Donald Trump’s decision to pick sides in a Middle Eastern religious squabble is making a bad situation worse

No easy Sheikhs.
No easy Sheikhs.
Image: AP Photo/Evan Vucci
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Qatar is facing day nine of a diplomatic embargo from its closest neighbors. The US ambassador has resigned. The Turks are sending in “military experts.” And the country is in a stand-off with neighbors like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain that is threatening the fight against ISIL and the broader norms that ensure security around the world.

Worst of all? It looks like the man who catalyzed this mess doesn’t get the dynamic he’s unleashed. Last week, after his Secretary of State and local ambassador attempted to play down Washington’s role in the diplomatic embargo, president Donald Trump took credit for the move on Twitter. His enthusiasm apparently hasn’t waned.

Speaking to reporters on June 12, Trump said his visit to the Middle East—where his enthusiastic embrace of Saudi Arabia is seen as a key factor in emboldening their confrontation with Qatar—would help the Saudis promote “stability and security in that region.”

“One of the big things that we did, and you are seeing it now in Qatar and all of the things that are actually going on in a very positive fashion, we are stopping the funding of terrorism,” Trump said. “We are going to stop the funding of terrorism. It’s not an easy fight but that is a fight that we are going to win. We are going to starve the beast.”

There’s only one key problem: Qatar, while a prominent source of illicit funds to Islamist extremist groups, is hardly the only financier of terror. And backing the Saudi-led effort ostracize the country isn’t likely to end with terrorists staring at empty bank accounts.

As the US State Department noted in a 2015 report, “some individuals and entities in Saudi Arabia continued to serve as sources of financial support for Sunni-based extremist groups, particularly regional al-Qa’ida affiliates such as the Nusrah Front. While the Kingdom has tightened banking and charity regulations, and stiffened penalties for financing terrorism, funds are allegedly collected in secret and illicitly transferred out of the country in cash, often via pilgrims performing Hajj and Umrah.”

Meanwhile Kuwait, another country considered a “permissive jurisdiction” by the US because it hosts ISIL funders, is sitting uneasily off to the side of the current conflict. It’s fairly clear that this sudden breakdown in relations isn’t about where extremists make money. Qatar was, after all, part of the anti-terror financing coalition Trump and company inaugurated with their infamous mutual orb squeeze.

Instead, the blockade is better understood as part of a regional power rivalry playing out between the Middle East’s traditional Sunni powers and Iran, the home of Shia Islam. (This conflict is distressingly literal in the proxy wars taking place in Syria and Iraq between a shifting coalition of proxies.)

Qatar, a tiny country with massively valuable petroleum resources, is guilty of realpolitik—trying to play all sides of this complicated geopolitical dance. As some of its citizens fund Sunni terror groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda, Qatar has also tolerated Islamist political movements like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The state also attempts to maintain positive relations with Iran, hosts a US military base, and allows Al Jazeera, its rambunctious, state-owned media outlet, to zing neighboring governments for their hypocrisy.

This kind of pragmatism is advantageous to the US in several ways. Besides providing a key staging point for military actions against ISIL, Qatar is a useful back-channel interlocutor in attempts to recover hostages or negotiate ceasefires. (David Bradley, the owner of Quartz, worked with Qatari officials during efforts to secure the release of five American hostages held by extremists in Syria.) But Qatar’s independence from other gulf powers—and particularly its tolerance of Islamist groups that catalyze democratic opposition to regimes in Cairo and Riyadh—has angered more hardline Gulf nations.

And that makes the Trump administration’s decision to allow Qatar to become isolated strange, especially since top national security advisers have already articulated an explicitly interest-based approach to statecraft. By under-cutting the expectations of states like Qatar, the US is sending a worrying message to other states like Singapore or South Korea who host US military forces expecting an implicit guarantee of diplomatic backing.

Indeed, the biggest winners from this Gulf squabble appear to be Russia and Iran, who gain a freer hand in Syria while the ad hoc US coalition against ISIL squabbles among itself.

And so at a time when US officials have promised to stop playing global favorites, and when an honest broker in the Middle East is needed now more than ever, the US has instead decided to side with one terrorist-financing autocracy over another.