- By John HannahJohn Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.
An important goal of President Donald Trump’s meetings with Arab and Islamic leaders this past weekend was to encourage them to shoulder more of the burden in defending our common interests, particularly in combating the threats from terrorism and Iran. In this regard, the president would be well-advised to make the tiny emirate of Qatar one of his top priorities — a putative ally, wholly dependent on America for its security, that for more than 20 years has systematically pursued a number of policies that not only have failed to advance U.S. interests in the Middle East, but in too many cases have actively undermined them.
Indeed, Qatar has been the poster child for two-faced friends, consistently seeking to have it both ways when it comes to the United States: On one hand, a reliable host of some of the most important U.S. military facilities in the Middle East, but on the other, perhaps the key backer — politically, financially, militarily, and ideologically via Al Jazeera, the Doha-based state-funded broadcaster — of some of the region’s most radical, destabilizing, and dangerous forces.
The bill of indictment against Qatar is too long to rehash in full. But a sampling is bad enough. Its role earlier this month as chief sponsor of Hamas’s effort to whitewash its genocidal agenda toward Israel was just the tip of the iceberg. Qatar has been Hamas’s principal outside supporter for years, both its most important financier as well as a safe haven for its leadership. In the struggle for the soul of the Palestinian national movement between the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority and the U.S.-designated terrorist group Hamas, the Qataris have without fail — and, for the most part, without penalty — placed their bets on the violent Islamists in Gaza committed to Israel’s destruction.
But Hamas isn’t the half of it. Arguably no outside power bears greater responsibility for helping turn the 2011 Arab Spring into an Islamist Winter than Qatar. It bankrolled the disastrous Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. And after Morsi’s overthrow in 2013, Qatar went out of its way to delegitimize and destabilize Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s secular successor regime — putting Al Jazeera and other Qatari-backed broadcasting platforms at the service of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, while initially welcoming many of its exiled leaders to Doha.
If anything, Qatar’s destructive handiwork was even more egregious in Libya and Syria, encompassing not just money and incitement, but weapons as well, flowing to all manner of radical Islamists. Despite sustained U.S. efforts in both countries to direct the support of its partners to more pragmatic and secular forces, the Qataris consistently disregarded U.S. concerns, running large quantities of guns to many of the extremist militias of greatest concern to Washington policymakers.
Alas, none of this is a particularly recent phenomenon. A case in point: In the mid-1990s when I was working on Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s staff, the United States became aware that senior officials in Qatar’s government were likely harboring a jihadist who had been involved in a foiled plot to blow up civilian airliners en route to the United States. But after the FBI approached Qatar about apprehending the suspect, he suddenly vanished. There was widespread agreement amongst intelligence officials that the terrorist had been tipped off by his patrons at the highest levels of the Qatari government. FBI Director Louis Freeh suggested as much in a blunt letter to Qatar’s foreign minister, complaining that the United States had “disturbing information” that the suspect “has again escaped the surveillance of your Security Services and that he appears to be aware of FBI interest in him.”
The identity of that jihadist? None other than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who would go on to famously plan the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Remarkably, the senior official believed most responsible for sheltering and supporting Mohammed served almost without interruption as a minister in Qatar’s government until 2013, most prominently as the country’s chief of internal security.
One more from the personal archives. In 2004, as the insurgency in Iraq was kicking into high gear, I was on Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security affairs staff. Even as U.S. pilots were flying lethal missions against Iraqi terrorists out of Qatar’s Al Udeid Airbase, Al Jazeera was relentlessly inciting the Arab world against U.S. forces. Day after day, the most gruesome pictures of dead women and children were blasted across the region on virtually a continuous loop, with one alleged war crime after another linked in the audience’s mind to what Al Jazeera provocatively called the “U.S. War on Iraq” (italics added). The station that after 9/11 became (very suspiciously) the preferred conduit for Osama Bin Laden’s audio-taped calls for jihad against America — Cheney dubbed it “Osama’s outlet to the world” — spent the worst years of the Iraq war propagandizing on behalf of the insurgency.
U.S. analysts lost count of the number of times Al Jazeera cameras happened to be on location just in time to capture a spectacular attack on U.S. forces. The circumstantial evidence of Al Jazeera’s collusion with the terrorists targeting American soldiers was compelling. Typical was the criticism of General John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, who noted at the time, “It is always interesting to me how Al Jazeera manages to be at the scene of the crime whenever a hostage shows up or some other problem happens.” Patrick Kennedy, the chief of staff of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, penned an accusatory letter to Al Jazeera’s board asking, “What procedures will be followed when a staff member receives information regarding a pending attack, explosion, or other unspecified incident which may result in injury or death to any person, including civilians, civil authorities, or military personnel?”
The situation with Al Jazeera was viewed as so damaging by the U.S. military that Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld felt it necessary in April 2004 to organize an extraordinary meeting in Cheney’s West Wing office with the visiting Qatari foreign minister. Two of the administration’s most powerful officials essentially ambushed and double-teamed their guest, reading him the riot act. The lone talking point was blunt: Al Jazeera was getting Americans killed in Iraq. Either Qatar rein in the station’s lies, incitement, and coziness with the enemy or the United States would be forced to reassess its bilateral relationship with Doha.
