America’s role in the Qatar crisis

By Daniel DePetris

Nearly a month ago, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt made a critical foreign policy decision which could roil relations in the Persian Gulf for a very long period of time: They severed ties with their Qatari neighbor. 

In retaliation to what the Saudi-led bloc believes is Qatar’s meddling in their internal affairs— including but not limited to its support for internationally-sanctioned terrorist groups— Riyadh and several of its allies sent Doha a stern message.  Diplomatic relations have been suspended, Qatari aircraft are no longer permitted to fly in much of the Gulf’s airspace, and the seaports and airports that Doha relies on to import food and export liquefied natural gas are off limits for the foreseeable future.  The dispute between Qatar and its neighbors is by far the most serious diplomatic flare-up since the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was created in 1981.

However, in an ironic way, the deterioration in Gulf relations also provided the Gulf Arab monarchies an opportunity to prove to the international community that they could resolve their own disagreements. 

Unfortunately, the quarrel in the Gulf is nowhere close to a negotiation, let alone a resolution.  Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been adamant that the list of demands sent to Qatar are non-negotiable.  The Qataris have met defiance with defiance, insisting that while they will reject any condition that disrespects their territorial sovereignty.  We’ve been stuck ever since, and the Gulf States are nearing an inflection point.

The United States, like Turkey, Russia, and Kuwait, has extended their hand to help the GCC work through their issues.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been in constant contact with his Gulf Arab colleagues, and he has    hosted the Qatari Foreign Minister and the Kuwaiti Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs in Washington, Even President Trump has gotten into the action, calling the Saudi crown prince, the Emirati crown prince, and the Qatari Emir on July 2 to express the United States’ desire for this crisis to end as soon as possible. 

The inevitable question, therefore, is whether the U.S. should do even more.  John Hannah, a former George W. Bush administration official, has suggested that Washington “seize the opportunity” to leverage the dispute in order to address the terrorism financing problem that has bedeviled Qatar for years. 

But what if the best thing for the United States is to do nothing? 

While it may sound paradoxical, sitting back and monitoring the situation from afar may be more constructive in the long-run than taking the mediation controls from Kuwait and engaging in multiple rounds of shuttle diplomacy. 

Many would look upon this recommendation as a non-starter, partly due to the short-term consequences of U.S. inaction.  The lack of American involvement, for instance, could result in a further escalation of the Qatar rift.  UAE officials have suggested that if Doha doesn’t buckle to its demands, secondary sanctions on international businesses transacting with Qatari individuals and entities may be an option.  Nobody, of course, wants to see the GCC family break up.

The United States is an incredible foreign policy power with more resources than any other state on the planet, but even the intense involvement of talented American diplomats will not have a lasting and positive impact if all parties aren’t sincere in compromising at the outset. If a vital American interest is at stake, U.S. diplomats should be a part of the equation., but the administration must realize that the U.S. can also squander its power and credibility as a diplomatic power when it expends its capital, yet fails repeatedly to bring a dispute to an end. The internal GCC strain is the very definition of an inscrutable conflict: One where the two protagonists are so dug into their positions that aggressive U.S. mediation is more likely to cause trouble in its Gulf relationships than grease a path to a solution. There is no guarantee that a U.S.-led mediation effort will bridge the gaps, and it is even less likely when Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Doha view one another as victims deserving of compensation. 

There’s a larger point to be made as well. The Gulf States, who remain dependent on U.S. weapons system and diplomatic largesse for their security, have a habit of reaching for the phone and calling Washington whenever a problem in the region arises.  More often than not, officials in the U.S. State Department and the White House are happy to take the call and accept their requests— Riyadh, Doha, and Cairo are regional allies after all. 

Unfortunately, that can-do attitude more often than not let’s Arab states off the hook.  From the perspective of the Saudis, there is no incentive to engage in a serious diplomatic process that will likely to result in concessions when they can count on the Americans to bail them out if the situation deteriorates.  If the U.S. responds to every beck and call or complaint that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or any other state has, there is no pressure for these same states to demonstrate some leadership on their own and work through the very problems they have created.  Like a criminal who expects a rich friend to bail them out of jail, many states around the world— especially in the Arab world— have grown to expect the United States to solve troubles for them, no questions asked.

It is not wise for any country, particularly a U.S. ally in a critical region of the world, to depend wholesale on the United States for their defense needs— not because the U.S. is unreliable or unable to do the job, but because this dependence eventually poisons the relationship over the long-term and places an unfair burden on Washington. Alliances thrive when every partner pulls their own weight.  

If the Trump administration insists on being proactive in this conflict, they should stick with a simple but clear and powerful message to their Gulf Arab partners: If you truly want a way out, talk to the Kuwaitis.  America’s Arab allies might be baffled why the Trump administration in resistant to playing the heroic firefighter.  But after the message sinks in, Riyadh, Doha, and perhaps other allies and partners inside and outside of the Middle East will realize that they need to figure out a way to live with one another without Americans being asked to serve as the referee. 

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Huffington Post on July 28, 2017. Read more HERE.