resigning because Obamacare has won,” crowed Ezra Klein at Vox, the new “deep journalism” website that is supposed to be beyond ideology. But in fact, Sebelius is hustling out of town before any of the most important questions about Obamacare have been answered.

Among them: Of the 7.1 million people who reportedly signed up for health care in the individual market, how many were previously uninsured? How many have actually paid for coverage? Are they the right mix of young and old, healthy and sick? We know none of this information, which is not simply incidental as to whether Obamacare is “winning.”

Sebelius’ abrupt resignation, then, is the fitting capstone of a Cabinet tenure that did nothing to inspire feelings of competency and trust in government in a century that is so far replete with revelations of bipartisan secret surveillance, financial mismanagement of the nation and failed foreign policy.

We deserved better than Kathleen Sebelius. And we should demand more from our public officials, with the same vigor we use when buying, say, Apple products.

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