The message did get Qatar’s attention — at least temporarily. Very quickly, the government announced the need for greater professionalism at Al Jazeera. Shortly thereafter, with much fanfare, the station announced it was adopting a new code of ethics.
But it didn’t last long. One example: A few months after the Cheney-Rumsfeld meeting, the renowned Egyptian cleric and spiritual leader of the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, host of one of Al Jazeera’s most popular weekly programs, issued a religious edict, or fatwa, at a conference in Cairo that declared “all of the Americans in Iraq are combatants, there is no difference between civilians and soldiers, and one should fight them, since the American civilians came to Iraq in order to serve the occupation. The abduction and killing of Americans in Iraq is a [religious] obligation.” Needless to say, despite some hemming and hawing that tried to explain away the fatwa, Qaradawi’s star appearances on Al Jazeera were never interrupted. His cushy exile in Doha was never jeopardized.
What happened? Simply put, the Qataris successfully called America’s bluff. Cheney had wanted to back up his threat by having the Pentagon initiate a study to explore regional alternatives to Al Udeid. As best as I could determine, the U.S. military ended up slow walking the suggestion, burying it until it died a slow death. Apparently, as mad as U.S. Central Command was about Qatar’s double-dealing, when push came to shove it wasn’t sufficient to put at risk the tremendous deal that the United States military enjoyed in Qatar: state of the art facilities, unconstrained freedom of operations, and a very generous and accommodating host country. Maybe most importantly, at the time the military seemed convinced, not without good reason, that those advantages would be impossible to replicate with any other U.S. regional partners — all of whom appeared far more sensitive to the political implications of having thousands of U.S. forces openly waging war in multiple theaters across the Islamic world.
Fast forward more than a decade and the Trump administration may be facing a much different situation. The troubling duality of Qatari policy toward the United States has persisted and even gotten worse in many ways, especially since 2011. At the same time, Qatar’s neighbors — particularly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — have both grown more alarmed at Qatar’s leading role in sowing regional instability and more open and confident about showcasing their own military partnerships with Washington. Americans who have recently met in private with Saudi leaders have heard them describe the decision to let U.S. forces withdraw from the kingdom’s Prince Sultan Airbase in 2003 (in favor of Al Udeid) as “one of our biggest mistakes.” There are also rumors of a joint Saudi-UAE effort to combine resources to ensure that the Americans have alternative basing options in the region that match or exceed what they enjoy in Qatar.
The Persian Gulf is changing. And with it, so is U.S. leverage. Given the region’s unhappy experience with the Obama administration and the magnitude of the threats that it is currently facing, the Gulf is as hungry as it’s ever been for U.S. leadership. Just witness the over-the-top greeting Trump received in Riyadh if you have any doubts. All of this should play directly into the president’s “art of the deal” wheelhouse as he seeks to get the Qataris and other regional allies to do more.
And that of course should be the goal: Not to actually have to tank America’s strategic relationship with Qatar, but to save it by getting Doha to fly right when it comes to its extracurricular activities in support of extremism. Whether the Qataris care to acknowledge it or not, the fact is that, slowly but surely, relations with the United States are badly fraying. We haven’t done ourselves any favors by letting this irritant fester and metastasize as long as it has. It needs to be confronted honestly and openly by the president’s team in cooperation with their Qatari counterparts. Clear metrics for change need to be established, implemented, and rigorously enforced. The relationship needs to be put on a more sustainable footing or the risks of rupture will grow. That’s something that — with its growing regional options and strategic flexibility — the United States can certainly endure and still thrive. The Qataris? I’m much less confident.
Some will no doubt argue that Qatar shouldn’t be unfairly singled out for playing both sides when it comes to the United States. And they would be right. The Saudis have largely been in that category for decades, both part of the problem and part of the solution. Turkey has been this way too in recent years. It’s certainly true that the United States needs to start applying some tough love to those relationships as well.
But here I’d make two important observations. First, at least with respect to the Saudis, as frustrating as they can be, the gap between their actions and our interests on fighting extremism has ever so slowly been narrowing since 9/11. With the Qataris, unfortunately, it’s been widening. The trend line is negative. Second, there’s a very stark reality confronting U.S. diplomats. Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are large, extremely complicated countries of incalculable strategic value, whose loss from the U.S. alliance column would wreak untold havoc for U.S. interests. Qatar, on the other hand, although an important player in (an increasingly oversupplied) global energy market, is but a speck on the Arabian Peninsula with only some 250,000 nationals. The former Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, once very uncharitably joked that Qatar was “nothing more than 300 people … and a TV station.”
The fact is that, relative to other cases in the region, the prospects today are good that a concerted U.S. diplomatic push to alter tiny Qatar’s anti-American practices could succeed. At the same time, the risks of failure, though certainly undesirable, are more manageable. The bottom line: If the Trump administration is looking for a place to start in its efforts to get U.S. allies in the Gulf region to be more helpful in support of U.S. interests, Qatar may be the place to start.
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