Romney is the inevitable candidate again

Victory over Santorum in Arizona and Michigan means the Republican candidate is almost unassailable.

Ever since Rick Santorum swept three states earlier this month, the question everyone has been asking in the US is: Why don't Republicans like Mitt Romney?

Notice I didn't say why do they like Santorum. Indeed, the socially conservative former US Senator from Pennsylvania has been surging, but largely because his winning -- if only symbolically, as in Missouri, whose delegates don't count -- demonstrated a credible conservative alternative to Moderate Mitt.

Because of this, Michigan, where Detroit and its famed automotive firms are located, has been the focus of superlative speculation. Michigan is Romney's birthplace and where his father, George Romney, served as a popular car company executive as well as a respected and moderate Republican governor. If Romney couldn't win with that history, how could he win at all?

Making matters worse is Michigan's long tradition of holding open primaries, which means anyone can cast a ballot for a Republican nominee, even liberals and Democrats! That exclamation point is intended to be cheeky but it's unclear how funny "Operation Hilarity" is. That's the campaign by the Daily Kos, a liberal political website, that feared a win for Romney meant an end to circus entertainment. By voting for Santorum, the editors said, Democrats can "keep the clownshow going."

News broke on Monday that perhaps the Santorum camp is taking Kos' hilarious cue. Democrats across Michigan received robo-calls asking them to vote for Santorum. A second round of calls went out Tuesday telling voters to support Santorum because Romney opposed the Detroit bailout (which Santorum also opposed, but whatever).

Surveys showed Romney and Santorum in a dead heat, raising alarm among analysts who worried the race was so close that voting for Santorum on a lark would bring the joke of President Santorum one big scary step closer to not funny at all. And Democrats would be to blame!

They can all stop worrying now.

Romney handily won Arizona, where he crushed his opponents. Even so, all eyes were on Michigan. For a while, it was too close to call, but around 9 p.m. EST Romney started pulling away from Santorum and by about 10:30pm, NBC and the Associated Press called it in favor of Romney. Cue the sighs of relief.

With 91 per cent of the votes in Michigan counted, Romney had 41 per cent, Santorum 38 per cent, Ron Paul 12 per cent and Newt Gingrich 6.5 per cent. In Arizona, with 73 per cent of the votes counted, Romney had 47.5 per cent, Santorum 26 per cent, Gingrich 16 per cent and Paul 8.5 per cent.

And perhaps now (though I doubt it) there will be less nit-picking over Romney's bona fides. The conventional wisdom has been that working-class and evangelicals don't like Romney, so they'll likely vote for Santorum, a socially conservative Catholic. But turns out that's only half right. According to CNN, working-class voters (defined by income) were more or less split between the candidates. And given exit poll data provided by CBS News, evangelicals liked Santorum, but Michigan's Catholics went for Romney, the Latter-Day Saint.

Some say even a win in Michigan is a loss for Romney because Santorum took the shine of inevitability off him, just as Gingrich did in South Carolina. Yet a win is more often, in the real world at any rate, a win. This shifting back and forth between being portrayed as the candidate of inevitability and candidate of collapse has dogged Romney from the beginning. Every time his opponents gird their loins enough to take a nibble out of the delegate pie, critics point and shout and say Romney won't be able to eat the whole pie! In fact he doesn't have to in order to secure the nomination. But whatever, now that Romney has won again, the narrative will also return to inevitability, with South Carolina, Colorado and Minnesota remembered as only unpleasant hiccups.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in English at Yale University.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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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.