x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Republicans lose ground in Gulf

John McCain's credentials have been weakened by the Republican party's recent track record.

In any other election year, a man like John McCain would stand out as a clear favourite of this region's political and business elite, which historically has preferred Republicans over Democrats and reveres American leaders with many of Mr McCain's traits. But this is not just any other election year. After Mr McCain is officially tapped by Republicans next week to be their presidential candidate at a party convention in Minnesota, he will enter the final lap of the race to succeed George W Bush against a charismatic African-American who is a full quarter-century his junior. He will, ultimately, be battling the impression in the Arab Middle East of Mr Obama being a man who, says Eman F al Nafjan of Saudiwomen's blog, seems "a bit more aware of our side of the story than McCain". Mr McCain's candidacy will be weighed down by an America and a Middle East plainly showing the wear and tear of eight years of rule by Mr Bush, analysts said. Tens of thousands left dead and millions more uprooted by the war in Iraq, the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, fading hopes for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - all for the moment have turned the Gulf political and business leaders away from the Republican Party and, by implication, anyone who carries the party's mantle into the November elections, said Hafed al Ghwell, a political analyst on leave from the World Bank in Washington and working at the Dubai School of Government. That would be a sharp departure from the past. The Gulf's elites have traditionally identified with Republicans more than Democrats. They share the party's conservative values, Mr Ghwell said, and its mild disdain for what they see as the libertine, rabble-rousing tendencies of the Democratic Party. More recently, they have been beneficiaries of the Republican Party's muscular world view and projection-of-power politics. Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are home to massive US military bases, which tacitly provide a security umbrella and generate billions of dollars of business for local contractors. Also, they have appreciated the Bush administration's acknowledgement of a Sunni-Shia divide growing in the region.

Nevertheless, Mr Ghwell said, "the issues of Palestine and Iraq outweigh that now. If anyone has cured the Gulf elite of the Republicanism, it's George W Bush." That "cure" is itself an irony, since the president's father, George H W Bush, may be the most widely admired US president in the Gulf. The region's ruling elite feels deep gratitude to the man who sent US troops to war in 1991 to prevent Saddam Hussein's Iraq from annexing Kuwait and threatening other Gulf monarchies. They appreciated the senior Bush's measured, moderate conservatism and his multilateral approach to addressing regional issues, which reflected his roots in the internationalist, east coast wing of the party. His son, whom they hoped would be a chip off the old block, has been a disappointment and now, perhaps, a liability to the effort to put another Republican in the White House. Paul Salem, director of the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, believes the defection of Gulf elites is not complete. They still lean towards Mr McCain, in contrast to the broader Arab public, which prefers Mr Obama, he said.

"Iran and Syria are big issues, and they believe McCain would maintain a harder line, while Obama would be soft. So they favour a McCain presidency with a more realistic approach to diplomacy, exemplified by the first President Bush and his secretary of state James Baker." Still, Mr Salem said, Obama bears the promise of something different and - in the view of many in the Gulf - perhaps better. "This year Obama stands out because of who he is, while McCain stands out because of the baggage he inherits." This baggage and the timing of Mr McCain's candidacy is in some ways unfortunate. For a better presidential resume could not be written and a politician with more heroism and courage could not be found. Some may snigger when aides to Mr McCain comb his hair and dust off his suit jacket before television appearances, viewing it as just another example of the slavish treatment accorded celebrity politicians.

What they do not realise is that Mr McCain, who turns 72 today, cannot do it himself. His right shoulder was shattered in 1967, when he was shot down while flying a bombing mission over North Vietnam and one of his captors slammed a rifle butt into it; both his legs and one of his arms were already broken. Later during his five-and-a-half year imprisonment in a Hanoi jail, he would try to kill himself after a series of especially brutal beatings by his captors. At first glance, these physical and mental scars - pointing to a man who has few delusions about the existence of evil in the world yet understands the perils of war down to his marrow - are exactly those that should resonate in the US and here.

But according to recent opinion polls, Mr McCain and Mr Obama are currently in a statistical dead heat in the race for the White House. Yet the baggage is indeed heavy. In the coming weeks, Mr Obama is expected to remind American voters that it was a Republican White House that committed the nation to a Middle East war on a false pretext. He will remind them that its handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster was an embarrassment. Finally, Mr Obama and his running mate, the veteran senator and foreign policy expert Joe Biden, are expected to tell voters repeatedly that Republicans took America to war in Iraq but spared Americans the discomfiting thought that they would have to pay for it, too. That policy of waging-war-while-cutting-taxes has catapulted budget deficits and the national debt into the stratosphere, in breach of the fiscal conservatism Republicans have traditionally held dear. Against this potentially effective battery of charges, Mr McCain's best chance to become the president may be if Americans vote their fears, not their hopes. That is what Charlie Black, a senior adviser to Mr McCain, appeared to acknowledge when he told a reporter in June that another terrorist attack on US soil would be a "big advantage" for the Republican presidential candidate. Mr Black later said he "regretted" the comment. But stirring up worries may prove effective for Mr McCain's campaign. While he belies the worst caricature of a xenophobic, fear-mongering, Muslim-baiting Republican Party activist, some of his avid supporters boast other views. Last month, in a conference call with reporters arranged by the Republican Party of Florida on Mr McCain's behalf, a man with whom he shared a jail cell as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam compared Muslims to terrorists, saying, "The Muslims have said either we kneel or they're going to kill us." Col Bud Day reportedly added: "I don't intend to kneel and I don't advocate to anybody that we kneel, and John doesn't advocate to anybody that we kneel."

A Republican Party official said later that Col Day acknowledged he misspoke and "made an unfortunate mistake". cnelson@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Caryle Murphy from Riyadh