Monthly Archives: June 2017

Washington and the hard calculations at play in the Qatar crisis

As the confrontation between the Arab coalition and Qatar nears the one-month mark, with Doha insisting it intends to reject the 13 demands placed before it, it’s becoming increasingly clear that if there is to be any kind of reconciliation it will be brokered by Washington.

The parties seem to recognise this, as the flurry of diplomatic activity in the American capital last week demonstrated. But the Trump administration still appears divided, uncertain and haunted by a series of unresolved questions that will undoubtedly shape the longer-term, and possibly decisive, American response.

Perhaps the most significant meeting last week was a dinner at which US secretary of state Rex Tillerson was joined by the foreign minister of Kuwait and the secretary-general of the United Nations, presumably to discuss this crisis. In that meeting, one could start to see the outlines of an international mediation troika that combines the global legitimacy of the UN, the regional Gulf credibility of Kuwait and the heft and power of the United States.

The state department seems keen to resolve the confrontation, but the White House apparently has yet to give it a green light to utilise Washington’s full influence. Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary, continues to describe the stand-off as a “family issue” that should be resolved by the parties themselves without American interference.

However, many others in Washington are becoming increasingly alarmed at the potential costs to the US over the long run.

Concern not only focuses on emerging difficulties in optimizing and coordinating between the US military installations spread around the Gulf region, as Bahrain’s recent expulsion of Qataris working with the anti-ISIL campaign began to demonstrate. There’s also a strong American perception that unity among its allies is essential to the priorities of defeating terrorism and confronting Iran.

Moreover, Qatar has launched a fairly effective public relations campaign in Washington, painting itself as the victim of “counterrevolutionary autocrats” who are trying to bully a small neighbour for having an independent foreign policy and a free press. This caricature of reality has made substantial inroads in American perceptions because it has been largely unopposed in policy-framing, if not policy-making, circles.

Therefore, once a unified policy coalesces in the administration, Washington is likely to push for an early resolution based on Gulf Arab reconciliation.

The challenge will be that the countries confronting Doha are clear that their demands are non-negotiable, while Qatar is extremely unlikely to submit to them as promulgated.

The Arab coalition doesn’t seem at all willing to negotiate directly, or compromise, with Qatar. But they might be willing to reach understandings with Washington, which could then have its own complimentary “bilateral” arrangements with Doha.

Ideas are already circulating involving the embedding of US treasury officials in Qatari ministries and financial institutions, supervision of monthly audits and restructuring the management of Al Jazeera and other media.

The Qataris don’t rule these out, and while such ideas evidently won’t satisfy the coalition, they could be a start.

Washington’s ultimate posture will be shaped by the answers to several key questions.

First, is the coalition amenable to a resolution based on policy changes by Doha or does it want to give Qatar a straightforward choice of capitulation or indefinite isolation? It will be much easier for Washington to work with the first than the second.

Second, the 13 demands have left many Americans wondering what the primary motivation for the campaign is, because they cover so many varied, disparate elements.

Is this campaign primarily driven by differences over the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists, and mainly designed to get Qatar to stop promoting radical ideas and demagogues?

Or is it primarily conceptualised as a first step in what may ultimately prove a far broader campaign to confront and rollback Iranian influence, by getting the Arab and Gulf house in order and denying Tehran a covert ally and potential mouthpiece and conduit to Arab public opinion?

The consensus view in Washington is that it must primarily be one or the other. It could be both, of course. But not equally.

The US assumption is that there is an overarching strategic goal, in the singular. And, right now, few if any Americans, including the most well-informed, have a strong sense of which it is.

The inclusion, for example, of the demand to end the Turkish military presence in Qatar in the list further muddied the issues in Washington. This doesn’t seem directly connected to either Iran, or to terrorism.

The idea that Turkey and Qatar, along with Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood groups, constitute a subversive and dangerous Islamist alliance might be convincing in much of the Gulf. But such accusations are still a stretch in Washington regarding a long-standing NATO ally.

Of course, if the countries confronting Qatar seek or welcome a separation, or if Doha is completely recalcitrant — or both – such American questions won’t matter, because any reconciliation effort is bound to fail. But the American drive to understand and resolve the crisis, in the US national interest, is only likely to strengthen if the stand-off drags on or, especially, intensifies.

Washington’s complex interest in the Qatar crisis

Over the course of the past week, Washington’s position regarding the standoff between Qatar and the coalition of Arab countries confronting Doha became simultaneously more complicated and clearer. Given the central role the Americans are likely to play in shaping the outcome, they should have also developed a stronger sense of what they are, and are not, likely to accomplish.

Shortly after the crisis developed a few weeks ago, Donald Trump expressed strong support for the Arab coalition and seemed to take credit for the campaign to pressure Doha, which he called “a hard but necessary action”.

He accused Qatar of historically funding terrorism “at a very high level” due to its “extremist ideology”.

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson struck a more nuanced tone, calling on the Arab countries to urgently resolve their differences. While he asked the coalition to “ease the blockade against Qatar”, he also said that Doha “must do more … and more quickly” to end funding and support for terrorism and extremists.

