Friday Update: Filibuster, Surveillance State, Political Macho, and Other Hardy Perennials

By James Fallows

1) Fun with filibusters. Here we go again. Fellow news writers, it is really not that hard to work the word "filibuster" into your stories that deal with minority obstructionism. Yesterday we learned from the AP:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Bowing to the Pentagon, the Senate agreed after impassioned debate Thursday to leave the authority to prosecute rapes and other serious crimes with military commanders in a struggle that highlighted the growing role of women in Congress.

The vote was 55-45 in favor of stripping commanders of that authority, but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

In the same length or less, you can be clearer about what happened. See for yourself:

[before] but that was short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

[after] but that was short of the 60 needed to break a threatened filibuster of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's bill.

Why does this matter? Because of the venerable "defining deviancy downward" phenomenon. Through the first two centuries of American history, it was not normal to apply a 60-vote filibuster threat to every routine piece of legislation. That's a recent innovation, and distortion. Each time press reports treat a 60-vote threshold as normal, they contribute to a de facto rewriting of the Constitution.

Seriously, it's very easy to do this the right way.

2) Fun with security over-reach. Or maybe not so fun. I am grateful to a reader and fellow Cirrus pilot who sends this note about a surveillance intrusion I find surprising, even given everything else we've learned.

You can read all the details from Papers, Please, and in the court complaint filed last month, but here is the gist: Armed Customs/Border Patrol agents (CBP) detained and questioned a U.S. citizen whose citizenship was never in doubt, and who was not trying to leave or enter the country. They did so based on the contents of romantic messages they had somehow seen in her personal email. As it happens, this citizen was a 50-something professor at Indiana University (and former CBS employee—as you'll see, her age is relevant), and the detention took place about as far as you can get from any U.S. border, in Indianapolis.

I've written to CBP to ask their side of the story, but at face value it seems to be another of the ratchet-like expansions of routine surveillance/security-state extensions that over time become the new normal. It's almost as if you put a frog into a pot of lukewarm water ...

3) China, Russia, and Ukraine. The backstory here involves China's ongoing attempts to match its recently tightened internal political controls with its desire to expand its "soft power" attraction to the rest of the world. CNN's Jaime FlorCruz and Paul Armstrong do a nice job of explaining a related dilemma: how China tries to balance its desire to improve Sino-Russian relations with its longstanding Rule Number One of foreign policy, which is that countries should mind their own business and not interfere in one another's affairs. The story explains what this means for Ukraine and Crimea and what China is likely to do.

Bonus background point: For both better and worse, the Chinese leadership has less experience as a participant in fast-breaking international crises than do European countries, Russia, or of course the U.S. Therefore its first reaction when trouble brews up is often to seem paralyzed. Sometimes that creates problems, but overall it's probably healthier than a trigger-happy impulse to do something in response to the emergencies of each news cycle.

Which leads us to ...

4) Fun with manliness. Usually there is no point quoting from or even mentioning NYT op-ed columns. The ones that are interesting you already know about.

But because I found myself agreeing with every single word of the opening paragraph of the latest column by Tom Friedman, I wanted to say so, and quote the paragraph. His column began:

Just as we’ve turned the coverage of politics into sports, we’re doing the same with geopolitics. There is much nonsense being written about how Vladimir Putin showed how he is “tougher” than Barack Obama and how Obama now needs to demonstrate his manhood. This is how great powers get drawn into the politics of small tribes and end up in great wars that end badly for everyone. We vastly exaggerate Putin’s strength—so does he—and we vastly underestimate our own strength, and ability to weaken him through nonmilitary means.

Yes about the everything-as-sport pathology of the media. Yes about the conversion of everything into "toughness." (If you don't know anything about the substance of an issue—hey, where is this Crimea place anyway?—you can always sound authoritative about who snookered whom, who blinked, etc.) Yes about great powers and small wars.* Yes about misreading Russia's (or China's) strength, and our own.

It would be OK with me if Friedman made this the boilerplate first (or last) paragraph of every column he writes for a while.

While I'm at it, I might as well cite a paragraph from Nick Kristof I agreed with too. He quotes bellicose rantings from usual pro-interventionist suspects, ranging from John McCain to the Washington Post's editorial page. He replies:

Oh, come on! The villain here is named Putin, not Obama, and we should have learned to feel nervous when hawks jump up and down and say “do something!” We tried that in Iraq. When there are no good options, a flexing of muscles by NATO or by American warships in the Black Sea would only reinforce President Vladimir Putin’s narrative to his home audience while raising the risk of conflict by accident or miscalculation.

Here is something to think about: Friedman and Kristof, who are warning against the impulse to prove our "toughness" by shooting things up, spent significant shares of their reporting careers based in the actual world, outside the United States. Many of the people who are most insistently yelling "Do something!" or "Obama's a wimp," from commentators to politicians, have a firsthand experience of "toughness" and its consequences largely confined to the Acela Corridor, attack ads, think tanks and policy papers, and the green room.**

Bear that in mind when you hear the next get-tough announcement on cable news or read it in a column. Does this person's imagination of "face" and toughness extend much outside the U.S. political realm?

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* To spare those tempted to write in and remind me: Yes in fact I am aware that a dozen years ago Friedman was very prominently in the "do something!" camp about Iraq. I'll let you search for the "suck on this" video yourself. I disagreed with him then but very much agree with him now.

** John McCain is an obvious exception. That he so bravely withstood and surmounted his ordeal as a POW in Vietnam remains to his lasting credit and will always deserve respect. It also took place in an entirely different strategic world—Vietnam now often acts as a de facto U.S. ally in struggles over Chinese influence in the Pacific. His claim to AIPAC that "nobody believes in American strength" suggests to me that he needs to get out more.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/03/friday-update-filibuster-surveillance-state-political-macho-and-other-hardy-perennials/284292/