The Qatar ul­ti­ma­tum

In the war against ter­ror­ism, some na­tions are with us, some are against us and some are both

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Clif­ford D. May Clif­ford D. May is pres­i­dent of the Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies and a colum­nist for The Wash­ing­ton Times.

In the af­ter­math of the ter­ror­ist atroc­i­ties of Sept. 11, 2001, Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush drew a line in the sand. “Ev­ery na­tion, in ev­ery re­gion, now has a de­ci­sion to make,” he an­nounced. “Ei­ther you are with us or you are with the ter­ror­ists.” Since then, dis­ap­point­ingly if not sur­pris­ingly, more than a few na­tions have strad­dled that line, pro­vid­ing sup­port to Amer­ica and Amer­ica’s ene­mies alike.

Is that be­cause they sym­pa­thize with the goals of the ter­ror­ists or be­cause they’re afraid of the ter­ror­ists, or is there some other ex­pla­na­tion? It’s not clear. What is: No na­tion has hedged its bets more egre­giously than Qatar.

Oc­cu­py­ing a penin­sula smaller than Con­necti­cut jut­ting from eastern Ara­bia, Qatar’s 313,000 cit­i­zens are the wealth­i­est peo­ple in the world thanks to abun­dant nat­u­ral gas re­serves. Some 2.3 mil­lion for­eign­ers — in­clud­ing In­di­ans, Nepalis, Bangladeshi and Filipinos — do the work Qataris don’t want to do.

What makes Qatar Amer­ica’s lead­ing “fren­emy”? On the one hand, the rul­ing Al Thani fam­ily hosts the largest U.S. air base in the Mid­dle East. On the other, it ex­tends its hos­pi­tal­ity to the Tal­iban, pro­vides refuge to Ha­mas lead­ers, takes a tol­er­ant at­ti­tude to­ward al Qaeda fi­nanciers, en­joys cor­dial re­la­tions with the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic of Iran, sup­ports the Mus­lim Brother­hood and, via Al Jazeera, its me­dia out­let, spreads Is­lamist pro­pa­ganda.

Re­cently, Qatar has dou­bled down on this dou­ble deal­ing. In April, ac­cord­ing to sources cited by the Fi­nan­cial Times, Qatar paid as much as $1 bil­lion to Iran and al Qaeda, osten­si­bly to se­cure the re­lease of mem­bers of the royal fam­ily and their com­pan­ions who were kid­napped while hunt­ing in Iraq. In May, the Saudi press re­ported that Qatar’s for­eign min­is­ter met with Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top ter­ror­ist mas­ter.

For these and other rea­sons, Qatar ought to be the sub­ject of ex­ten­sive me­dia and schol­arly scru­tiny. That’s not been the case. Have its gen­er­ous do­na­tions to a num­ber of in­flu­en­tial Wash­ing­ton think tanks, Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties and the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion been a fac­tor? Have some of Wash­ing­ton’s elite lob­by­ists and pub­lic re­la­tions pro­fes­sion­als been es­pe­cially ef­fec­tive?

The Foun­da­tion for De­fense of Democ­ra­cies (FDD), the non­par­ti­san pol­icy in­sti­tute I helped es­tab­lish fol­low­ing the Septem­ber 11 at­tacks — an or­ga­ni­za­tion that has never ac­cepted any for­eign gov­ern­ment fund­ing for any pur­pose — be­gan to se­ri­ously study Qatar’s ac­tiv­i­ties half a decade ago. Last month, in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Hud­son In­sti­tute and Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity’s Cen­ter for Cy­ber & Home­land Se­cu­rity, FDD held a con­fer­ence un­der the ti­tle: “Qatar and the Mus­lim Brother­hood’s Global Af­fil­i­ates: A New U.S. Ad­min­is­tra­tion Con­sid­ers New Poli­cies.”

Key­note speaker Robert Gates, who served un­der eight U.S. pres­i­dents, no­tably as sec­re­tary of De­fense and di­rec­tor of Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence, can­didly dis­cussed the regime’s sup­port for ne­far­i­ous ac­tors and point­edly noted that the mil­i­tary base in Qatar is not “ir­re­place­able.” Ed Royce, chair­man of the House For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, added that if be­hav­iors don’t change, “there would ab­so­lutely be a will­ing­ness to look at other op­tions for bas­ing.”

Jake Sul­li­van, for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser to Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den and for­mer top na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser to Hil­lary Clin­ton, said that “the sta­tus quo of ter­ror fi­nanc­ing em­a­nat­ing from the Gulf, in­clud­ing from Qatar, is not sus­tain­able … we need to do more than we are presently do­ing to lock it down.”

FDD Se­nior Fel­low David Wein­berg, who has long stud­ied il­licit fi­nance in­volv­ing Qatar and other Gulf coun­tries, noted that lack of trans­parency has made it im­pos­si­ble to ver­ify claims by Qatari of­fi­cials that they have un­der­taken mean­ing­ful re­forms. No de­fender of the Saudis, he nev­er­the­less of­fered this com­par­i­son: “The Saudis have pros­e­cuted for ter­ror fi­nance hun­dreds of peo­ple, and they share the data, and they re­port on it. The Qataris do not.”

Hours af­ter the con­fer­ence, events took a strange course: A re­port car­ried by the of­fi­cial Qatari news agency quoted the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Ha­mad Al Thani, crit­i­ciz­ing Pres­i­dent Trump, coun­sel­ing friend­ship with Iran, prais­ing Ha­mas and not­ing “good” re­la­tions with Is­rael. Qatari of­fi­cials were soon claim­ing that the re­port was fake news — the re­sult of a cy­ber­hack. If so, who’s re­spon­si­ble? Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emi­rates, Iran and Rus­sia have all been men­tioned as sus­pects.

A few days later, emails to and from Yousef al Otaiba, the high-pro­file am­bas­sador of the United Arab Emi­rates (UAE) to Wash­ing­ton, were stolen and re­leased — by whom, again, we can only spec­u­late. The emails were cherry-picked and given to ten­den­tious me­dia out­lets in an at­tempt to em­bar­rass the am­bas­sador and crit­ics of Qatar.

Abruptly, Saudi Ara­bia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplo­matic re­la­tions, travel and trade with Qatar and is­sued an ul­ti­ma­tum to the emir: Prove you’re with us, not against us.

Since then, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son has at­tempted to calm Gulf wa­ters. Mr. Trump has been less diplo­matic, em­phat­i­cally agree­ing with the Saudis that Qatar must stop fund­ing ter­ror­ism.

Some of the re­leased emails were be­tween Am­bas­sador Otaiba and FDD ex­perts. Al Jazeera ran pieces al­leg­ing “backchan­nel co­op­er­a­tion” as well as “clear col­lab­o­ra­tion” on a “cam­paign to down­grade the im­age and im­por­tance of Qatar.” For the record: There has been no col­lab­o­ra­tion. We’re in­volved in no con­spir­acy. And by the way: If email ex­changes are “backchan­nel,” what con­sti­tutes front chan­nel?

Qatar has now reached a fork in the road. The emir can sup­port the Arab/Sunni bloc com­mit­ted to fight­ing ter­ror­ism — Sunni and Shia alike — an­nounced dur­ing Mr. Trump’s re­cent visit to Saudi Ara­bia. Or he can throw in with Iran and Rus­sia, once-great em­pires with neo-im­pe­ri­al­ist am­bi­tions. But his li­cense to play both ends against the mid­dle ap­pears to have ex­pired.

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