How Mickey Mouse dominated Republican debate

In-fighting wins out as the presidential race accelerates.

I'd love to see the rest of tonight's debate asking us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead instead of playing 'Mickey Mouse games'.

So said Newt Gingrich last night after FOX News debate moderator Chris Wallace asked the man whose presidential campaign is more than one million dollars in debt whether, quite honestly, he might agree that his attempt to win political election had been a "mess so far".

Mickey Mouse games were indeed the name of the game in Ames, Iowa on Thursday evening, when eight candidates came head to head in round two of the Republican presidential race, all desperate to prove themselves worthy of taking on Obama in next year's presidential elections.

The two-hour debate cranked up the pace several notches after the much more bland affair two months ago, which saw only five of the candidates bother even to turn up. Last time, notable absences included Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Michelle Bachman, generally considered to be the more "heavyweight" candidates.

While May's debate saw candidates on their best behaviour, uniting against Obama in a false show of solidarity, Thursday night saw the candidates turn on their fellow Republicans to pull one another's policies apart in a bout of in-fighting that left no clear winner by the end of it all.

The repeated bickering between former governor Tim Pawlenty and congresswoman Michele Bachmann stood out. The two Minnesota candidates exchanged curt criticisms, with Pawlenty gesturing at Bachmann as he accused her record of accomplishment and results of being "non-existent".

Not one to mince his words, he moved on to address her directly with "please stop, because you're killing us". Bachmann held her own, accusing her challenger of taking a stance more in line with Obama than a conservative Republican, a big put down from the Tea Party champion.

Foreign policy took its place in the spotlight for a time. Congressman Ron Paul received strong support after putting forward his pragmatic anti-war position, pointing out that the US can no longer afford to fund wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: "the threat from war in Iran is overstated", he said with gusto. Bachmann was having none of it.

The next stage in this ongoing battle will be Saturday's Ames straw poll, the most prominent of the Iowa straw polls running up to the presidential candidacy elections and a good early indicator of voter enthusiasm. Although non-binding, the poll gives a good indication of which candidates are faring particularly badly, in turn affecting their likelihood of winning Iowa in January and so potentially discounting them from the rest of the race.

The fact that some candidates are spending tens of thousands of dollars trying to win over tomorrow's voters indicates just how important they think this poll is. With Texan Governor Rick Perry -- the "invisible presence" at the GOP debate last night -- expected to join the campaign this weekend, Mitt Romney's front-running status looks precarious.

Tess Riley is a freelance journalist and social justice campaigner. She also works, part time, for Streetbank, and can be found on Twitter at @tess_riley

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.