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PART II: THE TALKS HEAT UP AS LOCAL GROUPS CLASH ON HEALTHCARE, AFFIRMATIVE ACTION AND FOREIGN POLICY

US parties home in on key topics

LAST week The Slovak Spectator published an excerpt from its round table event featuring the local chapters of Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad. The topics were taxes and military spending.
This week we are offering readers a glimpse at some of the highlights surrounding the debate on healthcare, affirmative action and foreign policy.

LAST week The Slovak Spectator published an excerpt from its round table event featuring the local chapters of Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad. The topics were taxes and military spending.

This week we are offering readers a glimpse at some of the highlights surrounding the debate on healthcare, affirmative action and foreign policy.

We respectfully thank Bill Quam and Asieh Nassehi Javan from Democrats Abroad, Slovakia, and Jan Surotchak and Hank Jones from Republicans Abroad, Slovakia, for making the round table a success.


HEALTHCARE


The Slovak Spectator (TSS): The Slovak Parliament just adopted an ambitious healthcare reform. What is your group's position on US healthcare?

Hank Jones, Chairman of the Republicans Abroad (HJ Rep): I think we can all agree that the healthcare system in America is broken. The Republican position [toward healthcare] is to privatise the market, to give people more choice, to place competition among healthcare providers. For example, if you're waiting five hours for treatment in a doctor's office, a good system determines that you never have to return to that doctor. We don't have a true market in healthcare. It's an artificial market that is controlled by insurance companies and government bureaucracy, and that's depriving some people to access.


Bill Quam, Chairman of the Democrats Abroad (BQ Dem): If you leave healthcare only up to market forces, you risk leaving behind those people who can't pay for a doctor, let alone a choice of doctor. The government, having divested itself of any regulatory measures, will have to pick up the tab for those people who simply can't afford any kind of healthcare coverage. You have to make sure the bottom portion of society is protected, or the government will have a heavy price to pay.


Asieh Nassehi Javan from the Democrats Abroad (AN Dem): The goal of the Democrats is to ensure healthcare coverage to all Americans. Kerry has talked about providing everyone with the kind of coverage that members of the US congress receive. Kerry wants to end discrimination against people with disabilities and mental illnesses, and wants to make sure that people with HIV and AIDS receive quality care.


HJ (Rep): From the Slovak side, a careful study of what has and has not worked in the US would be useful. One thing the Slovaks should note is that we have a very good system of professional accountability. It's not perfect, but it's good. The most egregious offenses are punished. Credibility is important.


Jan Surotchak from the Republicans Abroad (JS Rep): Much of the criticism about healthcare reform in Slovakia goes back to the idea that healthcare was free. It wasn't free [under communism] and it's not free now. In order to receive quality treatment, you need to make sure that someone is rewarded. That's an unfair system. The only way to combat inequality is to introduce competition into the system and provide the Slovak people with choice. The role of the government is to set up a field where providers can essentially compete.


BQ (Dem): The best way to improve the healthcare sector is to make it accountable to the consumers, the patients. The best way to do that is to open the market up entirely. If a healthcare company outside of Slovakia can save 20 to 30 percent because they have a better handling of claims, then in a market economy they should be allowed to prosper. In theory, it's admirable. But again, the devil is in the details. You have to make sure that market forces don't inadvertently remove children from the rolls, as is the case in the US, where several million children do not have healthcare coverage. If the laws are not carefully crafted, Slovakia can potentially put its citizens in the same kind of danger.


AFFIRMATIVE ACTION


TSS: Recently, Slovak Justice Minister Daniel Lipšic protested vigorously against "positive discrimination". What is your stance on affirmative action? Should Slovakia be careful about implementing affirmative action, and if so, why?

BQ (Dem): When it comes to abuses of power, we believe that the government has to sometimes help the situation along by making the playing field more balanced. Why should women in the United States receive less pay than a man who is doing the same work? Why should certain nationalities be excluded from clubs and universities? I personally feel that there are enough slots in those fields to allocate a few to unrepresented individuals without being intrusive.


AN (Dem): If you are extremely hardworking, you should have an equal chance at earning something. I'm not talking about quotas. I'm talking about providing people with an equal chance.


HJ (Rep): Republicans essentially feel that people in the United States are about as equal as they're going to get from government action. We feel that providing handouts to people is harmful and racist. In cases where discrimination across generations makes it impossible for someone to even enter the contest, however, the government has a responsibility to correct the situation, but not by creating a system of benefits and entitlements.


