Posted on August 27, 2013 in Countdown

Syria: Military Option Seems Imminent

When Secretary of State Kerry spoke yesterday about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, he called their use a “moral obscenity” and alluded to the possibility of intervention—regardless of UN support—sooner rather than later. The chemical weapons attack that occurred just a few days ago is the deadliest attack since Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on thousands of Kurds in Halabja 25 years ago. It seems that the videos showing the atrocities committed against civilians have finally succeeded in tipping support - at least among some US and foreign officials - toward a military response. Here’s some of the back and forth we’ve been following: When Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) requested intervention options back in July from Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, he was given several options and told that anything short of a very expensive, full-committal course of action would lead to greater problems. Those in favor of intervention, like Senator John McCain (R-AZ), decried the high costs as “disingenuous and exaggerated,” and instead lauded a more recent study from Chris Harmer, a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, which outlined the limited usage of cruise missiles in Syria. What’s more ridiculous than presuming superior military knowledge than the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs? Denouncing his findings without even bothering to understand what you’re advocating for.  As anyone who has read both findings can attest, they say the same thing. Essentially, both Gen. Dempsey and Mr. Harmer are in agreement that limited strikes are possible, but that “tactical actions in the absence of strategic objectives is [sic] usually pointless and often counterproductive.” So while everyone is clamoring for some form of retaliation, it’s hard to see how anything we seem prepared to do in the way of a military strike will have any affect. One of the smartest assertions we’ve seen on all of this comes from General Dempsey who said: “The use of US military force can change the military balance. But it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.'' Regardless, everyone seems to agree, though, something has to be done to respond to this horrific chemical attack, and the continued suffering of the Syrian people

How an Arab American Helped Start the Sit-In Movement

We’re sure you’ve heard of the “Greensboro Four,” but to refresh your memory: in 1960, three years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, four brave young men refused to give up their seats at a “Whites Only” Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. The four young men, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil who were students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, carefully planned the sit-in with an Arab American store owner named Ralph Johns. The son of Syrian immigrants, after serving in the Army Air Corps, Johns opened a clothing store in Greensboro which regularly serviced students from A&T. Johns helped conceive the idea of the sit-in and when it went down, alerted the media about what was happening. The sit-ins soon spread nationally, involving more than 300 students across the country. When asked about the sit-in movement, Johns said: “My conscience bothered me, and it broke my heart to see this indignity heaped on a human being…I decided to do something about this wrong.” That is the message that AAI Executive Director Maya Berry conveyed to tens of thousands of people in a speech on the National Mall last Saturday commemorating the 50th anniversary of MLK’s March on Washington. “We have come a long way in 50 years, but there is much that remains to be done. Just as we stood together then, we stand together now,” she said. “Just like our nation’s response to the civil rights movement was about our national character, so too is our response to today’s expanded challenge.” Maya was mainly referring to a number of important civil rights and civil liberties issues facing the Arab American community and the country – issues like stop-and-frisk, surveillance of Arab Americans and American Muslims by the NYPD, the PATRIOT Act, and the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Maya’s speech on the mall was a proud moment for our community, reminding us that just as Johns helped advance the civil rights movement over 50 years ago. Arab Americans must continue the work today. 

Arab Christians: Yes, They Do Exist

For decades now, Christians have been the "invisible or ignored victims" of conflicts in the Middle East. Why does US policy often overlook the plight of this dwindling, yet historical and important Middle East community? Because, well, some Americans don’t seem to know that there are Christians in the Middle East at all. In his most recent column, AAI President Jim Zogby quotes an Associated Press reporter who asks: "You say that you are an Arab Christian. But how can that be - aren't they two different groups?...When exactly did you and your family convert to Christianity?" The answer from a clergyman from Galilee: “about 2000 years ago." Incredible, right? Well, how about this one from an unnamed White House official who suggested, because Syria’s Christian population was facing terrible conditions, that "Maybe it's time for them to just pack their bags and leave." To that official, it was just that simple: pack up and leave. Yeah, like Syria hasn’t been their ancestral homeland since forever. Great idea! Let’s just accept what’s happening. In Palestine, Arab Christian populations are being strangled by the Israeli occupation, yet US officials say and do nothing to protect them. In Egypt, Coptic, Anglican, and churches of all denominations are being targeted. As a result of the Iraq War, the Iraqi Christian population has been significantly reduced. The fact is, Arab Christian communities and traditions are as old as Christianity itself. If America is to play any constructive role in this region's future, it is imperative that our policy discussion be better informed by a deeper understanding of the history and present-day reality of the Middle East. A good place to start would be to acknowledge the role that Christian communities have played, together with their Muslim counterparts, in shaping the region's culture and politics—and to have our policy discussion reflect that reality. 

