The world is witnessing a severe humanitarian crisis with the civil war in Yemen. While Saudi Arabia mounts an attack on Houthi rebels that has claimed a great many civilian lives, it has also kept up a blockade keeping needed food, medicine and other supplies from reaching the people there, including many women and children. The result is a deadly famine and a cholera epidemic – along with the possibility of other infectious diseases that accompany starvation – that combine to threaten lives of millions of lives.
The U.S. (and the to some degree the U.K.) is complicit in this tragedy: Our government has OK’d $110 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia from companies such as Boeing, Raytheon and other “defense” giants. Our military engages in refueling flights for Saudi planes that bomb and indiscriminately kill Yemeni civilians along with rebels. And we are shown to have assisted the blockade of food and medicine that could ease the suffering.
The cruelty of the situation is obvious, and its illegality also recently came to light when
Jennifer Newstead, Donald Trump’s nominee (since confirmed) as the top legal advisor at the State Department, indicated Saudi Arabia could be violating both U.S. and international law by restricting humanitarian aid in Yemen. Indeed, Trump himself has expressed dismay at the crisis…albeit while the U.S. continues to support the Saudi war.
A resolution (H Con Res 81) introduced last Fall in the House of Representatives to invoke the War Powers Act to stop U.S. participation in the war has so far gone nowhere. In the new year activists will be gearing up to revive it and also bring it up in the Senate. As information about the crisis spreads, the hope is that – with our help – it will no longer be ignored.
ACTION: Contact Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris and tell them to support legislation to take steps, via the War Powers Act, to stop U.S. complicity in the war and humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Suggest we need more than sympathy and “lip service” to stop a military effort that is probably outside the law. Also contact Rep. Jackie Speier or Anna Eshoo, or whomever represents you, and tell them to add their names to (and demand a vote on) H Con Res. 81, to show who is for and against it.
Korean Peninsula – Lowering the Temperature
The declarations and approaches of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un are a true lesson in how not to avoid a war, and with the respective nuclear arsenals to which both “leaders” refer, the implications of such a war are disastrous – for each country and for the planet, if other nuclear powers decide to get involved. Clearly a better avenue can and must be pursued…what Senator Ben Cardin called a “diplomatic surge”, and what has historically been proven possible. Jimmy Carter negotiated a stop to North Korean nuclear weapons development in the 1990s, and while the structure of that agreement broke down, it forestalled a potential nuclear nightmare at the time. And more sanctions are not diplomacy, but rather just serve to provoke North Korea and further inflame everyone’s rhetoric.
During his recent visit to China, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson implied that diplomatic approaches were again being made to North Korea, and without the "preconditions" that would include North Korea getting rid of its nuclear arsenal (regarded impossible by many arms control experts). This potentially positive news has been countered by suggestions Trump’s such as such a meeting is “a waste of time” and that Tillerson should abandon the idea. Between Trump’s threat at the United Nations to “totally destroy” North Korea (its very uttering likely a violation of international law) and his incendiary tweets, he seems ominously open to the unthinkable. Even a “conventional” war can escalate to something far worse.
We can be open to the notion that it is all (on both sides) just talk, but even words can affect a nuclear alert system. And as to talking, there are far better things to say than what we are hearing. Members of Congress need to take a stand for diplomacy, and do everything possible to remove any sign of legitimacy to what Trump and Kim are putting forth.
Action: Contact Rep. Speier or Eshoo, or whomever represents you, and tell them to speak up in the House on behalf of starting talks, aimed at addressing each side’s concerns and avoiding an armed conflict, with the North Korean government. Urge both Senator Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein to make the same kinds of statements in the Senate. Suggest that while trying diplomacy will not be easy, it would, as it has before, improve on the possible alternative of a nuclear war with an unknowable outcome.
Upholding the Deal
Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated between Iran and the U.S. along with five other nations to regulate Iran’s nuclear program, Trump was required by October 15 to certify to Congress whether, in his opinion, Iran is complying with the agreement – and whether he believes the deal remains in the U.S. national security interest. Unfortunately, he chose to decertify the JCPOA.
