Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis: Qatar’s isolation by its neighbors means the tiny Gulf nation will need to pick a side to survive and thrive
  • Similarly, the US has to define a unified foreign policy in the region, writes Ghitis

The Tehran attack comes as another political battle boils over in the oil-rich Gulf. Iran is not directly involved, but Tehran is one of the reasons for what has erupted into one of the most intense political feuds pitting Gulf Arabs against each other.

Frida Ghitis

At the epicenter of what is a very serious political crisis stands Qatar, accused by its Arab neighbors of all manner of misdeeds — including supporting terrorism — and now facing punishing sanctions. Qatar denies the accusations.

Qatar, to be sure, has played a dual role — helping fight terrorism on one hand, while backing groups with extremist ideology on the other. But now Qatar will have to decide where it stands.

And the United States will have to address a similar issue. While President Donald Trump’s tweets indicate his support for Qatar’s sudden isolation, the disciplined and diplomatic voices of the State Department and Pentagon indicate otherwise. But Washington needs to speak with one unified voice. The contradictory voices within the administration are not only sending confusing messages, they are projecting an image of chaos in US foreign policy.

To be clear, the Qatari turmoil is of deep concern to the United States. Qatar hosts the largest US military base in the region and has been considered an important ally in the war on terror. And the outcome of the crisis will have major implications for the United States, the Middle East and the global campaign against extremism.
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So how did this drama unfold?

Shortly after Trump’s departure, the Qatari News Agency (QNA) reported that Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, had given a speech accusing its neighbors of a smear campaign, trying to paint Qatar as a supporter of terrorism. In the speech, the Emir reportedly defended Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, for Hamas and for Hezbollah, as well as its good relations with Iran and even its links with Israel.
Reaction among Qatar’s neighbors was immediate and furious. But Qatar, too, acted quickly. Within minutes, officials removed the QNA story, saying the site had been hacked and the report was false.
CNN reports that US investigators believe that Russia hackers targeted QNA. If Russia wanted to create discord among America’s allies, the plan appears to be succeeding.

Despite the fervent claims of Qatari officials that the offending speech never happened, Qatar’s neighbors, led by Saudi Arabia, reject the explanation.

Qatar's isolation only makes sense in Trump's world
Already, nine Arab countries have severed relations with Doha. Saudi Arabia closed Qatar’s only land border. All sea and air links have been suspended, and Qatari citizens have been ordered to leave Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Kuwait is trying to mediate, but tensions remain high.

There’s a reason for that.

The content of the speech that Qatar says never happened echoes Qatar’s foreign policy track record. From Doha, Qatar’s rulers have spent years conducting policies that are often at odds with the GCC and with the United States.

Qatar has long acted as a maverick, leveraging its huge wealth from natural gas exports to punch above its weight on the global scene.

The emirate has tried to play both sides in many of the region’s conflicts. During the Arab Spring, it became a strong backer of the Muslim Brotherhood parties that swept to power in the early days of the uprisings, heaping billions of dollars on the government of Egypt’s Mohamed Morsy even as GCC monarchies viewed the Brotherhood’s rise as a threat.
Qatar’s Al Jazeera network became one of the foreign policy vehicles of the emirate, airing messages from al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, appearing to stoke revolutionary sentiment and regularly handing the microphone to Islamist critics of Gulf states, as well as anti-American and anti-Semitic figures.
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But Qatar has maintained good relations with Washington, hosting the massive American base al-Udeid, from where 11,000 US and coalition forces launch military operations against targets in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, what’s perhaps more upsetting to Saudi Arabia and its allies today are Doha’s ties with Tehran at a time when animosity between Iran and Gulf Arabs is greater than ever.

As the conflict unfolded, Washington sought to calm the waters. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on the sides to settle their differences. The Pentagon praised Qatar as a vital US ally and its “enduring commitment to regional security.”

But then Trump started tweeting, directly contradicting what appeared to be American policy. He seemed to praise the sanction and take credit for it, saying his visit to Saudi Arabia was, “already paying off,” and noting that when he urged an end to funding radical ideology, “Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”

When told about Trump’s tweets, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, appeared stunned

Then the US ambassador to Qatar, Dana Shell Smith, reposted an earlier message from last October, citing State Department praise for Qatar’s “real progress to counter terrorist financing.”

Terrorism, diplomatic battles and outright war are already roiling the region. The outcome of the Qatar crisis could tip the balance with respect to Iran and ISIS, and it will affect US and global security for years to come.

And the crisis could worsen. Now Turkey, a NATO ally, says it could deploy troops to Qatar in support of the emirate. That would complicate the situation even more for the United States, putting additional allies at loggerheads with each other.

But it is America’s reaction to the crisis that is showing another, even greater threat to US security — the lack of a coherent position on foreign policy crises. Not only are America’s purported allies divided, but it looks as if the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department are also on different sides.

However, there may be a glimmer of hope. On Wednesday, Trump spoke to Qatar’s Emir about finding a solution to the unfolding diplomatic crisis. Following the call, Qatar’s government issued a statement to CNN, saying that the President had “expressed readiness to find a solution… and stressed his keenness that the Gulf remains stable.”

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