For too long, Qatar has tried to get away with having its flag planted in two camps. Now, it must get off the fence.
In one camp are those nations, led by the U.S., opposing Islamic extremism and the terrorism it produces. Since 9/11, Qatar has generously supported this effort, allocating over a billion dollars to build two crucial American military facilities – al-Udeid Air Base and Central Command Forward Headquarters – outside Doha. It also spends billions on American military gear, with orders for billions more.
Qatar simultaneously supports radicals within Islam who have vowed a hundred-year fight against the infidels. For years, the U.S. and others largely turned a blind eye to the billions of dollars sent from wealthy Qataris – in league with their supportive government – to support Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and militants in Syria. Known terrorist leaders and financiers find safe harbor on Qatari soil, which also hosts some of the most radical media outlets in the Arab world.
This Jekyll & Hyde statecraft increasingly isolates Qatar. Many Middle Eastern countries, recognizing their past failures to address radicalization, are cutting off finances for extremist groups and moderating madrassas and mosques. They realize success in this generational struggle permits no stragglers.
Yet Qatar steadfastly refuses to join this struggle, instead, rotating progressively closer to the world’s leading exporter of terrorism: Iran. This has drawn the ire – and now retaliation – of regional powers like Egypt and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. In a region where such differences traditionally are settled internally, Doha’s erstwhile partners have turned openly hostile, demanding it stop supporting terrorism and pivot away from Iran.
This crisis hangs the U.S. on the horns of a dilemma. Qatar’s facilities remain important to U.S. military operations in the region: Multiple carrier battle groups would be needed to match the combat power generated 24/7 from al-Udeid. However, Qatar’s sponsorship of terrorism – and the disputes that it creates with our other partners – undermines the larger mission supported by our presence at al-Udeid.
Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson have sought to mitigate the crisis by emphasizing the U.S.-Qatar relationship’s benefits. Certainly, defeating ISIS and containing Iran are facilitated by the power projection coming off the runways of al-Udeid. The growing crises in the Pacific with North Korea, and potentially China, are not well-served by distraction to our focus, or drain of our resources, in the Middle East.
Still, presidential guidance prevails. President Trump last month remarked, “Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level… We have to stop the funding of terrorism.” Indeed, he voiced the position we should have taken all along: The U.S. cannot advocate a policy of destroying ISIS and al-Qaeda, and at the same time find favor with a nation that unapologetically supports both.
Second, we must ensure Saudi Arabia and Egypt know we have their backs in this dispute. Middle East security is vitally dependent on the strength of our relationships with these two regional powers.
Third, we should preemptively put Iran on notice that its involvement in fundamentally intra-Arab negotiations is wholly unacceptable. As is painfully evident throughout the region, conflicts only escalate and become more intractable when Tehran participates.
Fourth, we should begin covert negotiations with GCC countries that might replace Qatar as the host of our vital military presence in the region.
Qatar also has a big decision to make. I know some of the country’s military leaders – wise and capable men, many of them trained in the best British and U.S. military schools. In a region where “Inshallah!” (God willing) frequently informs decision-making, they understand the value of visualizing the “endstate” in strategic planning.
They and their civilian leaders must decide what constitutes an acceptable endstate to their present predicament. Do they really want to be at odds with their traditional brethren, relegated to an unholy alliance with Iran? What could possibly be the economic, military and diplomatic advantages of continued association with a historic adversary that is both rogue state and destabilizing regional hegemon?
National pride will influence Qatar’s decision-making. Accordingly, a resumption of quiet diplomacy by all parties would best coax Doha “off the fence.” It is crucial not only to Qatar but the U.S.-led global fight against terrorism that they be encouraged to climb down on the right side.
General James Conway is a retired 4-star Marine infantry officer. He served two combat tours in Iraq and was the 34th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps from 2006 – 2010. General Conway is a Member of JINSA’s Board of Advisors and participated on JINSA’s Generals & Admirals Program in 2014.