In baseball, a “cutter” is a fastball that darts away from the pitcher’s throwing hand as it nears home. The goal being to convince the batter the incoming cutter is a normal fastball until it is too late to adjust and the pitch snakes out of reach safely into the catcher’s mitt.
In the Middle East’s game of thrones, the Gulf nation of Qatar is aptly named. It has darted away from its now less aptly named Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) colleagues into the waiting arms of Iran. Worsening the situation, Qatar’s estranged GCC allies accuse the nation of 2.6 million inhabitants (of which almost 90 percent are guest workers) of promoting radical Islamic extremism by financing terrorism; supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and ISIS; and broadcasting inflammatory propaganda through Al-Jazeera. Oh, and they don’t like Qatar hosting Turkish troops, as Istanbul is supporting the Syrian regime and increasingly cozying up to Iran.
To date, Saudi Arabia the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Mauritius, Mauritania, the Maldives and Libya’s eastern-based “government” have severed relations with Qatar; and Chad, Djibouti, Jordan and Niger have downgraded relations. Not surprisingly, though many actions, such as the financing of terrorism Qatar denies, this coalition has issued a list of 13 demands Qatar must meet for relations to be restored.
In the face of this mighty coalition from its own backyard, one might think tiny Qatar would cave and behave. Yet, like a bad neighbor confronted by the homeowner’s association for hosting wild parties into the wee hours with all the wrong people, an obstinate Qatar intends to party on, dude.
Why? Because, while tiny, Qatar is wealthy. It produces roughly one-fifth of the world’s oil supply; and the top exporter of the world’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) supply. Consequently, as is so often the case, a rich person has powerful friends—in Qatar’s case, the United States.
One would think the United States would be largely supporting the GCC coalition’s stated goals, especially of Qatar ending its (contested) support of radical Islamic extremism and veering away from Iran back into the fold of sane nations; and, should Qatar continue to demur and, instead, persist in its policies, the State Department would send that nation an “I love you, man, but….” demarche and sever relations.
But, as everyone with a pulse is aware, the Middle East is a complex place; and America has implemented complex policies in the region to protect and promote our strategic interests. Oftentimes, as the current GCC crisis reveals, U.S. strategic interests seem in conflict with each other. And, all too often, this apparent conflict between U.S. strategic interests paralyzes our foreign policy “experts” as surely as a cutter freezes a batter.
The complicating problem in the current crisis is the fact that Qatar hosts America’s massive Al Udeid Air Base, which stations 11,000 U.S. military personnel—the largest concentration of our of our men and women in uniform in the Middle East. From here, the U.S. Combined Air Operations Center conducts command and control over our air operations in the region—including airstrikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Especially as Qatar funded the base’s construction to the tune of $1 billion, when it was established in the 1990s Al Udeid looked like a strategic godsend for the United States.
But the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Today, our strategic interest in keeping the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar apparently stands in stark opposition to our strategic interest in stopping Qatar’s injurious policies toward radical Islamic extremism and Iran.
Recently, like a batter trying to read a pitch’s spin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been practicing shuttle diplomacy encouraging the GCC and Qatar to meet and discuss their differences. This was reported in Al-Jazeera, which, as shuttering this media outlet is one of the GCC’s demands, should tell you how the diplomacy is going.
Nevertheless, like a batter trying to read the pitch’s spin, Tillerson is plugging away. Yet, even if talks are held and some face saving resolution embraced, the simmering issues will boil over again. Qatar shares the world’s largest underwater natural gas field with . . . Iran; and, unlike Saudi Arabia that has seemingly learned the painful lesson, Qatar evidently continues to delude itself that supporting radical Islamic extremism abroad will preclude it occurring at home.
In sum and ironically, Qatar has made the very mistake the United States must avoid: choosing short-term strategic convenience over long-term strategic consequence.
In the current crisis, if America were to side with the GCC, support its demands and, potentially, sever relations with Qatar, we would surely run the risk of (at best) turning Al Udeid Air Base into a Middle East version of Guantanamo Bay or (at worst) losing it altogether. In the short-term, this would truly be a dire strategic setback. However, as Ambassador John Bolton presciently notes, should the United States facilitate an evanescent rapprochement between the GCC and Qatar, it would constitute a long-term strategic disaster.
Bluntly, if due to its own short-term strategic calculus the United States will not sever its relations with a nation abetting radical Islamic extremism and aligned with Iran, why should any nation—especially nations in the Middle East?
Right now, the United States faces the disastrous prospect of President Trump’s clearly articulated goal of all nations allying against extremism and Iranian ambitions being undermined by . . . the Trump administration. Indeed, as the GCC nations have apparently already taken his call to heart and severed ties with Qatar, while we have not, the administration isn’t even “leading from behind.” It is lagging behind its own clarion call to concerted action by the world against terrorism and its rogue state sponsors. If this goes on, it would constitute a disastrous long-term strategic consequence to American interests and, indeed, for the entire family of responsible nations.
No, it’s time for President Trump’s State Department to read the spin; square up the pitch; and hit the Qatar out of the park.
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