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The Qatar Quarrel Benefits the U.S.

It’s not exactly a battle between moderates and radicals, but it could have a moderating effect.

The Qatar Quarrel Benefits the U.S.

Jonathan Schanzer
12th December 2017 - The Wall Street Journal

It is no secret that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been at odds with President Trump on a range of issues. One of them is the U.S. response to the spat that erupted in early June between Qatar and four other Arab states.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt all accuse Qatar of funding extremists and fomenting instability in the Middle East. Mr. Tillerson has stated repeatedly that he views this fracas—in which Qatar has found itself increasingly isolated, politically and economically—as counterproductive to U.S. interests. The White House, by contrast, seems to be tacitly encouraging the Saudis and their allies to keep up the pressure.

There is concern at Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon that the spat might disrupt the military campaign to dislodge Islamic State from Iraq and Syria. Indeed, all the countries involved in this disagreement are part of the 73-member coalition to combat ISIS. There are further concerns that the Gulf rupture could detract from the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan or in other theaters where the U.S. military is engaged. The sprawling Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar is the primary nerve center for American-led air operations across the Middle East.

Yet when I visited the Arabian Gulf recently, senior U.S. military officials there confirmed that the dispute hasn’t led to a disruption in regional military operations. The campaign has continued apace, and the ejection of ISIS from its so-called caliphate is nigh.

Qatar’s defenders might point out that earlier this year the other Arab states ejected Qatar from the biannual U.A.E.-based Iron Falcon military exercises, which traditionally involve the Gulf states and a handful of other allies. The U.S. withdrew in protest, but it now appears that this issue has been resolved. The Arab states have agreed to include Qatar in future exercises.

Officials from the U.A.E. and Bahrain have also conveyed a remarkably similar message in recent weeks: They have no interest in breaking apart the Gulf military alliance. The current spat, they say, is political, and they want to keep those problems separate from the military coordination they view as crucial to fighting Sunni extremist groups and deterring Iran. This is a message that resonates with U.S. military officials, who quietly lament that the Gulf rift may be the “new normal,” but add that the current equilibrium is one they can live with.

None of this helps solve the root cause of the Gulf crisis—Qatar’s policies. Doha continues to provide a headquarters for violent Sunni groups like Hamas and the Taliban. Financiers of al Qaeda in Syria continue to operate inside Qatar with impunity. The country stands accused of meddling in the politics of unstable and vulnerable countries like Libya and Somalia, in an effort to promote its Islamist agenda. All the while, Doha remains a top patron of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that is widely disdained by governments across the Arab world.

The Arab states also accuse Qatar of colluding with Iran. This is a charge that Doha has denied vehemently. But recent reports suggest that Doha has signed an agreement with IRNA, Iran’s state news agency, to team up with Qatar’s Al Jazeera. This will not go over well with Qatar’s Arab neighbors, who are increasingly alarmed over Iran’s regional aggression.

Qatar’s Arab adversaries are not angels. They all suffer from democracy deficits. Some of them, notably Saudi Arabia, have their own troubling history of spreading extremism. But that does not negate their valid criticisms of Qatar’s behavior. Nor does it render the Gulf feud illegitimate.

Over the years, foreign-policy analysts of all political stripes have developed a consensus: The U.S. alone cannot win the war against extremist ideologies in the Middle East. Rather, there must be a battle within Islam that ultimately renders those ideologies counterproductive, or even exposes them as corrupt. A battle along those lines is taking place in the Gulf right now.

This is not exactly a battle between moderates and radicals. The politics of the Gulf do not afford a binary equation. But this is undeniably a battle about the role of political and radical interpretations of Islam and their place in the Middle East.

Washington should let the Gulf states fight this one out. This dispute does not undermine America’s core interests in the Middle East. If anything, to the extent that the players can finally agree on standards and norms, it might advance them.

Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism-finance analyst for the US Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JSchanzer.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.