The difference in style and emphasis between the president and the secretary of state was so great that many erroneously concluded that they had contradicted or at least undermined each other. But, in fact, they had essentially called for the same things, demanding that Qatar change its policies and conduct while expecting all other parties to simply return to the previous status quo.

On June 20, however, a state department spokesperson radically reconfigured the way Washington is positioning itself regarding the crisis.

Because “it’s been more than two weeks since the embargo started”, she said, “we are mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar.”

Even more bluntly, she continued “we are left with one simple question: were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?”

Not only did this unusually harsh rhetoric by Washington question the veracity and motives of several of its key allies, it shifted the onus from Qatar to the countries confronting it.

The statement, including its unexpected and jarringly bitter tone, and the contrast it presented with the earlier comments by Mr Trump and Mr Tillerson served as a stark reminder that Washington’s interests in the crisis are both intense and highly complex.

As the Trump and Tillerson statements suggested, many of the primary coalition accusations against Qatar resonate strongly with the key American policy of counter-terrorism, and specifically opposing terrorism financing and the harbouring of radicals.

Yet the crisis, by its very nature, also flies in the face of the American imperative of unity among its Arab and Muslim allies, especially in the Gulf region.

The need for unity was the overarching theme of Mr Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May. And, given that Washington has dispersed its military assets in the Gulf in several different countries, many of which are involved in the present confrontation, if it persists the crisis threatens to pose serious challenges to the American ability to fulfil its strategic objectives. The notion that the isolation of Qatar could go on “for years”, as some Gulf officials have suggested, is unacceptable to Washington.

Given the intensity of the American rebuke, it’s not surprising that the coalition moved quickly to issue its 13 demands for Qatar to resolve the impasse. Yet many of them are strikingly maximalist in both tone and substance, and, presumably, represent an opening gambit rather than a final offer.

Mr Tillerson welcomed news that the demands had been drafted and would be presented to Qatar, but added that he hoped that they would also be “reasonable and actionable”. It remains to be seen whether Washington believes that all 13 items meet that standard.

Moreover, since Doha is almost certain to reject the list as it reportedly now reads, and one item holds that it will only be valid for ten days, while the presentation of the demands fulfils Washington’s request that it be composed and issued, it is unlikely to bring the confrontation to a quick conclusion.

The United States is torn between the twin imperatives of counterterrorism and unity, both of which are important to American calculations and neither of which can be discarded. Washington’s policy will therefore probably seek to split the difference between them by pressing for a speedy resolution to the crisis, but not without securing some meaningful and enforceable concessions from Qatar on support for extremists and radical ideologies.

Whether either side to the intra-Arab confrontation will prove receptive to this likely American approach is another matter entirely.

Washington’s Competing Priorities in the Qatar Crisis

On June 20, a U.S. State Department spokesperson announced what seemed to be a crucial shift in the U.S. approach to the confrontation between a group of Washington’s core Arab allies – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt – and another major partner, Qatar. Noting that “it’s been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar.” Now, she pointedly added, “we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long simmering grievances between and among the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries?”

The countries confronting Qatar were clearly stung by this blunt criticism, and moved quickly to address the U.S. concerns. On June 21, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement saying, “we understand a list of demands has been prepared and coordinated by the Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians, and Bahrainis.” He added, “We hope the list of demands will soon be presented to Qatar and will be reasonable and actionable.” However, none of this alters the fundamental equation since the June 20 State Department criticism was not withdrawn or amended. The U.S. criticism was not only unusually harsh diplomatic rhetoric questioning the motives and veracity of long-standing U.S. allies, it also seems to complicate, if not contradict, earlier remarks on the dispute by Tillerson and President Donald J. Trump. The harsh and contrasting administration comments highlight the intensity and complexity of U.S. interests at stake in the crisis.

Through a series of tweets and statements, Trump initially seemed to side heavily with the countries confronting Qatar, and with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz personally. Trump said Qatar “unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” and linked that funding to “its extremist ideology.” Trump appeared to take credit for the campaign to pressure Qatar to change its policies, tweeting that it showed that his trip to Saudi Arabia was “already paying off.” He said that during or after his Middle East trip several national leaders “spoke to me about confronting Qatar over its behavior” and called the ensuing campaign to confront Doha “a hard but necessary action.”

Tillerson adopted a more nuanced tone that stressed the urgent need to resolve the crisis. The striking difference in their tenor and style led many observers to conclude that Trump and Tillerson had contradicted, or undercut, each other. While Tillerson’s remarks appeared – and to a large extent were – balanced and evenhanded, in effect he sided with the countries demanding policy change by Qatar, just as Trump had. Tillerson urged them “to ease the blockade against Qatar,” but added that, while Qatar has made some progress in halting financial support for terrorists and expelling them from the country, it “must do more and … more quickly.” Thus, while all the other parties were expected to quickly return to the status quo ante, Qatar was being told to change its existing policies and conduct.

Yet, in diplomacy, tone and style are weighty matters that shape perceptions and, often, the practical meaning of policies. Trump and Tillerson may not have contradicted each other, exactly, regarding Washington’s expectations and its desired outcome: a swift resolution to the crisis and for Qatar to crack down on terrorism financing and end its support for extremists. Yet the chasm between their rhetorical approaches fostered considerable uncertainty about the U.S. position and a widespread impression that the administration was at loggerheads over the issue. The latest comments from the State Department, however, raise more substantive questions about Washington’s attitudes. For the first time, they shift the onus from Doha to its critics, and draw a distinction between “support for terrorism” and other unspecified “long simmering grievances” among GCC states.

