It’s now been more than a week since several Arab states and the Maldives not only severed diplomatic relations with Qatar but also began to blockade the fabulously wealthy Persian Gulf state. (I gave some background here in one of the American Enterprise Institute’s “60 Second” videos). My COMMENTARY colleague Max Boot argued that President Donald Trump’s handling of the affair was clumsy:
…Trump is [not] pursuing a carefully considered strategy that utilizes a whole-of-government approach. The president should have been pressing Qatar to mend its ways behind-the-scenes, rather than professing eternal friendship in a meeting with Qatar’s emir and then blowing up on Twitter.
That may be right, but the problem is less the president blowing up on Twitter than U.S. authorities falling too easily into the diplomatic niceties of professing eternal friendship. The simple fact is that Qatar supports destabilizing, radical movements across the region. Egyptians complain about Qatari money propping up the most radical Islamist factions in Libya, let alone the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt itself. In Syria, Qatar again acts as banker to the Islamic State alongside Turkey which acts as the group’s logistician. Qatar also props up Hamas, giving it both diplomatic protection and a line of credit which the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot uses to great effect. To negotiate with Qatar implies legitimacy to Qatar’s actions when, in reality, Qatar only has two choices: Fund Islamism or stop its nonsense.
Sure, Qatar is taking a huge financial hit. Qatar Airlines has gone, in a week, from one of the most popular international airlines to possibly facing bankruptcy. The 2022 FIFA World Cup is in doubt. Many Qatar stocks are in decline. That’s good. Terror support should carry a risk.
As for the United States, many officials worry about the future of the U.S. presence at the Al-Udeid Air Base. Here, the Pentagon shouldn’t confuse the trees for the forest. For a decade or more, Qatar has interpreted the U.S. presence as an insurance policy to enable it to avoid accountability for the worst excesses of its leadership. While U.S. authorities would like to maintain a presence there, the Al Udeid outpost should not override the broader goal of defeating extremism.
The fact of the matter is that countries like Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are only doing what successive U.S. administrations have demanded: cracking down on extremism. The Qatar move does not come in isolation. Many of the same states have also designated Hezbollah to be a terror organization, a move demanded by U.S. diplomats under both Republican and Democratic administrations. For decades, U.S. authorities have rightly dismissed Arab diplomacy as ineffective and more comfortable with talk than action. That trend is ending. Moderate Arab states may long have turned a blind eye to terror, but they recognize that the region has paid a heavy price in terms of radicalization and blowback. It’s an epiphany long overdue. Rather than undercut its momentum, we should support the anti-Qatar action, celebrate those behind it, and undercut countries like Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran that are running to Qatar’s defense.