Five Stories You Might Have Missed

With the Congress in recess, the U.S. political scene has been dominated by coverage of town hall debates over health care reform. In the debate, the British National Health System (NHS) has been trotted out as representative of the dangers of government-run health care, charges to which the British government has responded. The Financial Times on Friday offered a balanced comparison of the U.S. and British health care systems, which debunks the selective use of statistics in the current debate.

In news from outside the U.S. health care debate last week:

1. The Taliban has stepped up attacks in Afghanistan ahead of nation-wide elections scheduled for Thursday. On Saturday, the Taliban launched a suicide bomb attack against NATO’s heavily fortified Afghanistan headquarters in Kabul, killing eight and wounding nearly 100 people. With observers already worried about the ability of the Afghan government and international elections monitors to conduct a nation-wide poll in the country, observers fear that the Taliban may attempt to disrupt the elections. The relative period of peace which had preceded Saturday’s attack had led some to believe that the Taliban would allow the elections to take place.

Thursday’s poll will pit incumbent President Hamid Karzai against former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Although many observers believed Karzai’s campaign enjoyed an insurmountable advantage, Abdullah’s campaign has managed to close the gap, and some are now forecasting the need for a run-off election in October. A runoff would be necessary if neither candidate manages to secure an absolute majority of the vote.
 
2. Palestinian authorities in Gaza engaged in a series of small battles against Jund Ansar Allah, on Friday. The shootouts resulted in at least 13 deaths and dozens wounded. The battles represented the latest—and perhaps most serious—challenge to the Hamas-led government in Gaza. Jund Ansar Allah is one of several small extremist groups pushing for the introduction of strict Sharia law in Gaza. Jund Ansar Allah, which claims ties to al-Qaeda, had labeled Gaza an Islamic emirate subject to theocratic law, a claim which Hamas rejects. For its part, the Hamas government has dismissed challenges to its leadership as “Zionist propaganda” sponsored by the Israeli government.

3. The French Minister for Urban Regeneration, Fadela Amara, sparked a national debate last week when she called for a nation-wide ban on wearing the burka in France. Amara, a French national of Algerian decent, said that the burka represents “the oppression of women, their enslavement, their humiliation.” Banning the burka, she said, must be part of a broader effort to welcome moderate Islam while fighting the “gangrene, the cancer of radical Islam which completely distorts the message of Islam.” Amara’s comments are part of a broader debate in France. The national parliament in July established a committee to determine whether the wearing of the burka is “compatible with France’s republican tradition of equality between men and women,” and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in June said the burka “will not be welcome on the territory of the republic.” An estimated 5-10 percent of the French population is Muslim, though only a few thousand wear the burka.

4. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak last week attempted to re-open talks with North Korea, offering to negotiate troop reductions along the border between the two countries. The border between North and South Korea is among the most militarized in the world, with more than one million troops, including 30,000 U.S. troops, based in the area. However, in his offer, Lee reiterated the South Korean position that a comprehensive peace deal between the two countries would be predicated on North Korea abandoning its nuclear efforts, a proposition with the North has consistently rejected in the past.

5. Continuing her Africa tour with visits to Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out on several of the continent’s hot spots. Last week, she urged political reconciliation in Kenya and offered support for Somali efforts to fight piracy and Islamic extremism, During her tour, she has not shied away from provoking controversy. In Nigeria, she criticized “the lack of transparency and accountability [which] has eroded the legitimacy of the government.” She also called for African governments to toughen their stance on Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe.

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