This distinction helps illustrate the contours and complexity of Washington’s concerns about the confrontation between its Gulf Arab allies. When Trump was in Riyadh in late May, his primary theme was the need for unity within the pro-U.S. camp. The trip also confirmed the administration’s three priorities in the Middle East: combating terrorism (which includes cracking down on terrorist financing and extremist ideology), confronting Iran, and pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace. The initial impulse, particularly by Trump, to side unequivocally against Qatar may have been shaped by the fact that many of the accusations against Doha were framed in terms of the first two of his three priorities.

Both Trump and Tillerson specifically cited the first issue – counterterrorism and terrorist financing – directly in their remarks on the crisis. Trump’s accusation that Qatar has been funding terrorism “at a very high level” – although it remains unclear whether by “high level” he means large amounts of money, or senior government figures, or both – was echoed by Tillerson. The secretary of state said, “Qatar has a history of supporting groups that have spanned the spectrum of political expression, from activism to violence.” In both cases, the implication is that the campaign to pressure Qatar was provoked by that history and Doha’s ongoing practices.

The State Department’s comments, however, reflect the broader Trump administration theme of unity. The administration is becoming frustrated that this confrontation among U.S. allies is persisting without much movement toward resolution, and seems to have been especially dismayed that the coalition confronting Doha took so long to develop a thorough list of demands to end the crisis. The idea, as suggested by UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, that the current standoff could go on for “years” is unacceptable to Washington. The United States not only needs a united front against Iran and terrorism, it needs stability in the Gulf region. It cannot operate successfully as the guarantor of regional order and strategic stability with its core allies, in whose territories Washington maintains different components of its indispensable military apparatus in the region, unwilling to deal with each other. The Saudi and Emirati argument that the campaign against Qatar isn’t divisive, but is actually a search for unity worthy of the name because Doha’s conduct is the real source of division, might make sense in a GCC context. But it is starting to lose the audience in Washington.

It’s not that the Trump administration is suddenly enamored of Doha or convinced by its arguments. Washington has long been concerned about Qatar’s dalliances with extremists and radical ideologies, and feels Doha needs to do far better on countering terrorism financing. But as the dispute has dragged on, the costs to the United States, especially over the long run, have become increasingly clear, raising questions in Washington as to what can practically be secured from Qatar at a reasonable price. Hence the whiplash turn, with the State Department in effect lashing out at the Arab coalition and questioning the aims and motivations of the campaign against Qatar.

Washington clearly felt the need to communicate that its patience for both sides is limited, and that it still regards both parties to the confrontation as allies, even though it shares some concerns about Qatar’s behavior. Moreover, Washington confirmed that it isn’t about to abandon Doha as a partner by going forward with the long-planned sale of F-15 fighter jets to Qatar, conducting joint maneuvers between U.S. and Qatari naval forces, and indicating no interest in the idea of relocating U.S. military assets in Qatar, including the massive Al Udeid Air Base (the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command).

The Trump administration has found itself with two core imperatives – unity among Gulf Arab allies and combating terrorism and extremism – that, in the context of the Qatar crisis, seem to be pulling it in opposite directions. Both sides in the intra-Arab dispute have now been on the receiving end of some stern U.S. admonitions. But only Qatar has been told that it must change its long-standing behavior, and “quickly” to boot. The Trump administration may therefore strike a balance between its competing priorities, and the two sides in the crisis among its Gulf Arab allies, by pushing the coalition confronting Qatar for a quick resolution to the crisis but not without demanding some specific commitments from Doha to mend its ways. If nothing else, over the past three weeks, Washington has amply demonstrated that it is perfectly willing to seriously pressure both sides.

Qatar Crisis Unlikely to Escalate or End Soon

The diplomatic crisis, now entering its third week, between Qatar and a bloc of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, will probably neither significantly escalate nor be resolved anytime soon. Both sides appear to be digging in for a protracted standoff.

Qatar, in particular, has a clear interest in dragging out the crisis, as it now stands, for as long as possible.

A protracted confrontation surely heightens the risks of a dangerous miscalculation or misunderstanding. It means the costs to the Arab world will probably be maximised rather than minimised, especially since predatory opportunists such as Iran might find ways of exploiting the discord.

As the contretemps developed last month, Qatar increasingly counted on hopes Washington would pressure all sides to not merely de-escalate, but also return to the prior status quo. The United States has an obvious interest in containing and quickly resolving any major clash between key allies.

But while the Trump administration has indeed pushed the parties to resolve their dispute, it has not remained neutral. Both Donald Trump, the US president, and Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, clearly said Washington wants Arab countries to ease their isolation of Doha, but insist that some long-standing Qatari policies and conduct must change.

This is not only consistent between Mr Trump and Mr Tillerson, despite their radically different tones. It is also reflective of American objections to some Qatari policies and practices that date back well over a decade and were shared by the George W Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Most US concerns about Qatar aren’t sudden shifts, but instead reflect long-standing and bipartisan positions.

