President Obama says the U.S. doesn't "have a strategy yet" on how to deal with Islamic State militants who now control vast swaths of territory across Iraq and Syria, but he added that the militant group was continuing to lose arms and equipment because of targeted U.S. strikes against its members in Iraq.
"I don't want to put the cart before the horse," Obama said at a White House news conference Thursday. "We don't have a strategy yet."
He was responding to a question on whether he needed congressional approval to attack Islamic State targets in Syria.
The president noted that the U.S. is continuing to carry out targeted strikes over Iraq to protect Americans there and to address the humanitarian situation on the ground. The Sunni militant group, in its brutal campaign, has carried out mass executions and targeted non-Muslims, including Christians and members of the tiny Yazidi community. Obama noted that in some areas, Iraqi government and Kurdish forces have begun to push the militants back.
"Rooting out a cancer like ISIL will not be quick or easy, but I'm confident that we can and we will, working with our allies and partners," Obama said.
ISIL refers to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the former name of the Islamic State, which is also sometimes called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Obama said he had asked U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to travel to the region to build a coalition against the militants and that he had asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to "prepare a range of options."
He later added: "The options that I'm asking for from the Joint Chiefs focuses primarily on making sure that ISIL is not overrunning Iraq."
"Our focus right now is to protect American personnel on the ground in Iraq, to protect our embassy, to protect our consulates, to make sure that critical infrastructure that could adversely affect our personnel is protected," Obama said in his opening statement.
The administration's options against the Islamic State are complicated by the fact the militant group is one of many fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad. The U.S. and its allies also want Assad gone. Indeed, Obama said Thursday that "Assad has lost legitimacy."
Obama's news conference also dealt with the situation in Ukraine.
The protests that followed the shooting death this month of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., have rekindled long-standing complaints about racist policing, especially in the St Louis area.
Many male African-American residents there say police scrutinize them unfairly. "Every time you see a cop, it's like, 'OK, am I going to get messed with?' " says Anthony Ross. "You feel that every single time you get behind your car. Every time."
Now, police officers in and around St. Louis are becoming more vocal about defending themselves against the charges of bias.
Erich Von Almen, a sergeant in the St. Louis County Police Department, is assigned to the city of Jennings, right next door to Ferguson. Like Ferguson, Jennings is predominantly African-American. "There are a few Caucasians that still live here," Von Almen says.
Von Almen himself is white, as are most police officers here. That's another way Jennings is like Ferguson: White cops patrol black neighborhoods.
Von Almen was keenly aware of that right after the shooting of Michael Brown. "It was a little tense," he says, but "I was, I guess, pleasantly surprised" by the relative calm.
Did anyone call him a racist?
"No," he says, then hesitates. "Well, let me say this: No more than during, quote-unquote, normal times."
Jennings has something else in common with Ferguson. Darren Wilson, the Ferguson officer who shot Michael Brown, used to work in Jennings. But three years ago, scandals prompted the city to disband its police department and fire its officers — including Wilson.
The city then switched to county police, and Von Almen says they're turning things around in Jennings.
"If there's a violation, whether it's something as simple as ... an outstanding warrant or a traffic violation, there's a zero-tolerance policy," he says. "And the good citizens of the precinct that we patrol appreciate that, because it has had a very positive impact on crime stats."
But here's the thing: Jennings is predominantly black, so if the cops here are showing zero tolerance, it can't help but feel like racial profiling to the residents.
Von Almen says he gets that, but insists the zero tolerance policy is colorblind. "For example, there's a big heroin trade down here. And a lot of white people come, and they get stopped," he says. "And they all say the same thing: that they were stopped because they were white in a black area."
The difference is that black people who feel under scrutiny are in their own neighborhoods, not coming in from elsewhere. Young black men, especially, say they have to do everything perfectly to avoid trouble with the police. That's something even some white officers say they recognize.
"Even if there's not any truth to it, the fact that the perception is out there sort of becomes the reality," says Jeff Roorda, a retired cop. Now a business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, he's also a state representative.
"We put police where crime is, and we saturate areas where we're trying to displace crime," Roorda says. "And through no fault of their own, a lot of young black men are right in the middle of that."
It's a conundrum: The police officers' mandate to push down crime statistics in black neighborhoods can also alienate them from those neighborhoods.
"There's a disconnect that's undeniable between police and urban communities. There's distrust on both sides," and that's not going to be easily resolved, Roorda says.
