Five & One: January 10, 2011

    Logo by Nina Lincoff / North by Northwestern

    This quarter, North by Northwestern is hosting weekly columns from Politics & Policy, a new undergraduate publication with a focus on — you guessed it — politics and policy at local, state, national and international levels. Five & One breaks down what news to read — and what news to ignore.

    5. Radical cleric returns to Iraq

    The return of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to Iraq this week has caused many to contend that the power of the Sadrists is growing and will result in more sectarian conflict. The reality is that rather than increasing violent opposition to the American occupation of Iraq and the current Iraqi government, al-Sadr’s return signals some willingness to integrate his rhetoric into the mainstream political discourse. In the 2009 Iraqi elections, the Sadrists gained 40 seats in the Iraqi parliament, the second largest of any group. Only Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s party gained more seats.

    Al-Sadr’s return to Iraq could signal his intent to work with the new coalition government. As the leader of one of the largest caucuses in the parliament, it is likely that he will be offered a key Cabinet position, further legitimizing his political views. The timing of his return, just shortly after the Iraqi government was officially formed, could point to promises made to al-Sadr in order to secure his support.

    4. Defense Secretary proposes reduction in spending

    In an effort to bring the Pentagon’s budget under control and reduce the national deficit, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announcedlast week a $78 billion reduction— the largest defense drawback since 2001. The changes will include cutting more than 47,000 soldiers and Marines, slowing development of new weapons, and increasing dues for retired veterans. The changes might appear intimidating but in fact only represent a reduction in annual defense spending increases. In fact, while the term “cuts” has gained prominence with the story, the adjustment still plans for an annual increase over the next three years. The majority of this increase will go towards funding military pension and healthcare obligations.

    The soaring American deficit has become a focus of the Obama Administration and cuts have been sought in every corner of the government. Defense spending, which makes up one of largest pieces of the pie, is a tempting target. In order to offset potential cuts in overall defense spending, Gates has attempted to create greater internal efficiency by cutting unnecessary command staffs and programs with major cost overruns. The goal of these changes is to allow Gates to slow defense spending increases and therefore avoid conflict with deficit hawks.

    3. British Medical Journal calls vaccine study a “fraud”

    On Thursday, the British Medical Journalreleased its findings from an investigation into an article
    published by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in The Lancet in February 1998. The article linked the
    measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine with autism in children. The BMJ called Wakefield’s paper
    an “elaborate fraud” and concluded that he had misrepresented, altered, or fabricated the medical
    histories of all twelve of the patients in his study; the author of the BMJ article said Wakefield should face criminal charges.

    The BMJ’s allegations should not be treated as fact; it may yet turn out that Wakefield will
    be vindicated (despite the fact that his paper has been roundly criticized and was fully retracted by The Lancet last February). Nonetheless, this development should give the American and British “anti-vax” communities pause, for legal reasons as much as scientific ones. The United Kingdom has libel laws which heavily favor the victim of libel; accusations of this magnitude are not often made in the mainstream British press for fear of being forced to pay heavy damages in court. The fact that the BMJ has unequivocally accused Wakefield of malfeasance should cast a great deal of doubt on his credibility, and in turn on his scientific findings.

    2. Pakistani governor assassinated by personal security guard

    Last Tuesday, the governor of the Punjab province in Pakistan, Salmaan Taseer, was
    assassinated by his own security guard in a busy market near his home in Islamabad. An outspoken advocate of progressive policies, Taseer recently made headlines for supporting a Christian woman who was controversially sentenced to death for blasphemy. Perhaps even more unnerving than the assassination itself was the reaction to it: several clerics refused to lead Taseer’s funeral prayers and local lawyers fought to shower the killer with rose petals at his court appearance and offered to defend him at his impending trial.

    The fact that many religiously conservative Pakistanis have sided with the assassin is indicative of the violent religious and political disagreements which threaten the already-precarious stability of the country. This assassination will likely set back efforts at progressive reforms, because it deprives the movement of a particularly eloquent advocate and because the public reaction to the crime seems likely to intimidate other would-be reformers.

    1. Historic referendum could lead to southern Sudan independence

    This past Sunday the semiautonomous region of South Sudan held a referendum on whether to secede from Sudan. This referendum is the final result of the 2005 peace agreement which ended the bloody civil war between the North and South. The conflict between the two regions has centered on religious differences, with the South predominantly composed of Christians and animists, and the North dominated by Sunni Muslims. If, as expected, the referendum is successful, the South will become an independent state beginning in June of this year.

    By far the biggest worry surrounding the referendum is whether Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, currently wanted by the ICC on human rights abuse charges, will accept an independent Southern Sudan. There are an estimated 1,500,000 Sudanese living in the North who could be subject to abuse and persecution. Information Minister Kamal Obeid has already announced that, “southerners’ rights will be denied if secession is the outcome of the referendum vote.” The South holds over 80% of the country’s oil reserves, and the loss of this potential revenue could spark renewed conflict. There are already an estimated 70,000 Northern troops placed on the border between the North and South. The resumption of conflict could draw in regional players such as Kenya, as well as countries with economic interests in the South’s oil, such as China, which gets 7% of its oil supply from Sudan.


    0. North Korea agrees to unconditional talks

    Following a series of provocative behavior throughout 2010, including sinking of a South Korean ship and shelling Yeonpyeong Island, North Korea has called for resuming diplomatic talks with South Korea. While the gesture of diplomacy is a novel occurrence coming from the North, this is the first time North Korea has called for talks since the ’90s.

    South Korea remains adamant that the talks must include discussions of responsibilities for the
    previous North Korean attacks; this is contrary to the North Korean focus on aid and economic
    exchange. Because both sides are unlikely to agree on the terms of any negotiations that would take place, it is unlikely that this change in diplomatic tone will change the relationships on the Korean penninsula.


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