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

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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.