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Trump Is Letting America Get Pushed Around by Saudi Arabia
If Washington doesn’t protect its interests in Qatar, nobody else will.
In recent days, U.S. officials have been seeking to mediate a resolution to the dispute between Qatar and a coalition of its Arab neighbors led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. The quarrel involves legitimate complaints about Qatar’s support and sympathy for extreme Islamist movements, and longstanding resentment of Qatar’s role as a regional gadfly. The United States has a stake in these demands for changes in Qatar’s orientation.
But there is another critical issue raised by this dust-up between U.S. allies, namely: who decides? Specifically, who decides when the United States should put its own interests at risk in pursuit of even the most legitimate policy goals?
In this case, the Saudis and their partners blindsided the United States. With no warning, they aggressively isolated Qatar, imposing a blockade on a U.S. security partner that hosts over 10,000 American troops. Their action risks complicating the conduct of U.S. military air operations in the region coordinated from the Al-Udeid Air Force Base, and undercuts a longstanding U.S. goal of increased unity among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations.
Compounding the damage, the anti-Qatar coalition has articulated vague demands that amount to a total capitulation from Qatar before they will resume normal relations. Typical of such statements was an article in the Wall Street Journal by the UAE’s well-regarded Ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, in which he argued that Qatar must acknowledge that “Doha has become a financial, media and ideological hub for extremism. Then it must take decisive action to deal once and for all with its extremist problem — to shut down this funding, stop interfering in its neighbors’ internal affairs, and end its media incitement and radicalization.”
It’s not that the complaints about Qatar’s regional policies are unwarranted. Like so many U.S. officials who have worked on Middle East policy in the last two decades, I’m deeply familiar with the frustrating Qatari duality.
On the one hand, Qatar hosts the Combined Air Operations Center for U.S. Central Command. This facility coordinates U.S. military air operations across the region — from Syria to Iraq to Afghanistan. Qatar purchases advanced military equipment from the United States, which supports jobs in the U.S. defense industry. It is a major energy supplier to key Western economies. And, at least nominally, it is part of a coalition of U.S. partners, anchored by the GCC, that helps us deal with regional threats from Iran to Syria to ISIS.
On the other hand, Qatar has an unwelcome history of supporting extreme Islamist movements, like the al-Nusra Front and its successors among Syrian opposition groups, or the Palestinian terrorist organization, Hamas, whose leaders have been based in Doha since 2011. The United States has often complained to Qatar about these relationships, although proving terrorist financing to a legal standard has been more difficult.
Qatar also provocatively challenges other U.S. partners like Saudi Arabia and Egypt by promoting the Muslim Brotherhood movement that those governments see as an extremist threat. Al-Jazeera, the Doha-based satellite news channel, gives regular voice to Islamist critics of these governments, such as the radical cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and aims additional barbs (some would say propaganda) at the United States. Finally, Qatar, which shares an offshore natural gas field with Iran, has maintained much closer relations with the Islamic Republic than most of its GCC neighbors, who see Iran as a prime threat.
So the Saudi, UAE, and Egyptian rap sheet against Qatar is one we share. But given our other interests at stake, it was unreasonable for them to launch an uncoordinated economic assault on Qatar and lay down maximal demands that have little hope of being met in the short term.
Secretary of State Tillerson has led U.S. efforts to mediate a way out of the dispute. He has held meetings with officials from both sides of the dispute in Washington, and called for both and an end to Qatari support for extremists and no further escalations by the Saudi-led coalition. Meanwhile, U.S. military spokespeople have highlighted the importance of not disrupting critical operations conducted from Al-Udeid, and have gone out of their way to demonstrate continuity in our security partnership. Two U.S. naval vessels conducted regularly scheduled port visits to Doha, and in a meeting with his Qatari counterpart, Secretary of Defense Mattis reaffirmed the U.S. intent to proceed with a $12 billion sale of 72 F-15s agreed to last fall.
This posture is the only reasonable one any U.S. administration could adopt in a dangerous situation that requires care, not bombast. (Not incidentally, it renders President Trump’s bashing of Qatar in public statements and on Twitter largely irrelevant). The U.S. should be clear that Qatar needs to fundamentally end its support for extremist Syrian and Palestinian groups, including by expelling Hamas leaders. It also needs to tone down its provocations aimed at its larger neighbors. Failure to change should lead to consideration of relocating our military base, which is a benefit to Qatar’s own security posture, to a more cooperative neighbor — although it would take many months to implement such a move.
Expectations for Qatar to distance itself from Iran are less realistic, given their shared natural gas resources. But Qatar can and should reduce its coziness with Tehran, seen most recently in a massive ransom it paid to release Qatari royals kidnapped in Iraq and a meeting between its Foreign Minister and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps chief Qassem Soleimani.
But because of the Saudi-led coalition’s tactics, the dispute has unnecessarily highlighted differences between the United States and this other group of allies. It has forced us to assert that no other nation can dictate to the United States how we will address such disputes. The uncoordinated isolation campaign has already harmed our interests by driving Qatar deeper into Iran’s arms. Iran has stepped up support for Qatar by sending shipments of food to replace blockaded Saudi supply routes. Other countries, notably Russia and Turkey, are doing all they can to exploit and deepen the divisions laid bare between U.S. partners.
So in addition to our effort to change Qatari policies, the United States should also lay down some markers with the Saudis, who have their own history of exporting extremism, and insist that they and their partners cease blockading Qatar and seek to resolve their differences diplomatically. They need to understand that they cannot dictate to the United States on any moves that affect our interests and our troops.
Tillerson and Mattis need to continue to make it abundantly clear: when U.S. interests are at stake, we will consult with allies, but only the United States will decide.
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images