Elephants in the Room

It’s Time for the Trump Administration to Step Up in the Qatar Crisis

There’s leverage to be had and U.S. national security interests at stake. But if the United States doesn’t act now, things could get a whole lot worse.

US President Donald Trump (R) and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani take part in a bilateral meeting at a hotel in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (R) and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani take part in a bilateral meeting at a hotel in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Late last week, the Gulf crisis took a new turn when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain at long last presented the regime in Qatar with a list of 13 demands that must be accepted before they are prepared to reestablish normal political and economic relations. As the spat drags into its fourth week, at least there now exists some basis on which to launch a serious diplomatic effort to resolve the crisis. The United States should seize the opportunity, while keeping in mind several guidelines:

The list must be treated as an opening gambit. As presented, the demands read more like a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum than the start of a bona fide negotiation. Indeed, one demand says explicitly that all demands must be agreed to in 10 days or the list becomes invalid. Other demands are overly broad and sweeping, seeming to betray an intent not just to change Qatar’s most egregious policies, but to inflict on it something akin to a regime-threatening degree of humiliation.

For example, one point seems to require Qatar to surrender to the four states not only people that they deem “designated terrorists” but virtually anyone else under Doha’s control that may have given them offense. Another demand insists that Qatar shut down its Al Jazeera media empire and all its affiliates, while a separate requirement expands the net exponentially wider, calling on Qatar to terminate all other news outlets supported by Qatar “directly and indirectly.” Also included is a vague demand that Qatar pay compensation for undefined losses sustained by the four countries and their citizens “in recent years” as a result of Doha’s policies.

Any serious mediation will need to bridge the gap between sovereignty-crushing non-starters and an ambitious, but achievable set of legitimate requirements. Earlier last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged the Saudi-led group of states to keep their demands “reasonable and actionable.” That’s the standard that Washington should continue to insist on if we’re to have any hope of avoiding an even more dangerous deterioration in the situation and bringing the crisis to a close on terms that end up enhancing U.S. interests versus those of our enemies.

The United States should demand changes in Qatari behavior that are strategic in nature, not just cosmetic. Tempering the rage and ambitions of the Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians, and Bahrainis can’t mean dismissing the very legitimate grievances that they have against Qatar. On the contrary, absent some rapid and fairly dramatic shifts in Qatar’s policies, the four states are far more likely at this point to escalate the conflict — possibly to the point of armed intervention — than to back down.

For more than 20 years, they’ve complained bitterly about Qatari efforts to destabilize their regimes at home while defying their vital interests in the broader region. And for 20 years, Washington — though sharing many of the same concerns about Qatar’s policies — has sought to shield Doha from its day of reckoning, repeatedly kicking the can down the road in the interests of maintaining the fiction of unity among our Gulf and Arab partners, while ensuring unimpeded access to critical U.S. military facilities. The result has been a chronic series of intermittent squabbles, every one a bit worse than the last, with the frustrations and resentments of Qatar’s more powerful neighbors ratcheting up with each successive round until they finally boiled over three weeks ago, triggering the worst crisis yet.

Simply returning to the old U.S. playbook of calming tensions, sweeping major differences under the rug, and getting back to business as usual shouldn’t be an option. In the first place, it won’t work. The anti-Qatar coalition is too far down the road of confrontation at this point to accept another meaningless compromise — even under U.S. pressure. After having raised the stakes to unprecedented levels, climbing down now without serious concessions from Qatar would be a major defeat for these regimes, with potentially destabilizing consequences. That’s certainly not in U.S. interests. Nor would be the ensuing rupture in relations with major regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt that would result were we to be viewed as stabbing them in the back on an issue of such vital importance.

But the main reason that the Trump administration shouldn’t default to the status quo ante is because the United States itself has a major national interest in compelling some fundamental changes in Qatar’s double-dealing behavior on the issue of Islamist extremism and terrorism. The fact is that among the 13 demands contained in the Saudi-led list are several items that, properly reformulated, Washington should absolutely be insisting on if it’s serious about winning the war against jihadism.

That includes an end to Qatari support for the radical Islamist agenda across the region — politically, financially, militarily, and ideologically (read: a dramatic revamping of Al Jazeera’s systematic campaigns of Islamist incitement and regional subversion). No more safe haven for U.S.-designated terrorists or operatives from extremist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban that seek to undermine key U.S. partners and overturn the region’s American-led order. A curtailment in Qatar’s dalliance with the Iranians to the bare minimum necessary to safeguard Doha’s vital economic equities, while foregoing any significant military or intelligence ties. Reversing the decision to let an Islamist-leaning, America-bashing Turkey deploy several thousand troops to the Arabian Peninsula for the first time since the Ottoman Empire’s demise. And a strict, but fair-minded monitoring regime that ensures Qatar’s commitments are actually implemented and sustained.

All of these changes are self-evidently in U.S. interests. All of them can be culled from the Saudi-led list of demands and appropriately recast by a serious mediation effort. This crisis presents a unique opportunity to achieve many of them and score a seminal victory for the United States in its battle against radical Islamism. The Trump administration should not let it go to waste.

