Posted on March 16, 2017 in Countdown

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Syria at Six

This week unbelievably marks the six-year anniversary of the tragedy still playing out in Syria. In that time, the United States and the world have witnessed 450,000+ Syrians killed, 6.3 million Syrians internally displaced, and 4.8 million Syrians flee the war torn country. The most recent failure in peace negotiations this week perfectly pairs with more of the same from the United States. Syria has never been at the top of President Trump’s agenda, either on the campaign trail or since he’s taken office but it is becoming increasingly clear that the U.S. will continue to carry out the same basic policy that is inescapably complicated, almost completely hamstrung, constantly undermined, and brought to a near standstill by the delicate balancing act the U.S. is playing between warring factions in Syria and the counter-ISIL plan. So we’re left with the same policy but we Syria lives in a new world, a post-Aleppo world where almost everyone has come to grips with the fact that Syria is not being put back together quickly and Assad is not going to leave right away. Like those inevitabilities or not, Aleppo has also made it crystal clear that there cannot ever be a military solution to the Syrian crisis.

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Fund War, Cut Peace: What Can Go Wrong?

Last night ended the painful and terrifying speculation about what would be in the 2018 budget request from President Trump to Congress. And indeed – the budget request is in fact painful and terrifying. Besides the jaw dropping $1.5 billion POTUS requested for building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, the budget clearly has some bigly winners and losers. Who won? War and war-like-things. The Department of Defense got a hefty 10%, or $52billion, increase which is will be boosted by $12 billion requested for overseas contingency operations. The Department of Homeland Security also got a big bump of 6.8%, hopefully not to “counter Islamic extremism.” Who lost? Well, everything that doesn’t have to do with war and counter terrorism. Most notably for our purposes, all efforts at peace and diplomacy will – if Congress passes the budget – be gutted. The Department of State (which includes USAID) will stand to lose a staggering 28% of their operating budgets in 2018. Part of the cuts that the budget will force are reportedly going to punish the United Nations most severely. U.S. diplomats at the UN have begun warning that the U.S. is likely to cut our contributions by nearly 50%.  That is crazy, and cruel. But apparently our new, mysterious, and unavailable Secretary of State Rex Tillerson isn’t fazed by the massive cut to his cabinet, in fact he thinks the smaller budget is a good thing because the State Department spending “simply isn’t sustainable.” We’d say that a constant state of war the unsustainable part of U.S. global actions, but hey he’s the former CEO of Exxon Mobil so he must know better. We hope that Congress can find a backbone on this one, and stick up for the essential diplomacy work that the State Department should be doing.

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The Bad State of State and the State of Israel

The State Department is just facing a crisis over budget cuts, but the entire Foggy Bottom bureaucracy is facing an even more massive crisis over credibility, influence, and access. Even though the State Department press briefings have resumed on a semi-regular basis, the Department of State doesn’t have much work to report out. Particularly on Israel. There hasn’t been a shortage of wave making policy announcements on President Trump’s Israel and Palestinian policy, but none of that has gone through the traditional channels and experts at the State Department. In fact, on the Trump administration’s first diplomatic trip to Israel to assess many of the issues involved in peace negotiations – particularly settlements – the State Department isn’t even represented. The White House domination of foreign policymaking seems to be most Trump’s preferred style, but it really is hampering the expertise department – we can’t help but point out that prior to this trip Jason Greenblatt – who is representing the administration on their first delegation to Israel - had only ever met Palestinians who were employees at his yeshiva school inside an illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank. While the State Department insists that they are “supporting” Greenblatt’s trip, it seems pretty clear that the State Department doesn’t have a roll in crafting U.S. policy anymore. Now is really not the time for a completely unknowledgeable President to be sidelining experts in the State Department in favor of newcomers like Greenblatt and the yet-to-be-confirmed future Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. Especially now that the United Nations is getting serious about apartheid-like economic realities in Palestine, and with the U.S. commitment to the United Nations hanging on by a thread of a thread, flawless diplomacy is needed now more than ever.

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Axes, Gaps, and Windows as 46 of 93 U.S. Attorneys are Replaced

This week President Trump made a bit of a mess out of a procedurally standard practice of replacing U.S. Attorney across the country. Yes, new Presidents – particularly new Presidents who are taking over from the opposing party – replace U.S. Attorneys. What is not normal is the way it was handled (particularly in one case) and that there are no replacements lined up. We’re actually surprised this is making such big news, because seriously – when else have U.S. Attorneys gotten so much attention? We’re glad that there is a growing awareness about the importance of U.S. attorneys in our country, because the 93 U.S. Attorney’s might just be the most accessible officials of the Trump Administration who average citizens in any state can directly engage. We’ve been calling for that engagement ever since Trump was inaugurated. While there is reason to be pessimistic about President Trump’s approach to judicial postings, we also have a massive opportunity to educate 43 new U.S. Attorneys in addition to the 47 that will remain in their posts. And we’re asking you to help. These Attorneys need to hear from Arab Americans about our community and the issues we care about. We suggest you start engagement with demanding stronger hate crime laws and more aggressive prosecution because of the huge role U.S. Attorneys play on those issues, but you can also raise whatever issue you like. Just call them. Here’s how.

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The Wiretap Trap and the Reform Rebound

The President has really stepped in it when he fired off a bizarre and serious tweet accusing former President Obama of “wiretapping” his campaign – specifically his penthouse home and office in Trump Tower. We’re now 12 days post-tweet, it appears the matter is being put to bed (in the sense that it is becoming clear the President doesn’t understand how surveillance works and that the President is comfortable firing off baseless, explosive allegations without a shred of proof or any attempt to learn it). We’re hoping, however, the surreal drama isn’t put to bed entirely. With so much attention on U.S. surveillance practices there’s also a new clamoring for surveillance reform – ok, maybe not a “clamoring” but at least surveillance awareness is at an all-time high, so much so that certain Trump-aligned members of Congress who have NEVER supported surveillance reform but are now really excited to reign in U.S. surveillance practices. And we’re hoping to translate the increasing awareness into momentum for meaningful surveillance reform. We’ve been doggedly trying to get this issue on the tip of everyone’s tongues, as it should be. Civil rights loving citizens have a big opportunity this year to reform one of the most rights-infringing aspects of the U.S. surveillance authority: Section 702 of the FISA Amendments. It’s a complicated issue. But it boils down to an opportunity to protect civil rights from accidental but highly consequential mass surveillance. Join us to support reform. We’ll be talking about it all year.