Given that Washington even Washington is demanding Qatar submit to an evolving list of policy changes, Doha knows it must eventually concede. Despite its defiant affectation, Doha lacks any viable long-term options other than the eventual accommodation of its outraged neighbours and a friendlier, but still stern, Washington.

Doha’s priority, beyond ensuring the stability of the regime and maintaining national morale, is thus to somehow minimise the price required to keep Washington sufficiently onside, and for an eventful rapprochement with its erstwhile Arab allies.

Washington is likely to emerge as the “weak link” against which Doha must press to lower such costs, because US demands will be both decisive and easier to shift than Arab ones. This dispute is important, but neither familial nor existential, for Washington.

The US nonetheless has a clear stake in the outcome since it shares many core concerns about Qatar’s conduct. And the quarrel among its allies may prove not merely uncomfortable, but increasingly problematic for Washington’s agenda. Relocating the massive US military presence in Qatar would be time-consuming, costly and potentially disruptive of American military plans. It is therefore highly implausible.

The existing arrangements give Washington considerable leverage over Doha. But they also provide Qatar – especially when it’s trying to appear as cooperative as possible – many ways of reminding Washington of the benefits of the current configuration and manifest risks of any alternative, which would probably involve trying to change either the current military configuration or the Qatari regime.

Qatar will therefore try to use a protracted crisis to maximise American discomfort and impatience, thereby pushing Washington towards merely urging a return by all parties to the status quo. Hence US demands for meaningful Qatari policy change could be minimised, or even practically eliminated.

As the imbroglio drags on, the Arab bloc will be tempted to try to resolve it by applying more pressure. Yet the pressure on Qatar is already widely labelled disproportionate. Some measures, such as outlawing expressions of sympathy for Qatar, are being used to denigrate the campaign as spiteful or excessive.

Arab states confronting Qatar did not do so without understanding the serious risks involved – including potential political openings for Iran and other malefactors, and the possibility of miscalculations, unintended consequences and unforeseen pitfalls. Such campaigns inevitably defy anyone’s rational plans or control.

This is not a measure of Arab impulsiveness or caprice, but rather the determination with which these countries are once again pressuring Doha after the unfulfilled promises of 2014.

Nevertheless, the Arab camp has allowed the crisis to metastasise far enough. Further escalation won’t benefit them.

Qatar cannot sustain any significant additional pressure. It’s putting on a brave face, and as long as Turkey and Iran – and much more importantly Kuwait and Jordan – remain open to Qatar at many registers and numerous levels, for a time Doha can endure. But not indefinitely.

While Qatar must eventually concede, in the near term neither side is likely to either back down or escalate.

Indeed, dragging this out, especially to Washington’s growing chagrin, is Qatar’s best bet to minimise the depth of its eventual climbdown.

The crisis is only just beginning for Qatar

When Donald Trump tweeted unmistakably strong support for the Arab
coalition confronting Qatar, the final window of hope slammed shut on
Doha. Qatar’s only practical way out of the crisis was hope that
Washington would mediate the crisis in a spirit of strict neutrality
and press all sides to return to the status quo ante. That’s clearly
not happening

Some voices in Washington did suggest such an approach, arguing that
the United States should avoid any involvement in a “spat” between
allies and that US military interests in Qatar overrule all other
considerations. This perspective – which is informed mainly by narrow
or ill-informed understandings and fails to appreciate the effect of
Qatar’s conduct on regional affairs – has not prevailed. A more
cautious and circumspect approach rather than blustering,
self-congratulatory presidential tweets would certainly have been
preferable. But the US clearly understands it has a major stake in the

Secretary of state Rex Tillerson struck a more subtle tone. He
demanded that Qatar “must do more and … more quickly” to end support
and financing of terrorism, while calling on Arab states to “ease the
blockade against Qatar”.

Note that this apparently even-handed approach actually asks Qatar to
change its behaviour while urging the others to move back to towards
business as usual. Therefore, whether phrased bluntly or more subtly,
the American position is clearly siding firmly with the Arab bloc and
against Qatar.

Even more ominously for Doha, the Trump administration has asked Saudi
Arabia for a list of specific demands on Qatar to restore former

This confirms that Washington wants to resolve the dispute but
realises that this cannot involve a repetition of the 2014 rupture
wherein Qatar promised to change its behaviour but, after a period of
relative caution, backslid and resumed its support of political and
religious radicals and double-dealing on Iran.

Qatar is defiant and putting on a brave face. But the reality is that
it is surrounded by outraged neighbours, partners and nominal allies.
The travel, trade and communications embargoes that have been imposed,
especially by Saudi Arabia, which effectively controls Qatar’s only
land border, will be increasingly crippling. Moreover, sanctions are
widening and intensifying, and more Arab countries are joining the
camp that is downgrading relations with Qatar until it mends its ways.

Turkey is giving Qatar considerable diplomatic and rhetorical support,
and speeding up some limited and hardly game-changing military
cooperation. But the reality is that Ankara is not able to provide
Qatar with the breadth and depth of support the tiny country needs,
especially over the long run.

Nor can Turkey project enough power at such distances to become the
new Qatari patron and guarantor of its prerogatives over the vehement
objections and opposition of its immediate Arab neighbours.