Support the Saudi-led effort, but don’t give it carte blanche. Putting an end to Qatar’s double game when it comes to the challenge of radical Islamism is extremely important and necessary. But it shouldn’t come at the price of neglecting the similar challenges that we face with several other regional partners, the Saudis first and foremost. Overlooking the central role that the Saudi religious establishment has played historically, both at home and abroad, in fueling the fires of the global jihadist movement is a sure-fire formula for losing the war against radical Islamism. The fact that, in its earliest days, the Islamic State resorted to standard Saudi textbooks to get its nascent educational system up and running should tell you all you need to know in this regard.

Yes, the Saudis have made major progress in combating Islamist terrorism since reaching rock bottom on 9/11. Yes, the Saudis now have a vigorous, reform-minded leadership that appears committed to working closely with the United States to counter extremism. Yes, the pace of change — particularly when it comes to the prerogatives of the powerful Wahhabi clerical establishment — needs to be pursued carefully so as not to trigger a potentially catastrophic backlash. But the bottom line remains that there is still a great deal that the Saudis must do if we’re ever truly going to defeat the hate-filled ideology that fans the flames of the war we’ve been fighting since 9/11. Getting the kingdom to step up fully to its responsibility will require sustained American encouragement, support, patience, and cooperation — but also pressure.  

One additional point on the theme of supporting our friends, but not giving them a free pass: Whatever opportunities have been presented by the Qatar crisis, the fact that some of our closest regional partners chose to impose it on us as a fait accompli, without consultation or advance notice, should not be acceptable to any U.S. policymaker. Especially at a time when our military was about to launch a climactic battle against the Islamic State in Raqqa — much of it staged out of Qatar, of course. And especially when the president of the United States, just two weeks earlier, attended an historic summit in Riyadh that afforded ample opportunity for some kind of discussion or heads up.

Surprises of any sort are almost never welcome in foreign policy, least of all when they come from friends and implicate core U.S. national security equities in a vital region of the world. Maybe — just maybe — you could understand launching a major war in Yemen without mentioning it to an Obama administration that was busy appeasing your arch enemy, the Islamic Republic of Iran. But giving similar treatment to a Trump administration that has gone out of its way to court the Sunni Arabs while trash talking the mullahs should be inexcusable. Quietly, but unmistakably, that message needs to be delivered.

Thwart efforts by Iran, Russia, and other adversaries to seize strategic advantage. The greatest risk that the Qatar crisis poses to the United States is that Iran, Russia, or both will exploit it to further strengthen their own positions in the Gulf at U.S. expense. At a minimum, the crisis is certainly a major distraction, diverting the focus of some of America’s key regional partners from our most pressing common threats, in particular expanding Iranian hegemony. At worst, the extended siege of Qatar by its Arab neighbors creates growing opportunities for mischief-making by hostile outside forces eager to expand their own presence and influence on the vital Arabian Peninsula. Iran has already rushed into the breach to provide Qatar with thousands of tons of emergency economic relief, while opening its skies to re-routed Qatar Airways’ flights. Turkey is doing likewise, in addition to deploying an initial batch of troops to Qatar with the potential for several thousand more to follow.

In the first instance, Washington should quietly make clear to Doha that any effort to draw Iran, Russia, Turkey, or other powers into the crisis on its side, particularly militarily, will only harm Qatar’s cause by making a diplomatic settlement far more difficult to achieve. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain should be reinforcing the message — especially in Moscow and Ankara — that outside interference on Qatar’s behalf will be viewed as an unfriendly act that will exact a high price in terms of relations with the broader region. For its part, Iran should be left with no doubt: any effort on its part to exploit the crisis by inserting Iranian security personnel into Qatar will trigger an immediate and harsh punitive response.

But beyond deterrence, the most effective method for blocking any outside power play would be a relatively rapid diplomatic settlement, with the United States playing a central supporting role. The longer the crisis drags on, the greater the risks that bad actors will be able to take advantage. An extended, all-consuming conflict that leaves critical U.S. partners pre-occupied with battling each other rather than Iran and other common adversaries is not a scenario that’s likely to favor U.S. interests over time.

Given how intractable the dispute between Qatar and its neighbors has become, the instinct to dismiss the current crisis as simply a “family issue” best left for the parties themselves to resolve (or not) is perhaps understandable. But it would hardly be wise. The United States has far too much at stake to sit on the sidelines and hope for the best. On the upside, the showdown presents a unique opportunity to strike a major blow against a problem — the two-faced nature of the policies of too many of our Arab partners — that has bedeviled America’s war against Islamist extremism since it began on that fateful day in September 2001. On the downside, simply allowing the crisis to take its own course is an open invitation for our worst enemies to seize significant strategic advantage. Appreciating both those potentials and crafting a way forward that actively manages them to America’s strategic benefit is the very stuff of serious statecraft and the difficult diplomatic test now confronting the Trump administration.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

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