Posted on September 17, 2013 in Countdown

Political “Kneecappers” Moving us Toward another Debt Ceiling Crisis

Remember a little over two years ago when the country almost defaulted on its debt obligations and Standard and Poor’s downgraded the US’s credit rating from AAA to AA? One would think after that episode Congress would whip itself into shape (no political pun intended) and prevent a similar tragedy from ever taking place again. But as the mid-October deadline to again raise the debt ceiling looms, we’re headed down the same path of political brinksmanship from 2011. This year, the intransigence of certain members of Congress is even more palpable, with far-right elements of divided Republican Party breaking with leadership and seeking to leverage the debt ceiling as a way to get rid of Obamacare. That’s right: if Obama does not agree to dismantle or significantly the signature piece of legislation of his presidency, a fairly large contingent of Republican members of Congress won’t vote to raise the debt ceiling. That is, they won’t allow the US to pay its bills. So why would members of Congress sacrifice their political integrity to hold our full faith and credit hostage - again? Because within its ranks the GOP is at war and more vulnerable members of Congress are being forced to take sides with well-funded political groups that, by their own admission, don’t compromise – groups like the Economic Club for Growth that Grover Norquist aptly calls political dilettantes, or more colloquially known - at least by the “Countdown” team - as “kneecappers.” These “kneecappers” or dilettantes, as Grover puts it, are unconcerned with legislative victories, just with increasing the number of legislators beholden to their political views, regardless of the cost to their Party and their country. 

Foreign Governments Spying on You for Your Own Protection

If you’ve been harassed by Israeli authorities at the border when trying to enter Israel or Palestine, you know how frustrating it is to have them search your personal electronics just because you have an Arab sounding name. But what if we told you that the Israelis don’t even need your physical laptop, phone, or iPad to sift through your personal communications? What if we told you that the US government already provides this information to them in bulk? Would you believe us? That’s what a new report published by Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald. The report cites a memo obtained by Greenwald from Edward Snowden. Now get this: the memo stipulates a non-legally binding agreement between the NSA and an Israeli intelligence agency of “pertaining to the protection of US persons." Ha! This language is great. Essentially, our government is making it easier for a foreign government to spy on our citizens for the citizens’ own protection. Thanks, but we’ll take our chances. The US government has no business turning over the personal communications of its citizens to any foreign government, especially one that has a long-standing history of routinely spying on the US. It’s not just that we don’t want people taking our secret tabouli and hummus recipes: our government has a duty to protect US interests and Americans’ privacy, and whether it be at the Israeli border or online, they are failing to protect our rights.

Happy Constitution Day - Now Get to Work Protecting It

September 17 is Constitution Day, which commemorates the anniversary of the day the Constitutional Convention adopted and signed the U.S. Constitution in Philadelphia in 1787. In the 226 years since, our nation has changed in ways the Framers could never have imagined. Our country has grown, and at the same time the world has seemingly gotten smaller as it’s grown more interconnected. The arguments that dominate our political scene involve technological advances the Framers only dreamed of in wild fantasies; yet in many ways the questions they raise about governmental power, individual liberty, and civil rights are much older than 226 years. So, while the Framers certainly had never heard of wiretapping or GPS tracking, they did understand and fervently cared about the privacy and dignity of citizens, and so they gave us the Fourth Amendment prohibiting “unreasonable searches and seizures.” And as time went by, our courts decided this provision protects us just as much from electronic invasions of privacy as physical ones. Today, it’s that very Amendment that allows us to argue that the Obama Administration’s mass surveillance operation exposed by Edward Snowden is, at the very least, skating on the edge of the Constitution. And we think the Framers would be appalled at the flagrant abuse of “stop-and-frisk” practiced by the police force in America’s largest and most iconic city. The Constitution, at least since 1868, is dedicated to the ideal of “equal justice under law.” It’s impressive to admire how far we’ve come toward meeting that ideal, but we can’t forget we have more work to do. If you doubt that we have more work to do, remember that the gist of the Supreme Court decision striking down the Voting Rights Act was essentially, “Everyone is equal now, there’s no more racism, hooray!” Within days states were enacting discriminatory voter suppression laws again. We must never stop fighting for the precious rights we need, and we must never stop protecting the ones we’ve earned.

Syrian American Perspectives Remain Important

Syria remained – at least from an observer’s perspective – in a state of suspended animation this week. The last-second agreement the U.S. brokered with Russia on Syria’s chemical weapons, which doesn’t in terms authorize the use of force but doesn’t necessarily rule it out either, has put off the urgency we saw over the last month when it appeared an American military strike was imminent. We have demonstrated the intolerable costs to the Syrian people of an American wait-and-see approach, but it now appears that might be exactly what happens. Between these changes, and the strange, otherworldly New York Times op-ed published last week by Vladimir Putin (it included quotes like, “when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal,” which might sound funny to Chechens, gays, journalists, and anyone Putin doesn’t like), it might sound like ordinary, sensible people – especially Syrian Americans who have a direct stake in this crisis – need their voices to be amplified exponentially. After all, if Vladimir Putin is driving any conversation, if even just for a moment, we’ve all got problems. So continue to send us your stories and your opinions on a US strike on Syria. We’ve been sharing them with press, relaying your stories and opinions to fully demonstrate the complex nature and nuances of this conflict. It’s important to inject our narrative to shape the public’s understanding of the Syrian and Arab American experience. 

Lessons from Oslo Not Yet Learned

As Syria dominates the spotlight on the international stage, Israeli and Palestinian delegations continued peace negotiations. Not much is known about the specific proceedings, or whether or not anything is actually getting done. Earlier this summer, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that parties agreed to not discuss details of the negotiations. Still, a few things are loud and clear: both sides carry risk-averse leaders, Israel has prioritized the Syrian crisis and Iran, and leaks from the Palestinian side have also stalled hopes of forward momentum. This led Israeli negotiators to complain that the Palestinians were violating the agreement to stay silent –a feeble argument in the face of continued settlement expansion. Meanwhile, PLO, Fatah and Palestinian Authority officials have already described the talks as “futile,” “unproductive,” and “a waste of time,” only adding to the incertitude. What lessons can be applied to this round of negotiations? Jim Zogby reflected on the significance of the Oslo Accords, signed 20 years ago, in a recent column, writing, “even with the flaws and the ambiguities, what was undeniable was that Israel and the PLO had taken unprecedented steps, breaking taboos and shattering myths” with Oslo. He writes that phased approaches can make room for sabotage, that the US must be directly engaged and apply continuous pressure, and that clear improvements in the daily lives of people on the ground are necessary. On Sunday, Kerry noted that “the road ahead is not easy” after holding a three-hour meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. “If it was easy, peace would have been achieved a long time ago.” He can say that again.

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