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The US counts on Qatar to look out for its interests in the Middle East

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Out of the shambles of Afghanistan, it is imperative that America quickly reassemble working regional policy for the Middle East, the graveyard of a generation’s worth of U.S. presidencies. In doing so, it is time to think anew — and creatively — about policies that actually suit broader American national interests. The days of U.S. foreign policy amounting to a moralistic John Ford movie — with the world clearly drawn up into a list of “good guys” and “bad guys” — is as obsolete as the neo-conservative (on the right) and Wilsonian (on the left) thinking that led us into disaster in the first place. A pragmatic policy protecting vital American interests and allies is needed instead. 

This will be psychologically difficult because Americans, in general, are not comfortable with ambiguity. We tend to see the world in black and white: “You’re either with us or against us,” in the words of President George W. Bush. Unfortunately, the complexities of the Middle East do not allow for such fairy tale simplicity. U.S. interests are far better served by looking at most countries along a continuum; that is, despite not being entirely in line with every U.S. desire — and frankly, which country is? — many of them generally have views that coincide with American national interests. This is a far better and more accurate way, given the actual state of the world, for U.S. policy to proceed in the Middle East.

All of this is why a recent speech by one of the region’s leaders is so remarkable. In his inaugural address to the nation’s first democratically elected legislature on Oct. 26, Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, presented a compelling rationale for a nuanced foreign policy that eschews conflict in favor of principled mediation. At a time when much of the world sees international affairs as a zero-sum proposition — any gain by an opponent must necessarily come at a cost to me — Qatar has articulated an alternative paradigm that makes increasingly good sense, both from its own point of view and in terms of this newfound gauge of U.S. interests.   

The emir spoke of a “a foreign policy … commensurate with Qatar’s size, geographical location and wealth” — 300,000 citizens with the world’s highest per capita income inhabiting a country smaller than Connecticut, squeezed between great regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. For these practical reasons, he said, “We do not seek to compete with or emulate anyone, but rather to carve out our own niche” through an “adherence to dialogue as an alternative to wars and the option of mediation in resolving conflicts.”  

Pointing to the example of Qatar’s seminal role in the Afghanistan negotiations, the emir sought to position Qatar as “a hub for dialogue and peaceful resolution of disputes” in the future. In other words, the emir is aiming to make Qatar the Switzerland of the Middle East, a convening forum that talks to everyone, as — given its size and geopolitical position — stability in the region must always be the country’s primary concern.

Qatar’s detractors routinely castigate the Gulf emirate for “playing all sides of the field” — maintaining ties with international pariahs such as the Taliban, Hamas, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood while also courting legitimate state actors. Such criticism ignores basic facts, the most important of which is that the United States not only finds it useful but actually encourages Qatar’s role as a trusted diplomatic intermediary. And we do so because this unique “niche” produces positive results for the United States. 

In Afghanistan, according to former Rep. Scott Taylor (R-Va.), a former Navy SEAL, Qatar “saved our butts” by spearheading the evacuation of 124,000 Americans, Afghans and other third-country nationals. America’s Kabul embassy has relocated to Doha, which allows us to conduct “over the horizon” counter-terror operations and to manage one of our most daunting foreign policy challenges. 

With U.S. and Israeli encouragement, Qatari largesse and influence have kept the people of Gaza fed and helped contain conflict in one of the region’s most explosive hot spots. While not all conflicts lend themselves to reasoned mediation, having a capable and willing intermediary such as Qatar has proven to be a viable alternative — one that ought to be given precedence in the wake of the recent “shoot first, ask questions later” U.S. action in the region.

Maintaining open lines of communication with adversaries such as Hamas and the Taliban troubles some foreign policy hardliners, for whom this delicate balancing act raises doubts about Qatar’s loyalty and dependability, notwithstanding the fact that it hosts one of America’s largest air bases outside the United States at al Udeid. The Qatari foreign minister sought to put such fears to rest when he recently told Brett Baier of Fox News: “This partnership between Qatar and the United States is … for us the most important … strategic relationship that we have with any other country in the world.”

So, in a very real sense, Qatar already has chosen sides, and it has elected to exercise its power in ways that rather uniquely serve the interests of our bilateral partnership. Time and again, Qatar has demonstrated its value to the United States as an ally by rejecting binary approaches to produce favorable — or at least less harmful — outcomes. They consistently have used their channels to our adversaries in the service of mutually agreed upon goals, which is why Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated recently in Doha: “The strongest relationship that … we and Qatar have built is going to pay continued dividends … in the months and years ahead.”

As the U.S. looks at Middle East regional policy anew, through the more grown-up realist prism of viewing nations in a less all-or-nothing manner, it will be important to see that the U.S.-Qatari relationship already has served the United States — and as we seek to more adroitly defend our interests and manage conflict in one of the world’s most challenging regions, we surely will need to make use of Qatar’s good offices in the future.  

Dr. John C. Hulsman is president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political-risk consulting firm headquartered in Milan, Germany and London. A life member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, Hulsman is a contributing editor for Aspenia, the flagship foreign policy journal of The Aspen Institute, Italy. Follow him on Twitter @JohnHulsman1

Tags Antony Blinken Foreign relations of Qatar Gulf Arab states Middle East Qatar Scott Taylor Tamim bin Hamad al Thani

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