Much coverage has been given to President Trump’s insistence that NATO allies pay up and make good their long neglected commitments to fund their own defense, and to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders distress at having been called out. A similar calling to account of America’s middle east allies seems to be in the offing.
A major conference held last week in Washington, D.C. seemed to signal a willingness to change the U.S. relationship with Qatar.
Qatar is a tiny petro-state with 300,000 Qataris — many from the same extended family — and a population of slightly over 2 million guest workers. A recent heavy investor in D.C. real estate, Qatar financed the City Center residential complex on the site of the old D.C. convention center, where Senator Claire McCaskill and former Attorney General Eric Holder purchased multi-million dollar condos, and where Kelly Anne Conway leased an apartment, while house shopping for a permanent residence. Yet most Americans barely know anything about Qatar – though the country and its wealthy, globe trotting, and politically active ruling class where the subject a couple of weeks ago of an episode of HBO’s Veep, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character, former first female President Selina Meyer, having an affair with (and seeking funding for her foundation) from a wealthy Qatari.
Sponsored by the Hudson Institute and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy, the invitation-only conference was heavily attended by officials from the Trump administration.
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and other speakers noted that the U.S. could consider relocating its forces from the Al-Udeid Airbase in Qatar if the tiny emirate fails to keep its promises to end its financing of terrorism. The fate of Al-Udeid seemed to linger in the air throughout the conference. The United States has no irreplaceable bases, Secretary Gates made clear.
What was intriguing about the event was the bipartistan agreement of both Democrats and Republicans portraying Qatar as a duplicitous ally. Not quite Pakistan, but something close. And unlike Pakistan there are no nuclear weapons complicating the relationship. Ambassador Husain Haqqani, a former ambassador of Pakistan to the U.S., pointed out that the United States struggles diplomatically when dealing with countries where one part of the relationship is good and another part of the relationship is difficult.
Jake Sullivan, who resigned his position in the Obama administration to take the role of national security adviser to the Clinton Campaign was one of several Democrats to speak. Sullivan expressed genuine concern about Qatar’s behavior though his criticisms were more nuanced. Similarly Mary Beth Long, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, noted that Qatar needs to do more to work on terrorism. Long added a positive spin to her comments when she said that three of the last five individuals tied to terrorism financing in Qatar had been prosecuted. But under questioning she conceded that several of those convicted were only given house arrest.
House arrest for funding terror attacks on American soldiers, civilians, and our allies? As President Trump pointed out in Riyadh at least 95% of all victims of terrorism are Muslims.
By contrast consider the case of Mohammed al-Ajami. A Qatari poet who was arrested in 2011 on state security charges. At the time the Cairo University literature student was an obscure writer. He was charged with violating state security with a political poem he had written. Al-Ajami was charged with insulting Qatar’s monarch – a crime that remains punishable in Qatar by death. He was given a life sentence and served nearly four years in prison before his release in March 2016. At least five months of his imprisonment were in solitary confinement.
If only Qatar was that tough on its terrorism financers.
Congressman Edward Royce (R-California) is preparing to introduce a bipartisan piece of legislation which will call out Qatar as a state-sponsor of terror due to its support for Hamas and other groups. So far he has 11 Congressmen and women from both parties ready to co-sponsor.
If it passes the hope is that in a future Qatar it won’t just be poets behind bars in Doha.