This opens the door for Congress to introduce and perhaps pass new sanctions on Iran, a move that many in the peace community see as provocative and destabilizing. It also could isolate the U.S. by setting it apart from the other six nations who are a party to the agreement. After all of the work on the 2015 plan, Trump’s words about “renegotiating” are unrealistic and a non-starter. Indeed, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and nonproliferation experts around the world have affirmed that Iran is keeping up its end of the deal – a fact best not ignored by either the White House or Congress.
North Korea becomes a factor here as well, in that they would see no motivation to sit down and negotiate on their nuclear arsenal if Iran’s cooperation is rewarded by turning away from that deal and turning up sanctions. North Korea could instead further escalate its own program. Congress needs to recognize all of these implications.
Action: Contact Reps. Speier or Eshoo, as well as Senators Feinstein and Harris, and urge them to become vocal about the need to keep the JCPOA functioning. (Bonus points for contacting Sens. Bob Corker, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.) Remind all of the success of the deal so far, as reported by the IAEA, and that a new one would be impossible. Add that – assuming Trump decertifies U.S. participation – they need to oppose new sanctions on Iran, which could escalate tensions and cause them to reconsider any nuclear ambitions they might have.
A Call for Better Priorities
The Republicans’ single signature legislative achievement in Congress brought smiles to the faces of a lot of wealthy people and corporate board members, but it should not (and does not, if public polls are to be believed) do the same for the middle class on down. The tax overhaul bill cuts corporate taxes drastically and permanently, and many basic workers’ taxes marginally and temporarily.
On the way to a $1 trillion budget deficit increase that suddenly, for now, isn’t important to the majority party, they are moving to preserve tens of billions of dollars in military spending increases, while somehow coming up short when it is time to renew the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which expired in September. $81 billion for disaster relief was also left off the recent subsequent short-term spending bill, as was a renewal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) provision. These are all expected to see funding in the new year, say the Republican leadership, but we will of course believe it when we see it.
Meanwhile, the deficit will soon become important again – when Republicans start targeting, as they have foretold, programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start. “We’re going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan recently on a conservative talk radio show, adding, “... Frankly, it’s the health care entitlements that are the big drivers of our debt, so we spend more time on (them) – because that’s really where the problem lies, fiscally speaking.”
In this corner we beg to differ. When nearly $600 billion went to the military in 2015 (about 54% of discretionary spending), including expensive weapons systems the Pentagon didn’t ask for and nuclear weapons that could end virtually all life on the planet, a question for our elected representatives is likely to be “What makes us more secure…better health care and education and taking care of our citizens? Or weapons we hope to never use?” We hope for votes based on the replies we expect.
Action: Contact Rep. Speier or Eshoo, as well as both Sen. Feinstein and Harris, and tell them to fight for preserving such programs as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – that Congress needs to keep its hands off these programs that so many Americans have worked to earn. Add that they should make sure CHIP and DACA remain intact, since they let the end-of-the-year spending bill go without inclusion of these important programs. Suggest that we should cut the fat and the fear out of our military budget before we target such benefit programs.
A Free and Just Internet
(Here is an item less “peace-related” but properly “justice-related” and steeped in common sense.)
The effort to preserve net neutrality – the idea that all participants in distributing information on the world wide web are entitled to the same speed and the same costs regardless of their size – hit a big roadblock in December when the Republican-majority Federal Communications Commission voted to repeal it. Should the repeal stand, large communications companies like Comcast and Verizon (for which FCC Chair Ajit Pai was once a lawyer), can charge internet providers whatever they want depending on such issues as ability to pay or politics (which certainly can be intertwined at times).
Interestingly, a public comment period that preceded the FCC vote featured an overwhelming number of comments in opposition to the repeal, but also the presence of millions of comments in favor from “bots” that didn’t reflect reality. Despite calls to delay the vote pending investigation of the phony comments, Pai went ahead with the vote and got the results for which he was looking.
But the net neutrality issue is still in play – in the courts where legal challenges will emerge, but also in Congress, which can use the Congressional Review Act to pass a “resolution of disapproval” that would nullify the FCC vote and bring back the net neutrality rules. Currently Senator Harris is a co-sponsor of that resolution, while Senator Feinstein is not...though she has spoken in support of net neutrality. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer intends to force a vote on such a resolution in that chamber, and the hope is that a similar action will take place in the House. With over 70% of voters (and that would include a lot of Republicans) in favor of net neutrality, the decision in Congress to preserve it is liable to be an easy one – if its members respond to us rather than big communication companies.