Much as both Ankara and Doha might want this, the idea of Qatar
becoming a client of Turkey is neither realistic nor viable.

Iran, too, is offering a wide range of support to Qatar. Tehran is
clearly relishing the discord in the Arab camp and fanning the flames
as energetically as possible. Unlike Turkey’s offers, though, Qatar is
largely rebuffing Iran, at least in public. But more quietly Doha
certainly seems to be moving ever closer to Tehran, both confirming
some of the main charges against it and deepening the rift with Arab
countries and Washington.

Iran’s support is theoretically more realistic than Turkey’s, given
its geographical proximity to Qatar, but politically it is far more
non-viable. Indeed, any overt or substantive steps by Doha to
decisively align with Tehran would be a catastrophic error. It could
lead to suspension or expulsion from the Gulf Cooperation Council,
American moves to shift its military presence in Qatar to a
neighbouring country, and might even destabilise the Qatari regime

Doha knows all this full well and therefore must keep Iran at arm’s
length in public even if it moves closer to it in quieter ways during
the crisis. And it’s almost certain that Qatar will have to reverse
any moves towards Tehran – and then shift further away from it than it
has been in the past decade or more – if it wants to find a way out of
the crisis it has created for itself.

Not only does Qatar lack any viable options, especially now that
Washington has plainly sided against it, the crisis for Doha is just
beginning. If this drags on for months, the country’s economy will be
severely damaged, its regional role all but eliminated, and many of
its plans – possibly including hosting the World Cup – either
disrupted or rendered impossible.

Qatar may drag this out to share the pain, but it knows it is going to
have to capitulate eventually. And just as it is openly working with
Turkey and quietly with Iran to maximise its options and minimise the
damage it sustains during the confrontation, it is simultaneously now
taking steps to reach out and seek a resolution.

Qatar also knows that it cannot end the crisis without agreeing to a
series of measures the Arab bloc is demanding, especially insofar as
they are also insisted on by Washington. Doha is therefore visibly
moving towards negotiating the terms of its coming inevitable climb
down, and limiting the price it must pay. Doha cannot endure current
circumstances, let alone an additional significant escalation. Qatar
has no choice.

Unfulfilled 2014 Riyadh Agreement Defines Current GCC Rift

Historical context is essential to understanding the escalating rift among the Gulf Cooperation Council states. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain broke diplomatic relations with Qatar in 2014. Back then the dispute was resolved within weeks. This time, these three countries, now backed by Egypt, Yemen, and others, have not only broken relations with Doha, they have cut all trade and travel ties, instructed their citizens to return home, and ordered Qatari diplomats to leave within 48 hours and private citizens within 14 days, among other extraordinary gestures. The crisis this time is much deeper, in that it involves broader sanctions, and far wider, in that it draws in more countries. The dispute now rests on what Saudi Arabia and the UAE say are unfulfilled promises from 2014, and additional demands regarding Iran.

In March 2014, the three countries broke diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing Doha of interfering with their internal affairs, promoting extremism through Al Jazeera and other Qatari media networks, and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region. If the three GCC powers were outraged then, they are infuriated this time, in part because they believe that Qatar has not fulfilled the terms of the bargain by which they returned their ambassadors to Doha, and in part because they believe that the Qataris are flouting the principle of Gulf unity toward Iran at a time of growing danger.

In January 2014, the other Gulf Arab states tried to induce Qatar to sign a broad agreement about noninterference in each other’s affairs, cooperation on regional issues, and declining to support extremist groups. This was the proximate cause for the dramatic rift, though, as now, the underlying tensions had been brewing for years. In April, at a meeting in Saudi Arabia, the Qataris signed the Riyadh Agreement, a document that has never been made public. It is, apparently, similar or virtually the same as the document they had refused to sign a few months before.

There are conflicting accounts of what, precisely, is in the document. However, it is clear that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain took away a very different view of what Qatar had agreed to than the Qataris did. These countries expected Doha to curtail its support for Islamists, particularly Muslim Brotherhood figures, around the region. They believe that Qatar had agreed to muzzle, or greatly attenuate, support for Islamists on Al Jazeera and other Qatari media outlets, and particularly attenuate Muslim Brotherhood-oriented and other harsh criticism of Egypt’s government and President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. They also expected Qatar to expel, or at least silence, a range of provocative Islamist and Arab nationalist voices that dominate its extensive and popular media platforms, including Muslim Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi and the Palestinian Arab nationalist firebrand Azmi Bishara.

None of that happened. If anything, Bishara and his left-wing nationalistic agenda have received greater funding and attention in the interim, and Qaradawi and other prominent Islamists remain mainstays of Al Jazeera and other Qatari-backed media. Some Hamas members were encouraged to leave Doha recently, but the organization presented its “new charter” at a lavish ceremony in the Qatari capital, which still serves as a de facto headquarters for Hamas outside of Gaza. Whatever their GCC partners believe Doha had agreed to, the Qataris either came away with a completely different impression of the meaning and implications of the 2014 agreement, or they had no intention of fulfilling them to the satisfaction of their allies.