Louie Gohmert and the US - Egyptian Islamist Exchange Program

It’s incredible what Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX) (you know him for his “terror babies” comments and ironic assertions about illegal Palestinian settlements) has in common with a lot of Egyptians. What they share is common belief in one of the more ridiculous conspiracies we’ve ever found. It goes something like this: “President Obama, who is Muslim, is part of a secret Muslim Brotherhood plot to infiltrate the US government, and Mohamed Morsi is, in turn, part of a US plot to control Egypt through the Muslim Brotherhood.” Confused? Let’s sum this up for you: Basically, there is a US-funded Islamist exchange program between the US and Egypt. How could we have missed that? However ridiculous and funny this may sound, it’s no joke. A lot of Egyptians, especially those who are against the Muslim Brotherhood, are literally watching video of Louie Gohmert on the House floor, assailing President Obama for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and giving them money. The money he talks about is US military aid to Egypt – money that the Muslim Brotherhood never even had access to. The big issue here is that Gohmert, one of the most Islamophobic, anti-Arab members of Congress, is fueling anti-American sentiment among Egyptians who are angry with the US for what they see as its unwavering support for the Muslim Brotherhood. When Louie Gohmert and Egyptians see eye-to-eye, you know you’ve got a problem. The fact is the US administration had no vested interest in backing anyone in Egypt’s elections. If anything, the US is guilty of siding with those in power rather than those who represent the aspirations of the Egyptian people. But we ask: who exactly are those people? One thing Egyptians should know is that the US can’t dictate outcomes in Egypt. Egyptians should accept that our policy in Egypt has less to do with conspiracy and more to do with the fact that we don’t appear to have a clue about how to handle the current situation. Whatever the case, Egyptians should not be looking to Louie Gohmert for insight into anything. 

Hooray for NYPD Accountability!

Last week, New York’s City Council engaged in a refreshing bit of common sense and good governance. With intensive work from countless community activists, Councilmembers on Thursday voted to override Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto of two bills, bringing some much-needed oversight and accountability to the New York Police Department (NYPD). One bill creates an independent inspector general to oversee the NYPD, with the power to subpoena police officers and make recommendations during the course of the investigations. The other bill will make it easier for New Yorkers to file suit over things like police bias and unlawful racial profiling. No one who reads “Countdown” should need reminding about the NYPD’s unconstitutional behavior over the last few years; it’s enough to say the Department seems to think the laws they’re supposed to apply and uphold don’t need to be applied or upheld where its own officers are concerned. Mayor Bloomberg is still smarting from the serious judicial smackdown his “stop-and-frisk” policy got last week, when a federal judge said it was unconstitutional. And last weekend New York magazine ran this chilling article describing the NYPD’s “demographics unit,” which apparently serves no purpose other than to spy on Arab American and American Muslims New Yorkers all the time. The surveillance goes far beyond anything done by the FBI or NSA, and yet has not resulted in a single arrest. The article has this gem from an anonymous NYPD officer, explaining why it’s totally okay, and not at all religiously bigoted, to place mosques under surveillance: “A mosque is different than a church or temple…They [Muslims] pray five times a day. They’re there all the time…We’re just going into the mosques. We just want to know what they’re saying.” Reassuringly, the officer adds, “It’s not as sinister as it sounds.” Well it looks pretty Orwellian to us. Last we checked, these types of activities were illegal, unconstitutional, and just plain un-American. Hopefully, the new oversight and accountability these bills create will finally get rid of such pernicious practices.

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