President Donald Trump has a knack for pushing American foreign policy into places that fear has kept it from going. Take for example the current dustup over the nation of Qatar. No one who has been a part of the long war on terrorism is unfamiliar with the central role that our alliance with Qatar has played. Qatar hosts, among other things, the US Central Command’s forward deployed headquarters, and the Special Operations Command – Central, which provides operators to support missions throughout the Middle East and as far away as Afghanistan. Some ten thousand American servicemembers are on the ground in Qatar.
Yet Qatar is not merely an American ally: it is also literally, physically in the middle of the Saudi-Iranian conflict for control of the heart of the Islamic world. In that position, Qatar has found itself often playing a “middleman,” serving as go-between for the United States and others vis a vis the Taliban or Iran. It is able to do that effectively because it plays both sides to a certain degree, just as you might expect someone right in the middle of the Saudi-Iranian war to do.
The President made the decision that it was necessary to press Qatar to lay off that role of go-between, and instead choose sides. This move, in spite of the serious difficulties it courts for America’s deployed forces, is strategically defensible given the President’s identification of terror financing as a center of gravity in the war on terrorism. It is not possible that the Qataris were able to do favors for us with Iran or the Taliban except that the Iranians and the Taliban valued their relationship with the Qataris. They could do a favor for us with our enemies, in other words, because of the favors they do for our enemies. Moving money for the enemy is a major subset of those favors.
There will be costs associated with the decision to push Qatar on this, but there are costs to turning a blind eye to terror financing too. During the Obama administration, the president’s calculation went the other way. Last week Chairman Royce of the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on the way in which the Obama administration had privileged the pursuit of the Iran Deal at the cost of looking the other way on terror financing. It may well be that diplomatic efforts benefitted from turning a blind eye to terror financing, but there have been costs for that decision too. Hezbollah, which is as Chairman Royce pointed out a “top terrorist threat to the U.S. and our allies,” has received windfall profits and, consequently, a greatly increased operational capacity.
In the case of Qatar, President Trump specifically mentioned only the Islamic State (ISIS) as a recipient of funds. In this, he is supported by the leaked emails of John Podesta, making it a rare point of commonality between the Trump administration and the counterfactual Hillary Clinton administration. It is not only ISIS, however. Qatar has officially pledged support for Hamas. The status of the Muslim Brotherhood is still being debated in Washington, but those who think it a terrorist organization – such as former Ambassador Dennis Ross – point out that it has numerous operational ties with Qatar. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies notes that fundraisers even for al Qaeda “operate openly and notoriously” in Qatar.
Even as American, Iraq, and Kurdish forces close on Raqqa, ISIS has proven capable of staging attacks in London, as last year in Paris, Brussels, and elsewhere. If the President is right in identifying terror financing as ISIS’s center of gravity, forcing Qatar out of its middle-man position may be a necessary step. It will be difficult given the sensitive position our alliance with Qatar plays in the war on terrorism. All the same, wars can only be won or lost. To win them, difficult but necessary things must be done.