Obama weakened as US passes debt bill

The immediate crisis has been averted, but the president has capitulated on nearly all of his key de

Hours ahead of the Treasury deadline that could have seen the US default for the first time in its history, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favour of a deal to raise the debt ceiling.

Reluctantly, both Democrats and Republicans voted the legislation through, although there were significant revolts on each side. It passed by 269 to 161 votes.

It will now be voted on by the Senate, although this is largely a formality as it has a Democratic majority. The House, which since November's mid-terms has been made up of many hardline Tea Party Republicans, was the main problem. Although the bill is seen by many as a complete capitulation by the president, many Republicans are still angry that the cuts outlined in the legislation do not go far enough.

While there is a sense of relief that the crisis has been ended without a potentially catastrophic default, Democrats are understandably frustrated as they have emerged from weeks of stand-off with little to show for it. Not only has Barack Obama surrendered on most of the key points, promising more than $2tn in spending cuts over the next ten years, but because a deal was reached so close to the deadline, the bill has not undergone the normal scrutiny.

It is a significant shift in fiscal policy at a time when economic recovery is fragile. Unemployment remains above 9 per cent, growth is slowing, and there is now no scope for any economic stimulus. Democrats also fear that it is the poor who will lose the most. In one of his main surrenders, Obama has agreed not to seek extra tax revenue. Given that George Bush's tax cuts for the rich are the main cause of the deficit (see this chart), this means the deficit will stay sky-high. Democrats hope to re-open this debate at a later stage.

The sense that Obama has caved in to the unreasonable voices on the right is also a cause of frustration. Writing last night, the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman criticised Obama for refusing to consider tabling the 14th Amendment to push his version through:

Those legal options are still there. Obama can move now; and even if he eventually loses in the courts, that gives him time.

Sure, it's risky. But the whole situation is immensely risky, thanks to the extremism and bloody-mindedness of the right. There are no safe options, and trying to play it safe when there is no safety lands you, well, where Obama is right now.

While laudable in theory, Obama's wish to seek reasonable, bipartisan solutions in the most partisan, extreme era the White House has seen for decades makes him a hostage to fortune.

The immediate crisis may have been averted, but this stand-off has shown how drastically the mainstream debate has been pulled to the right. It has also given a hint of the lines along which the next election will be fought -- drastically differing views on the size and scale of the state. Obama would do well to find his voice and be more assertive by then, if he does not want to lose the support of his own party.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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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.

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