I have been out of the Continental U.S. and Internet range for a while, so I'm behind the news. I will ease my way back with a few reading-tip links.
1) Thanks to everyone who sent me links about Kim Jong-un's new honor as the "Sexiest Man Alive," Of course the charm in the story is that the honor was bestowed by The Onion, and the hyper-earnest Chinese state media appeared to take it at face value. Judge for yourself: initial report on Beijing Cream, survey on The Atlantic Wire, followup today in NYT.
1A) Just because I can't resist, here is a meant-in-entire-seriousness feature from People's Daily this week, under the headline "Cool Models, Hot Airplanes Are Always Good Partners." It's the start of a slideshow.
This is part of a long "reportorial" tradition in the Chinese media that I'll say more about when I have more time. Hey, does my book on China's aerial ambitions seem more interesting to you now?
2) The best political news of the post-election era has been the array of signs suggesting that the Obama Administration and the enlarged Democratic majority are preparing the ground for a campaign against filibuster-abuse.
Not against the filibuster itself, which though most of U.S. history has been a safety valve meant for extreme circumstances, when a committed minority was willing to go all out to block the majority rule by which the Senate is set up by the Constitution to operate.
Rather this effort would be against filibuster abuse -- the application of this emergency measure to practically everything a legislative majority attempts to do. Under Mitch McConnell, the GOP minority has in the past six years dramatically ramped up threats of filibusters, with two results: unless you have 60 votes, it is difficult to confirm any nominee or move forward any legislation; and the process has become so routine that news stories now off-handedly say that Senate rules "require 60 votes for passage." The U.S. Constitution was crafted to balance majority and minority interests. This isn't the deal Madison et al had in mind.
You can riffle through the hundreds of previous items on the theme here. But you should also check three recent elements:
• A primer yesterday from Ezra Klein
• Similarly from Greg Sargent
• From Michael Tomasky
• From Jeffrey Toobin
• From a NYT editorial
• A report on "curbing filibuster abuse" from the Brennan Center at NYU
• From Brian Beutler at TPM
Here's why this matters: As Garrett Epps and Andrew Cohen, among others, have argued frequently on this site, shoring up the now-failing machinery of democracy deserves legitimate and urgent attention as a major objective for Obama's second term. The specifics include: taming filibuster abuse; limiting the also-abused Senatorial "privilege" of placing anonymous holds on nominations, which amounts to a kind of country club "black ball" system applied to staffing questions for the national government; working against Congressional gerrymandering; defending the right to vote as zealously in America as if we were observing elections in Haiti or Burma; and curbing enormous, anonymous, unaccountable PAC donations. Together these amount to a lot to take on. But it's time, and they matter.
3) While We're Talking About Holds, the sanest discussion of the whole Benghazi imbroglio I have seen, which includes a strong implied rebuttal to the threat by several GOP senators to "hold" Susan Rice's potential nomination as secretary of state, is from Ronald Neumann, a retired U.S. ambassador who is now president of the American Academy of American Diplomacy. Earlier this month he testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the right and wrong lessons to draw from the killings of four Americans. The whole thing is worth reading, but I especially noted this part:
My final point touches on the political responsibility of those in both the executive branch and the congress. Personnel in the field must make difficult decisions about risk to accomplish their mission. When things go wrong it is reasonable to review those decisions, as the Congress and the Accountability Review Board are now doing.
However, if the post facto examination becomes too politicized you will reinforce at the political level in Washington a fear of taking risk that has already gone too far in my judgment. Sound foreign policy judgments require knowledge that can only be gained by interaction on the ground. If our diplomats now retreat even further into their bunkers, if they become even more hampered in their ability to actually understand the local scene, and if as a result they cannot distinguish successful policies from failing ones the fault will not be in some weak kneed "diplomatic culture" but in the failure of political authorities in Washington to assume their own responsibilities.
If this argument were applied to military operations, I am sure that John McCain would wholly support it. (You don't want commanders to become hyper-cautious through fear of being nit-picked later on.) If the Benghazi killings had occurred under a Republican administration, everything in McCain's recent record suggests that he would have been wholly understanding about the confusion inherent in the "fog of war." That is why McCain's showboating on this case, and the shadow it supposedly casts on Susan Rice, is yet another disappointing milestone in the sad trajectory of the later part of his public career. [Update: I see that Fred Kaplan has weighed in trenchantly on this case.]
As for Rice as Hillary Clinton's successor, on the merits I would prefer John Kerry in the job. If you have seen him discuss these issues in Senate-floor debate or elsewhere, it is obvious that he really knows them, and knows his counterparts around the world. Also, as with the choice of HIllary Clinton as Obama's first secretary of state, there would be a karmic plus to Kerry's selection. Like Hillary Clinton, he came close but not close enough in running for the presidency -- and, again like Hillary Clinton, he has worked loyally and skillfully on behalf of the Democrat who did make it all the way. (For now, let's set aside considerations of whether removing Kerry from the Senate might give Scott Brown a good chance of taking his seat for the Republicans, as he earlier did Edward Kennedy's.)
But when I see the cheap-shot, hypocritical, know-nothing tenor of the "arguments" against Susan Rice (by McCain, Lindsey Graham, and others), I shift from a so-so outlook on her nomination to enthusiastic support. If her opponents manage to knock her off with these tactics, they'll have every incentive to keep using them. Obama didn't need to send signals that Rice was his first choice. But now that the fight has shaped up this way, he really needs to take it on, and win. He's still in his first term, but this is the first important test case of what he'll put up with in the second.___
Update: I wrote the preceding section without having heard anything about the new NRDC report of overall financial holdings by Rice and her husband worth between $23 million and $43 million, including an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars in TransCanada, a company directly involved in the controversial Keystone pipeline.
At face value, the size of the assets is attention-getting rather than disqualifying. Not disqualifying, in that lots of previous secretaries of state have been rich, including the current one. But attention-getting in raising the question of exactly when a wife who has worked mainly in government and think-tanks, and a husband who has worked mainly as a TV news producer, built up these kinds of assets. I know a lot of people with more or less this career story, and I don't think many are in the same asset bracket.) The Keystone questions will require answers: why she was able to keep them in her current job, whether she would put them in a blind trust if she became secretary of state, and how they match with the Obama administration's reluctance so far to approve the pipeline.
To connect this with the larger point: If legitimate reasons emerge to oppose Susan Rice's confirmation for this job, fine -- let's hear them. But that would be different from what McCain, Graham, et al have offered so far.