In addition to this ongoing ideological dispute is a highly bitter accusation that Qatar is sabotaging Gulf Arab efforts to contain, confront, and roll back Iran. Qatar has a strong incentive to maintain decent working relations with Iran. Its economy depends on the natural gas North Field site, which it shares with Iran. So it’s not hard to understand why Doha would want to avoid unnecessarily antagonizing Tehran.

Uncomfortable as this may sometimes be, the GCC is used to its diverse members maintaining individual and distinct policy orientations toward Iran. Even the UAE is not as categorical toward Iran as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Kuwait, and even more, Oman, maintain much closer relations to Tehran. Yet neither Kuwait nor Oman, as they strive to avoid becoming excessively entangled in disputes between Iran and some of their GCC allies, are not perceived as undermining their partners’ key national security concerns. For various reasons, including the pro-Islamist ideological orientation of its substantial media arsenal, Qatar is regarded as not simply maintaining is own policies but as disrupting the national security agendas of its allies. If the dispute continues to deteriorate, Kuwait and Oman may, eventually, be asked to choose sides. But for now, they are remaining distant from the controversy and continuing their own distinct policies toward Tehran.

It’s no coincidence that this effort to once again try to get Qatar to change its objectionable behavior comes in the context of the recent Riyadh summit with U.S. President Donald J. Trump. Trump emphasized unity in order to combat terrorism and extremism and confront Iranian regional hegemony. The Gulf countries that have broken relations with it are accusing Qatar precisely of promoting extremism, coddling terrorism, cozying up to Iran, and undermining unity on these issues. The rift between them is an escalation of disunity. But, from the point of view of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, what they are demanding of Doha amounts to an attempt to create real unity, or at least noninterference in these campaigns.

That there was already an effort in Washington to pressure Doha to amend its policies undoubtedly encouraged Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and the other countries. Adding to their mounting outrage was the payment, reported by the Financial Times, of up to $1 billion in ransom for 26 Qatari royal family members kidnapped in Iraq and 50 rebels captured in Syria. Reports suggest that $700 million of the funds went to Iran or pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, and the rest to Islamist groups in Syria, including an al-Qaeda affiliate. Reports of these payments could well have served as a last straw for Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others. Sensing both an urgent need, and an opportunity, to try again, these countries began to demand last week that Doha fulfill its 2014 commitments – as they understood them – with regard to extremists and Iran.

Yet the risks of the campaign are potentially daunting, which is a measure of the seriousness and determination of these countries to shift Qatar’s conduct. There will be a significant economic price for all sides. Qatar’s mighty media and soft power empire may shape the perceptions of many Arabs and others around the world in its favor. Iran and its proxies may find openings in the discord to exploit. The long-term viability of the GCC is being called into question. Moreover, the situation could significantly deteriorate. If Doha does not concede, or even raises the stakes further, would Qatar’s neighbors and putative allies be compelled to consider trying to effectuate a regime change? Could Qatar face a prolonged period of isolation? Doha will almost certainly eventually have to give way, though the path to doing so is not yet clear and might prove costlier than any party has yet to realize.

This time around, repairing the rift will not be as easy as signing an unpublicized declaration was in 2014. The Trump visit to Riyadh, the successful summit meeting, and Trump’s strong support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE – particularly the administration’s priorities of combatting terrorism and confronting Iran, the two top complaints against Qatar – all played a significant role in prompting the effort to resume pressuring Doha to alter its behavior. Trump stressed unity in Riyadh and this rift will probably disturb Washington even as it indicated it shares some of the concerns about Qatar’s conduct.

Trump’s June 6 tweets on the topic seemed to slam the final door shut on any hopes Doha may have had that Washington would seek to mediate the dispute in a manner that would allow Qatar to avoid making major concessions. Trump seemed to take personal credit for the campaign to pressure Qatar; he wrote that it indicted his trip was “paying off,” accused Qatar of terrorism financing, and even speculated that “Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism.”

Under the circumstances, and facing this united front, it seems inevitable that Doha will have to take some serious measures to alter its soft power projection, ideological interventions, and media profile, as well as expelling, or at least muzzling, some notorious provocateurs and members of radical organizations. Qatar cannot sustain this level of isolation and has few options beyond the GCC states and Washington for support, and Iran’s offer of emergency food shipments did not help Doha counter the accusations or contain the crisis. Doha will now have to shift under the pressure. The only real questions are how far, for how long, and at what cost.

Qatar crisis: a regional schism that’s been years in the making

The world seems startled by the seemingly sudden rift between key Arab states and Qatar. Yet the crisis has been in the making for more than a decade.

It is certainly drastic, but there’s nothing remotely mysterious in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and others cutting diplomatic relations and suspending many other ties with Doha.

Outrage over Qatar’s conduct has been brewing for many years in a bitter battle of Arab ideas.

Qatar casts Al Jazeera, and its extensive assembly of other media assets, as a breath of fresh air. In the early days, there was some truth to that. Al Jazeera was, at first, new and different.

But it was also always, and mainly, a mouthpiece for political radicalism, primarily of the Islamist and Muslim Brotherhood varieties, but also for old-fashioned pan-Arab nationalism. Every populist, “revolutionary” anti-status quo and downright irresponsible viewpoint was welcome and frequently championed.

The Al Jazeera airwaves were therefore typically putrid.