JS (Rep): While affirmative action, as an idea, is a lofty idea, what it means in practical terms is quotas. I think we can all agree that quotas are patently unfair. In Slovakia, more attention should be made to finding examples of Romas who have beat the system. The most positive thing you can do for young people in a disadvantaged group is to provide role models.


AN (Dem): Quotas are very different from affirmative action. Even the US Supreme Court makes a distinction between quotas and affirmative action. Affirmative action gives an individual who has ambition and ability the chance to succeed.


FOREIGN POLICY


TSS: In terms of foreign policy, can you identify areas of common ground between Democrats and Republicans ?

AN (Dem): I think we can all agree that the current situation in Iraq is important to all Americans.


HJ (Rep): I think we're in agreement that we don't like the regimes in Iraq, Iran and North Korea, and that we'd all like to see some positive change there.


JS (Rep): I believe we'd all like to see the development of liberal democracies around the world where they don't currently exist, whether they are in Iran, Iraq or in North Korea. We're in the process of developing one right now in Iraq.


TSS: Before we get into questions of democracy development, may I ask if there are any differences in how each group views the role of the European Union?

JS (Rep): The position of the United States towards Europe has been consistent through all administrations - Republican and Democrat - since the end of World War II. That is, American-European communication is an excellent idea and it enables us to build partnerships in areas that affect the world. I think the US has actively supported the development of greater union with and within Europe, and I expect that policy to last under any administration.


BQ (Dem): In terms of foreign policy and the EU, John Kerry's position is to put more of an emphasis on consultation than the Bush administration has. Kerry believes in exhausting diplomacy in regards to problems that extend beyond the US, and using military force as a last resort.


TSS: Describe your group's approach to supporting democracies abroad.

JS (Rep): There has been a great deal of debate [within the US] on how to approach the development of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. I would have to say that great progress has been made in this region, to some extent because of the partnerships the US has developed with the European Union. We need to look at the elements that have worked [in Central/Eastern Europe] and determine what can be transferred to other parts of the world, like Iraq. Of course, the situation becomes extremely complicated when the national security of the United States - or the world - is as stake, which is the case with Iraq. Unfortunately, there are some situations in which force has to be used. The question becomes, what's the balance between the use of force and the use of other techniques?


BQ (Dem): You are right. It's a question of balance. But the Bush administration needed to make sure its facts were straight before committing the full fire power of the United States to take care of a problem that, in hindsight, turned out to be a paper tiger. The whole case for going to war in Iraq was that there was a link with 9/11. That turned out to be false. There were supposed to be weapons of mass destruction that could be leveled against Europe in 45 minutes. That turned out to be false. If you're going to use intelligence reports to build a case for war, you must have "an abundance of caution". It's a legal term. In the US, if the police break into the wrong house, who's responsible? The police. There's good reason for that. We cannot have unilateral action. That is rogue behaviour.


JS (Rep): I think the United States, along with its European allies, has developed a diplomatic strategy [towards Iran] which puts the lead negotiating responsibility on the UK, the French and the Germans. In the end, though, it may be necessary to admit that diplomatic strategy has failed. I'm not saying it will come to that. I'm saying there is a role for military power in situations where diplomacy fails.

I think there's a tendency in the media to focus only on the military side of what's going on in Iraq. Right now, the US has partnerships with Czechs, Slovaks, Lithuanians and others that are helping to develop civil societies and democratic institutions in Iraq. Next month, there will be a group of Iraqis going to Lithuania to meet with the representatives of Lithuanian political parties to talk about how you structure a political party. There are Romanian pollsters who have gone to work with Iraquis to help them develop a political polling capacity so the Iraqis can understand better what the people want. There will be a group of Iraqis coming to observe the Czech senate elections in November.

There will be groups of Iraqis coming to Slovakia over the next year to be placed in Slovak NGOs and Slovak ministries to see how those organisations work and transfer that experience back to Iraq. This is the type of long-term political and civil society development that is likely to have the most positive impact on developing a democratic world.


BQ (Dem): Slovakia would do better under a Kerry presidency because Kerry would consult with the EU. I believe Kerry would make sure that the Slovak voice was heard, just as much as everyone else's [in the EU].

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