The Pastor problem

Rick Perry isn't the first presidential candidate to be embarrassed by a turbulent preacher.

So it turns out that Rev Robert Jeffress -- supporter and mentor of US presidential candidate Rick Perry -- doesn't just have a problem with Mormons. He's an equal opportunities hater. In a rant about Catholicism on his radio station last September he unleashed the C-word -- clearly a favourite of his -- calling the church to which a quarter of Americans belong "that cult-like pagan religion" and claiming that it derived from ancient Babylonian mysteries rather than "God's Word". "Isn't that the genius of Satan?" he asked. Not just a cult, then. A Satanic cult. And, for good measure, "a fake religion" too.

This revelation has the potential to cause even more trouble for Perry than the Mormonism row that has rumbled on for almost a week. Bill Donohue, who leads the Catholic League, called on Perry to reject Jeffress and his endorsement - something the candidate declined to do when challenged by Mitt Romney during a TV debate on Tuesday. Donohue called Jeffress "a poster boy for hatred, not Christianity".

In the last presidential campaign, Sarah Palin was forced to distance herself from an African pastor who pursued unconventional sideline as a witch-finder, while Barack Obama was put an in embarrassing position when footage emerged of his pastor, Rev Jeremiah Wright, saying "God damn America!" So the Jeffress row isn't unprecedented. Indeed, Donohue himself was involved in a controversy uncannily similar to the Jeffress/Perry imbroglio early in 2008.

It was Donohue's intervention that persuaded John McCain -- then the Republican front-runner -- to reject the endorsement of an Evangelical pastor named John Hagee. Like Jeffress, Hagee ran a Texas megachurch, and his views about Catholicism were just an uncompromisingly Paisleyite. He referred to it as "the great whore" that "drank the blood of the Jewish people". Doubtless there are parts of Texas where that kind of talk still goes down well. Hagee said other embarrassing things too, for example that Hurricane Katrina was divine punishment for "a homosexual parade" that had taken place in New Orleans shortly before.

McCain expressed himself "glad to have his endorsement" even after Hagee's remarks became publicly known. For McCain, who lacked credibility with the religious Right, having a prominent Evangelical fundamentalist in his camp was an important electoral asset, especially when facing a strong challenge from the former Baptist preacher Mick Huckabee. Until suddenly it wasn't.

So far, while distancing himself from the pastor's expressed view of Mormonism, Perry has made it clear that he still "respects" Jeffress and accepts his endorsement. A Perry spokesman went so far as to accuse Romney of "playing a game of deflection" in making anti-Mormon bigotry a campaign issue. Donohue's challenge may prove less easy to bat aside.

If that wasn't bad enough, a pro-secularism group, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, has complained to the IRS about Jeffress' use of his official church website to host videos supporting Perry's candidacy.The group claims that this constitutes an abuse of the church's tax-exempt status.

The "pastor problem" is a peculiar feature of modern US politics. Obama's relationship with Wright was long-standing, but other unhelpful endorsements look to be the result of carelessness on the part of candidates. It should not have been difficult for Perry's advisers to discover the hardline views previously expressed by Robert Jeffress about Mormonism, Catholicism, homosexuality and other sensitive issues, or to foresee that they might pose a problem outside those parts of the Southern States that have never mentally left the 17th century.

Given that a successful presidential campaign now seems to require that the candidate be endorsed by prominent, self-appointed, publicity-seeking Christian ministers (or at the very least, such endorsement is perceived to confer a distinct advantage) one would expect that they would be carefully vetted before being allowed to stand on stage and introduce someone-or-other The Next President Of The United States. But this doesn't seem to happen. Instead, it always comes as a great surprise to the candidate when a clip surfaces on YouTube of the pastor concerned saying something outrageous. Strange.

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.