As things have calmed in Ferguson, police around St. Louis are becoming more outspoken in their own defense. A few days ago, they rallied in support of Darren Wilson. Supporters have raised more than $400,000 for him outside a local bar and online.
Jeffrey Barnes, a retired St. Louis city police commander, is among those waving pro-police signs in support of Wilson.
"Our job is to protect and serve," Barnes says. "And for individuals to call policemen racist for trying to defend themselves — to defend their lives — that's absolutely despicable."
But even here, in a neighborhood where a lot of cops live, support was hardly universal. A woman passed in a car, shouting, "You racist pig!"
That woman was white.
In my teens, I stumbled onto the wide trail of "the writer's bildungsroman," the coming of age stories that often gave me too much to identify with. That whispered clear messages while I slept and while I tried to imagine a life far, far outside the heat and farmlands of where I grew up.
Why I so readily identified with J.G. Ballard in a Japanese prison camp in Empire of the Sun, or A.E. Hotchner on the streets of Depression-era St. Louis in King of the Hill, I couldn't have told you at the time. But I intuitively knew I had stumbled onto something big, and I decided I would be a writer. Or, rather, that I was a one, already. It was the only thing that made sense: I had all the markers of the archetypical "writer." I had the self-pity, the trauma, the delusional self-confidence, a family predilection for alcoholism and drugs. I was all set. Now I just needed to write something.
Twenty-five years later, I'm finally eking out a living as an author, living the dream that started in the middle of that night I was halfway through William Goldman's The Color of Light (a book about another developing writer) and thinking, "Yes: I can do this, too."
As a teenager, I created an idealized image of what it would be like to live off my thoughts and ideas and sense of humor, snuggling comfortably between my fans and the people who vehemently despised me. It was blissful to imagine, taking my position in the pantheon among my literary darlings, wondering if I'd had one moment alone with each one, what I would ask them.
That was me at 17. At 42, I know very clearly what I'd ask now: what the hell did you do for health care? And did your body start falling apart at 40, as well?
Up until a few years ago, my body was made out of rubber. Sure, years of neglect, allergies, injuries and asthma were layered in there, but back in my 20's and 30's, I'd just forget about it, go about my business and things would sort of level out.
Not so, not anymore. Now with this struggle to stay on top of my health care bills, I find myself imagining what Garp did, before he was shot, when he was the stay-at-home dad in John Irving's The World According to Garp. Or what J.G. did, when the drinking started to catch up with him. True, he was British, so he probably had that national coverage. But Truman Capote? Or Norman Mailer? Would he be willing to teach at a university just for the health care? The bail money?
Did they really plan that far ahead?
At this age, I'm trying my best to manage my self-care. It's an ongoing, conscious argument between my unstructured, lazy self and my new found worrier: "Eat that. Don't eat that. Don't drink that. Drink more water. When are you going to exercise? We need to follow up with the doctor. You forgot your Prazosin again. I just want to sit on the couch. How do you best combine arugula with bacon? Is there any more ice cream?"
Last year, as I sat in a community health clinic, I wondered if I was the only New York Times bestseller who was waiting to get sliding scale treatment from an underfunded community project, so I wouldn't die from an asthma attack or have a stroke.
It's impossible to include what seem like fussy details when you're imagining your dreams and heroes as a kid. But priorities should change as one ages, and one's ideals and dreams should change with them. Gone are the days of "walking it off" or taking for granted a near super-hero ability to recover, and not just for me.
It's no secret that a lot of men resist taking care of themselves, especially men from marginalized groups like the one I'm from. Let's just say, there was no copy of Men's Health in the stack of pornography under my uncle's bed, and he's now blind from diabetes. And it took my own father to have three and a half heart attacks before I addressed my own hypertension, but I'm learning my lessons.
If there's a book that could have prepared me for this, I wish I'd read it, growing up. Then again even if it was available, I probably would have ignored it. I was too busy modeling myself after the Great Gatsby. Thinking, just like he did, that my sins would never catch up to me.
Domingo Martinez is the author of Boy Kings of Texas. His next book, My Heart Is a Drunken Compass, will be out in November.
When it comes to original TV series, it's tough to understand exactly where Amazon is going.
At first, their strategy seemed simple: They went where big-ticket competitors like Netflix and HBO didn't, greenlighting comedies like Garry Trudeau's political satire Alpha House and the Silicon Valley series Betas, along with a raft of kids' shows.
