Several neighboring Arab states have cut or reduced their ties with the Arabian Gulf state of Qatar, ostensibly in retaliation for Qatar’s support for terrorist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. For most Americans, any collaboration with terrorists is immoral and dangerous. Thus, many Americans may support the actions of Saudi Arabia and others in ostracizing the oil-rich nation. Such a rush to judgement, however, fails to take into the account the strategic realities that Qataris have to face, and the U.S. decisions that make those strategic calculations even more difficult.
With a population of only 2.2 million, a land area the size of Connecticut, and a small military force, Qatar is barely 100 miles from Iran, the enemy of oil-producing states throughout the region, and a budding nuclear power. (By comparison, Iran has a population of 83 million, land area the size of Alaska, and one of the most powerful militaries in the world.) Geographically, Qatar is perhaps the most vulnerable of all the Arab Gulf states, jutting as it does into the Gulf like a piece of ripe fruit.
In the past decade, the Qatari leadership has watched the Obama administration abandon Iraq, leading to the rise of ISIS, and then sign the (JCPOA) with Iran, which removed all but the most flimsy, paper obstacles to Iran’s path to nuclear weapons. Like the rest of the region, Qatar also saw the Americans release of dollars to the radical Iranian regime, without restriction, and has witnessed Iran
While on a fact-finding trip to Oman just after the JCPOA was completed, I learned that the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet was moving refueling and resupply depots from the United Arab Emirates to Oman, to reduce the need for Navy ships to enter the Arabian Gulf. Economy was given as the reason for the move, but for Qatar, situated farther up the Gulf, the American move means fewer U.S. ships in the Gulf, for shorter periods of time. In context, this could seem like the first step in abandoning the Gulf altogether. While it is true that the U.S. maintains a presence at the al-Udeid air base, it is also true that Qatar’s isolation will make resupply and support of that base more expensive.
Nor did President Trump’s election offer any reassurance. A major plank in President Trump’s platform has been further retrenchment of the United States from its overseas commitments. With the U.S. president casting doubt on the continued usefulness of NATO, mutual defense arrangements with Gulf States look particularly vulnerable. Add the failure of the current administration to renounce the JCPOA, as promised, and the shadow of danger looming across the uncomfortably narrow Gulf keeps growing.
In short, Qatari leaders almost certainly believe that they have little choice but to hedge their bets and try to seem as cooperative as possible to Iran’s leaders. Qataris do not have to look far to see an example of such a posture. Omani officials eagerly describe their foreign policy as “enemy to none, friend to all.” They elaborate by noting that they are largely incapable of defending themselves against a serious attack, and add, almost in a whisper, that they cannot depend upon anyone rushing to their aid.
If anything, Qatar is more exposed than Oman. It is smaller, has fewer people, far greater oil wealth, and it is on the wrong side of the Strait of Hormuz. Under the circumstances, accommodating the Iranian regime by assisting its clients is a harsh but necessary survival strategy, probably designed to convince the mullahs that other Gulf States would make better targets.
Given the inescapable nature of Qatar’s vulnerability, diplomatic isolation is unlikely to change Qatari policy. A resurgent U.S. presence in the region, however, would change everything, and permit Qatar to cut off its support for terrorist groups. During his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Trump set the stage for such resurgence by highlighting the emerging anti-Iran partnership that includes both the Saudis and the Israelis.
His administration should build on this visit with regular visits to the region by high-ranking officials, a clear commitment to the al-Udeid base, and by negotiating mutual defense arrangements with any state in the region that perceives a threat from Iran. Even without an open break with the JCPOA, a beefed-up U.S. presence in the Gulf would let the world know that no nation will have to confront Iran all by itself.
Given the vagaries of American interest, even in the most strategically important parts of the world, reassurance for states like Qatar will not come easily. President Trump must make it clear that the U.S. will remain a vigilant Gulf state partner, until regime change in Iran makes such vigilance unnecessary.
Edward Lynch, Ph.D., is chair of political science at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. He served in the White House Office of Public Liaison during the Reagan administration.
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