Today, President Barack Obama gives what has been billed as a major address on the status of the "war on terror," a term that the Obama administration doesn't use but that is still how we refer to the efforts the United States takes around the world fighting al-Qaeda, those affiliated with al-Qaeda, those who might be affiliated with someone who is affiliated with al-Qaeda, and pretty much any nongovernmental entity that looks at us funny.
Whatever you call it, the war on terror is our endless war, just as George W. Bush set it out to be. With a Congress and most of a public willing to let him do almost anything he wanted, Bush's administration told us all those years ago that we were fighting not al-Qaeda or even terrorism but "terror" itself. In other words, our war would be not against a group of people or even a tactic that anyone could use but against our own fear. And that's a war we can never win.
Nevertheless, when Barack Obama was running for president, you might have thought that five years into his presidency there wouldn't be much of a War on Terror left. Most visibly, he wanted to get us out of Iraq, then wrap up Afghanistan. Mission, well, sort of maybe eventually accomplished. But the War on Terror lives on, at our airports, in government budgets, and in our laws.
Margaret Mead, who would not have bothered to study the administration's culture. (Photo by Edward Lynch, Library of Congress/Wikimedia)
As you may have noticed, the biggest problem with the IRS scandal (from the perspective of Republicans) is that it remains stubbornly removed from the President himself. It's all well and good to get a couple of scalps from mid-level managers, but for it to be a real presidential scandal you need to implicate the guy in the Oval Office in the wrongdoing. Confronted with Obama's non-involvement, conservatives have turned to vague and airy accusations about the "culture" Obama has created.
Remember the Bin Laden photos? When the al Qaeda leader was killed two years ago, people immediately began asking whether the world would ever get to see an image of his body. At first, then-CIA director Leon Panetta said photos would be released, but President Obama overruled him. Yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in a lawsuit brought by the conservative group Judicial Watch that the government may continue to keep the photos hidden from public view.
At the time, I argued that a photo should be released—not every photo that everyone took of the body, but perhaps one shot of it being lowered into the ocean in a respectful ceremony. I went on NPR's On the Media and debated the question with The New Yorker's Philip Gourevitch, who treated me like I was some kind of contemptible ghoul for suggesting such a thing, but I made what I thought was a perfectly reasonable argument. Here's an excerpt of the columnI wrote:
In the wake of a report from a Senate subcommittee showing that Apple avoids billions of dollars in taxes by routing a huge portion of its income through an Ireland-based subsidiary that has neither employees nor offices in Ireland, Apple CEO Tim Cook went before the Senate today to explain just why Apple does so well on April 15. The senators barely laid a glove on him. A number of them did, however, explain how much they love Apple's products, and one made a request for some tech support. "What I really wanted to ask is why the hell I have to keep updating the apps on my iPhone all the time?" asked John McCain.
It hasn't gotten too much attention given the other things that are going on, but there is a battle looming this summer over the filibuster, one that could be a significant milestone in the already poisonous relationship between the parties on Capitol Hill. As Republicans have moved from filibustering every significant piece of legislation to also filibustering cabinet nominees (something that was extraordinarily rare until now), Democrats' frustration on the filibuster has grown. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is threatening to use the "nuclear option," forcing a vote to change Senate rules to circumvent the filibuster (though probably only on presidential nominations).
Reid would no doubt be cheered by many on the left if he did so, but others will warn to be careful what you wish for. After all, once you remove the filibuster, doesn't that open the door to Republicans running roughshod over the Democrats if and when they get the majority back in the Senate?
Let's be realistic here. Unless there's some kind of major upheaval within the Republican party that moves it back to the center, when the day comes that there's a Republican president and a Republican senate, the filibuster will be gone.