But then they picked up four drama series, including Transparent, a show starring Jeffrey Tambor as a father who shocks his family by coming out as transgender (10 episodes of that show will be released at once on Amazon Prime Sept. 26). All these decisions to go to series, the company said, were influenced by Amazon customers who weighed in on the pilots.
Now the company has asked customers for feedback on five new pilots — three dramas and two comedies — and the question arises again: What exactly are these guys trying to accomplish here?
The new pilots cover a lot of ground, from a contemporary dramedy about middle-aged married couples to a thriller about a mysterious illness connected to social media and a hardcore drama about a hallucinating judge who believes God is speaking to him through his comatose son.
What they have in common: High production values, performers you've seen before and a sense that they exist as passion projects for the creative minds behind them.
To be honest, it's tough to imagine any of these pilots earning a spot on HBO, Showtime, Netflix or any of the other, traditional homes of quality TV these days. They feel more like well-crafted shots in the dark — interesting ideas that a platform looking to make a name might bankroll, in hopes one of them becomes a surprise, attention-getting hit.
It's also difficult to know if the customer feedback portion of all of this is a gimmick or something more. Amazon's pilot decisions so far have mostly been no-brainers — when X-Files creator Chris Carter, novelist Michael Connelly or Doonesbury's Trudeau offer to make a show for your upstart original series effort, you're gonna say yes.
But this group of pilots is tougher to judge. Most of them unfold slowly, with twists at the end that redefine the series premise — which can leave viewers feeling like they spent quite a long time watching one show that ended up turning into something else. And then there's the nudity and f-bombs that even standard cable series don't dare show yet.
At the risk of affecting Amazon's own public feedback, here's my best-to-worst ranking of their latest pilots, along with my thoughts on which shows have much of a chance as a series. Click here to check them out for yourself.
No. 1: Really — This dramedy about a group of mostly married, middle-aged couples was written, directed by and co-stars comedy director Jay Chandrasekhar. It's baldly honest about life in a longtime marriage — one scene features his wife, played by Scrubs alum Sarah Chalke, surprising him, um, pleasuring himself — and the dynamic among a bunch of couples who have known each other awhile. But things get odd when Chandrasekhar's character learns two others from his group have had an affair (Selma Blair plays one of them), threatening the connections among all his friends. I may just like this because I'm a middle aged guy who has been married, but it felt like the most realistic and consistently entertaining pilot of the five.
No. 2: Red Oaks — It's a story we've seen many times before — college-bound kid takes a summer job at a country club and comes of age — but this time it's from Sundance award winner David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) and executive producer Steven Soderbergh. The kid is an assistant tennis pro at a mid-'80s-era country club, dating an aerobics instructor but drawn to the mysterious daughter of a jerky corporate raider. Paul Reiser is enjoying himself as the raider and Richard Kind is the kid's nebbishy dad. The key question here is whether they can create a series that's more than an updated mashup of Porky's and Dirty Dancing.
No. 3: Hand of God — Sons of Anarchy alum Ron Perlman is a judge who's losing his grip after his son shoots himself in the head and lands in a coma. The judge becomes convinced that God is speaking to him through his son, sending him on a bizarre, bloody quest. This pilot has a bit of star power, with Dana Delany playing the judge's wife and Garret Dillahunt (Raising Hope) as a born-again Christian and violent sociopath. Despite all the talent here, the twist at the pilot's end was the only thing that kept me engaged in this depressing, sometimes predictable story.
No. 4: Hysteria — Former teen heartthrob Shaun Cassidy wrote this meandering thriller about a neurologist trying to understand an odd, quickly-spreading illness that causes violent spasms and fits. Mena Suvari is the doctor, with a checkered past of her own; other stars include NYPD Blue alum James McDaniel, ex-Grey's Anatomy star T.R. Knight and former Just Shoot Me castmember Laura San Giacomo. The pilot feels a bit overstuffed and the premise implausible; mostly, it's tough to care about any of these characters.
No. 5: The Cosmopolitans — Young American expatriates look for love and friendship in one of the most complicated European cities to find either one: Paris. Sharper minds may see something of value here, but I felt like I was watching a long, badly written Saturday Night Live parody, with Adam Brody talking way too much and Chloe Sevigny not appearing nearly often enough. Watch only if you're drawn to the prospect of spending a half hour watching five people go to a party and then get kicked out of it.