In addition to marketing them, Qatar funded, hosted and otherwise supported extremist groups — especially those, such as Hamas, that kept one foot in the Arab and another in the Iranian camp. Doha’s ambition is to project its regional influence by promoting radical organisations that strategically deploy chaos, instability and even violence to overthrow existing governments and seize power.

Qatar has thereby effectively meddled in the internal affairs of many other Arab states, including nominal allies.

Indeed, the same countries at the core of the current dispute – Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain – broke diplomatic relations with Qatar in 2014 and induced Doha to sign a pledge to mend their ways, which has largely remained unfulfilled.

So, there’s nothing new or sudden about these tensions.

In addition, Doha now stands accused of supporting a range of other regional miscreants, including through what the Financial Times says was a $1 billion ransom payment for Qatari royal family members kidnapped in Iraq and rebels captured in Syria. About $700 million reportedly went to Iran and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, and the remainder, apparently, to Al Qaeda affiliates.

Qatar is being put on notice, in the strongest terms, that all such conduct must finally stop.

Much commentary implies that the confrontation is essentially opportunistic, cynical, capricious or planned. But the extreme measures taken against Qatar by this grouping of key Arab states illustrates how seriously they take the need to rein in Doha once and for all.

These measures are hardly cost- or risk-free. They carry a hefty financial burden for all sides. The consequences cannot be controlled or fully predicted. The present unity, and even the long-term future, of the Gulf Cooperation Council is at stake. But unity worthy of the name is exactly what is being demanded.

Qatar’s massive media arsenal will try to convince people throughout the region, including Islamists, Arab nationalists, some liberals and others around the world, to side with Doha. Many will.

The rift also presents potential opportunities to Iran and its proxies, and other malefactors, who could perhaps find a way of taking advantage of these tensions between Gulf countries.

In short, this is by no means capricious or undertaken lightly. Rather, it is plainly a matter of the utmost seriousness. Otherwise so much would not be placed at hazard to try to bring Qatar, at long last, back into the responsible Arab camp.

Unlike in 2014, though, it won’t be enough now for Doha to sign a document and go back to business as usual.

This time it is being told to close numerous media outlets, retool others, and end the political and religious incitement; expel or muzzle demagogues such as Youssef Al Qaradawi and Azmi Bishara; and stop undermining efforts to contain and roll back Iran’s hegemony and destabilising policies.

Unless it wants to try to defect fully to the Iranian camp, which is unthinkable, Doha’s hopes now seem pinned on American mediation. That seems unlikely: yesterday Mr Trump tweeted that “all reference was pointing to Qatar” for funding extremism.

Mr Trump’s priorities — combating terrorism and confronting Iran — are precisely the two issues that are driving actors in both the Middle East and Washington to pressure Doha to see reason.

American mediation is almost inevitable and can serve the interests of both sides. Washington wants to end the confrontation and is uniquely positioned to leverage both sides. But Doha cannot expect Washington to ignore the clear-cut history and context.

In 2014 Qatar gave way on paper, but its conduct remained largely unaltered. This time Doha must amend its behaviour — and that of its media empire and mouthpieces — or face unsustainable isolation. Arab countries apparently are no longer willing to go through this every few years.

Qatar resists the idea tooth and nail, but its conduct will now surely have to change.

The Crisis of Arab Nationalism and the Rise of Islamism

One of the principal but often underappreciated effects of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war was its role in setting the stage for the rise of political Islam in the Arab world—including the terrorist extremism that now plagues the region and the globe.

The war was a devastating blow to the credibility of Arab nationalism (particularly as defined by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser), which presented itself as secular and progressive. The speed and scope of the Arab debacle in 1967 knocked the legs out from under the profoundly exaggerated claims of Arab nationalism to be leading the region into a new and brighter future.

By the late 1960s, the social and economic failure of these systems, and their repressive nature, were already readily apparent. Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, which all gained independence in the 1940s with relatively robust civil societies and promising economies, were being profoundly mismanaged and intellectually suffocated by these narrow regimes. Underneath dreams of resurgence and glory lay clear patterns of atrophy and decay. But the militarism of Arab nationalism, particularly in Egypt, with its strident anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric, conjured a beguiling mirage that obscured grim realities for large majorities who were cajoled into a collective denial.

The 1967 war called this bluff completely. Most Arabs had been beyond confident in victory, yet the defeat was virtually instantaneous and total. In the aftermath, the political credibility of this version of Arab nationalism was mortally wounded, and its long-term viability was as effectively destroyed as the Egyptian Air Force had been by Israel’s surprise early morning attack on June 5.

As the Lebanese scholar Fawaz Gerges has pointed out, the rise of Islamism as a political force was neither an immediate nor an inevitable consequence of the crisis of Arab nationalism resulting from the 1967 war. Many other factors fed into the rise of an ultraconservative, reactionary, and revolutionary (in the Leninist sense) Islamist movement, its radicalization in the 1970s and 1980s, and its proliferation—including in the form of violent transnational terrorist movements like al-Qaeda and ISIS—since the late 1990s.

Things could have turned out differently. Secular Arab nationalism could have been revived, especially in a strikingly different form. Islamism could have developed differently, or thrived to the point of becoming the ideology of ruling factions in much of the Arab world (now only really the case in Gaza).