Action: Contact Sens. Feinstein and tell her to support the “Resolution of Disapproval” in the Senate, of the FCC vote to repeal net neutrality. Send the same message regarding a possible House action to Rep. Speier or Eshoo. Suggest that a less-than-open internet will be even more unfair than the phony comments used to tilt the tally of public comments on the issue – and that we need to be able to communicate freely in our modern world.
Stop Spying On Us
An important provision of the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Amendments Act is scheduled to sunset at the end of the year. Section 702 of this law authorizes intelligence agencies such as the FBI and NSA to scan in bulk phone calls, text messages and emails traveling across the internet. While this information sweep is supposedly meant just for people outside the U.S., Americans’ communications become part of the data – without a warrant or any particular suspicion of wrongdoing.
Members of Congress from both major parties have shown interest in removing Section 702…a big reason may be that they are also targets of such surveillance as well as everyday people. In fact, it’s conceivable that, under this section, internet communication data from every American has been collected.
But Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton is not so phased, and introduced a bill that would prevent the sunset of Section 702 and permanently reauthorize this provision of invasive surveillance. This would allow companies like Booz Allen (the former employer of Edward Snowden, who first told us about Section 702), Lockheed Martin and Leidos to reap government contracts for the surveillance.
On the other hand, Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard introduced H.R.2588, the Preventing Unconstitutional Collection Act, which targets Section702. Thus the House has a chance to accomplish in a different way what the Senate is also attempting.
Action: Contact Sens. Feinstein and Harris, and tell them to oppose Sen. Cotton’s bill to perpetuate Section 702 as part of the FISA Amendments Act. Likewise reach out to Reps. Speier or Eshoo, and urge their support for H.R. 2588. Suggest that we don’t need or want the FBI and NSA sweeping up all of our personal online information; to do so is a violation of the 4th Amendment protecting us from unreasonable searches.
Whose Finger on the Button?
The current U.S. policy that threatens the first use of nuclear weapons has always been controversial; in these times it’s a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Even military leaders who have been in charge of our nuclear forces, such as General James E. Cartwright, argue that there is no need for such a policy that cannot be addressed by economic, diplomatic and conventional tools. And of course, should the United States ever launch a nuclear first strike, the risks of catastrophic escalation would be great. If one nuclear attack led to others, a nuclear winter could ensue, risking billions of casualties and any number of global crises.
Maintaining this first-use policy, especially when the decision of whether to carry it out is left in the hands of one person – in our case, the President – encourages other nations to pursue advanced nuclear weapons in order to deter a potential U.S. first strike…which in turn increases the chance of an unintended nuclear war. The current resident of the White House, and the manner in which he has so far done his job, brings new significance to the notion that no president should be able to unilaterally launch a nuclear first strike.
In January California Rep. Ted Lieu and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey introduced corresponding bills in the House and Senate, entitled the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017. This legislation – H.R. 669 in the House and S. 200 in the Senate – would prohibit a President from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war by Congress. In a government that thrives under a system of checks and balances, the bills would seem to be the ultimate “check” in favor of our survival. While nuclear weapons should never be used under any circumstances, the bills are a move in the right direction to prevent what amounts to what has been called a “thermonuclear monarchy”.
Action: Contact Rep. Jackie Speier to thank her for co-sponsoring H.R. 669, the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017. Rep. Anna Eshoo has not yet co-sponsored, so her constituents can tell her to sign on. Likewise contact Sen. Kamala Harris and tell her to add her name to the corresponding S. 200. Suggest this is a long-overdue bill, but especially timely during the present administration. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has signed on in the Senate, so feel free to also thank her.
Capitol Switchboard: 202-224-3121
Senator Kamala Harris
50 United Nations Plaza, Ste 5584 San Francisco, CA 94102
(916) 448-2787 FAX: (202) 228-3865
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, U.S. Department of State:
(202)647-6575 FAX: (202)647-2283