Last week, at the 2020 Global Security Forum, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien said that ending Qatar's blockade by three Gulf nations and Egypt is "a priority" of the Trump administration in "the next 70 days."
The dispute among the Arab neighbors grew out of concerns about Qatar's close relationship and support of the Muslim Brotherhood and an aggressive Iran seeking nuclear weapons. The U.S. security policy problem in this standoff is that the Al Udeid airbase and the As Sayliyah Army Camp is located in Qatar, a nation that has dangerously antagonized their powerful neighbors and Egypt with its actions and propaganda. That means any U.S. administration's goal must be to ensure that the location of those bases does not hold U.S. regional security policy hostage to Qatar's policies that set American regional allies on edge.
It is no secret that Qatar's Al Thani rulers shelter the Muslim Brotherhood and its Al-Jazeera mouthpiece and support them in places like Egypt and Libya. They also bankroll Islamic terror groups and Iranian and Turkish militia proxies in Syria. Qatar's alignment with Turkey, especially the presence of Turkey's Tariq bin Ziyad military base near Doha, has prompted the UAE State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash to call Turkey's military presence in the Gulf "an emergency." Qatar's relationship with Iran, marked by commercial and banking ties, a huge shared natural gas field, close diplomatic ties, and support for Islamic terror groups like HAMAS, Hizballah, and the Taliban, also deeply concern its Gulf neighbors.
By using its vast oil and gas wealth to support seditionist elements in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, Qatar has kept regional tensions on a boil for years. Finally, in June 2017, those three Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) governments and Egypt imposed a diplomatic and commercial boycott against the Emirate, pending Qatar's acceptance of thirteen demands. Among them are cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, severing all ties to terrorist organizations, shutting down Al-Jazeera, and ending interference in sovereign nations' internal affairs.
In America, Qatar channels billions of dollars to state universities like those of Michigan and North Carolina as well as Cornell, Northwestern, and Texas A&M. Qatar also lavishes millions on major think tanks, like the Brookings Institute, which has a satellite campus in Doha. Billions more of Qatari funding goes to direct investment in American companies and lobbying firms. Qatar also spends billions on U.S. weapons and training in addition to hosting the Al Udeid airbase. As a result, in the early days of the Trump administration, much of the U.S. academic, military, and national security leadership treated Qatar as a friendly partner.
Then U.S. Middle East security policy shifted, starting with President Trump's May 2017 speech at the Riyadh summit. At that gathering of Arab leaders, new priorities were outlined that would define the Trump administration's future approach to the Middle East and North Africa. Confronting Islamic jihad groups, from the Islamic State to the Muslim Brotherhood, topped the agenda. It also included a firm U.S. commitment to regional partners as a foundation for a unified front against Iran's aggression. So when the crisis erupted between Qatar and other GCC members that year, Trump called on Qatar to stop funding terrorists "at a very high level." Earlier, at a May conference, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even hinted that the U.S. might consider relocating the Al Udeid base elsewhere, saying, "The United States military doesn't have any irreplaceable bases." And in a July 2017 interview on CBN, President Trump was even more specific, asserting that "If we ever had to leave, we would have 10 countries willing to build us another one, believe me, and they will pay for it."
Perhaps most telling was a September 2019 exercise in which the Pentagon abruptly, albeit temporarily, shifted command and control of regional U.S. air operations away from the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at al-Udeid in Qatar to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. Nevertheless, Al Udeid and 11,000 U.S. military personnel remain in Qatar in spite of the gathering momentum of the Abraham Accords—now formalized between Israel, Bahrain, Sudan, and the UAE—that offer alternative sites in countries that do not bankroll Islamic terror or harbor Muslim Brotherhood and Taliban jihadis.
With Ankara and Tehran showing no indication of moderating their regional ambitions, Qatar's dalliance with both aggressors threatens not only U.S. regional partners but also U.S. regional security planning. Despite the fact that the State Department and Pentagon remain reluctant to acknowledge that Qatar is neither an ally nor a partner, National Security Advisor O'Brien's interview with The Hill finally indicates a serious effort to resolve the perilous situation.
It is long past time for a reassessment of the U.S. relationship with Qatar. If a new Trump initiative puts the Al Udeid airbase on the table, it just might induce Qatar to move in the right direction. In any event, Al Udeid must no longer be a kind of Qatari insurance policy against angry American allies. And if Qatar proves unwilling to end its state sponsorship of terror and move away from Iran and Turkey, then CAOC can and should be moved from Qatar and re-established in a pro-U.S. country in the region.