So, the connection between the 1967 fiasco and the rise of ultraconservative Islam and political Islamism is both direct, insofar as nothing did more to discredit its primary ideological antagonists (secularism and nationalism), and indirect, insofar as innumerable other factors and contingencies shaped our present realities. But it’s worth noting that these two supposedly polar opposites continue to share an underlying framework of political attitudes that remain hegemonic among Islamists and Arab nationalists alike.

During the 1950s and ’60s, Arab nationalism presented itself as entirely at odds with the socially reactionary, and politically and intellectually retrograde, Islamist movement defined at the time by the Muslim Brotherhood. Though it now seems ironic, during this period it was the Islamists who were perceived as retrograde, reactionary, pro-Western, anti-nationalist and essentially traitorous, while the mostly secular nationalist governments were the revolutionaries confronting power in the name of Arab identity, values, and dignity. In much Arab rhetoric today, these ideas have flipped: State nationalism is now frequently cast as pro-Western and retrograde, while Islamism is often cast as revolutionary and patriotic.

For example, it’s instructive that Qatar is comfortable promoting both Muslim Brotherhood Islamism and what remains of left-wing Arab nationalism simultaneously. This isn’t as incoherent as it might seem. Underlying both discourses are the same sets of enemies, the same sense of grievances, the same empty promises, and many of the same essential touchstones of what was and remains a stultifying, unrealistic, and intellectually crippling Arab political orthodoxy.

Who Will Really Pay for the Introverted “Trump Doctrine?”

The Trump administration’s reconceptualisation of American foreign policy marks the radical abandonment of a consensus that has held firm since 1945. In the process, the international profile of the United States is being fundamentally redefined, and the world’s strategic landscape reshaped.

In a definitive commentary for the Wall Street Journal, national security adviser HR McMaster and director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn sketched the outlines of a “Trump Doctrine” in American foreign policy. In the process, they completely recast Washington’s global role.

These two key presidential aides were apparently trying to explain what Donald Trump’s “America First” ideology means for US foreign policy. The results are alarming.

They start with a Hobbesian vision of international relations as an anarchic war of all against all – a most unrealistic version of “realism”. They endorse “a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” And, to dispel any doubts, “rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.”

They have “a clear message to our friends and partners: where our interests align, we are open to working together”. Everything is contingent and transactional. No real “friends” or “partners”. No community. Just patrons and clients, rivals and competitors.

They are obviously right this represents “a strategic shift for the United States”. Less convincing is their claim it “signals the restoration of American leadership and our government’s traditional role overseas”.

In fact, this values-free paradigm abandons American claims of leadership, vision or standing for anything beyond narrow and short-term gains. It’s also a clear repudiation of Washington’s actual “traditional role overseas”.

As the dust settled following the Second World War, the outmoded isolationism that had left the country so ill-prepared for that conflict and its aftermath lost any real influence.

Instead, a debate ensued between two approaches to the Cold War that, until now, demarcated the essential parameters of the American foreign policy conversation.

One view, defined by the diplomat George Kennan, sought to contain the Soviet Union and wait for its despotic system to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. The competing view, defined by philosopher and former Trotskyite James Burnham, urged a far more aggressive approach, seeking the deliberate development of a coercive global American empire and a campaign to defeat and destroy the USSR.

The containment view almost entirely won, although Ronald Reagan articulated some essentially Burnhamite rhetoric. The key, though, is that for all their differences both Kennanites and Burnhamites agreed the United States absolutely needed to globally trumpet its economic and cultural dynamism, democratic character, liberal values and what it could positively offer the world in contrast to Soviet economic malaise, social atrophy and political repression.

Both sides saw American culture, character and values as a huge asset and competitive advantage internationally, and understood that the US both could and should draw people, especially those living under the oppressive rule of enemies and rivals, towards it by appealing to ideals and offering something better and, where possible, inspiring. To say this was very effective in the Cold War would be an understatement.

Now, the Trump advisers write, “America will treat others as they treat us.” This reads as “others must do unto us as they would have us do unto them” – the very inversion of generosity. It is self-centeredness in place of magnanimity, and literally illiberal. It’s also as inspiring as a phone bill.

Yet this shift, however self-defeating, reflects a strong American popular impulse. As the scholar Walter Russell Mead perceptively notes, extroverted American elites wanted to continue the country’s international role following the end of the Cold War. Voters consistently preferred “untried outsiders who want increased focus on issues at home” and therefore elected “Clinton over Bush in 1992, Bush over Gore in 2000, Obama over McCain in 2008, and Trump over Clinton in 2016”.

The McMaster/Cohn vision is a distilled and applied version of this introverted impulse.

The American establishment, in short, has not successfully sold the benefits of American internationalism and idealism to a sceptical and parochial public. Hence Mr Trump seeks political advantage by pandering to his base’s anti-international instincts at the expense of the national interest, the most recent and egregious instance of which was the withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

Washington’s rapidly shrinking international reputation, especially in Europe, suggests the likely – and grim – results. The old consensus united left and right for 70 years precisely to avoid such dire consequences.

The Trump administration apparently sees itself as effectively collecting on numerous international unpaid bills. But it is Washington that could ultimately face a great global reckoning in a little American room.