July 26, 2017

Ilan Goldenberg before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Assessing the U.S.-Qatar Relationship

By Ilan Goldenberg

Chairman Ros-Lehtinen, Ranking Member Deutch, distinguished members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today on the U.S-Qatar relationship and the implications of the current divisions within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

On June 4, 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt announced they would cut ties with Qatar and take a number of steps against it; including cutting off access to airspace and borders and ejecting Qatari diplomats and citizens from these countries. Since then, the war of words has escalated on all sides. The United States has tried to play a role as a mediator, but thus far with little success. My objective with this testimony is not to recount the various moves and counter moves each side has made in the past few weeks, but instead to provide some context as to what created this situation, the implications for U.S. interests, and the potential way ahead.

Qatar is a complex American partner. On one hand, it has pursued a policy that has included building relations with a number of actors that the United States finds highly problematic, including extremist groups in Syria, the Taliban, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood. On the other, it is host to a critical U.S. airbase and its flexible approach to these actors has made it a useful connector when diplomacy inevitably requires negotiation and engagement with unsavory characters.

But whether one chooses to view Qatar positively or negatively, it is clear is that the intra-GCC split that has emerged in recent weeks has not been good for U.S. interests. Only two weeks after President Trump visited Riyadh to unify the Arab world behind the common objectives of countering extremism and pushing back on Iran, America’s Gulf allies have launched an internal feud that has largely distracted them and the United States. Meanwhile, this split has created new opportunities for Russia and Iran.

Going forward, the Trump administration should take a number of steps. First, it should settle on one consistent message and approach, as conflicting messages from the President and Secretary of State cause confusion and undermine the United States’ ability to mediate. Second, it should move away from viewing the Middle East through a purely black and white prism, as this approach focused so heavily on unifying and backing the Sunni Arab states that it failed to recognize the internal splits among them and inadvertently gave a green light to some U.S. Gulf partners to move ahead with these actions against Qatar. Third, as this crisis is not going to be solved anytime soon, the administration should settle in for the long haul and push all of the actors to start putting more of their energies back into the ISIS and Iran challenges. And fourth, it should encourage deescalation on all sides by at least getting U.S. partners to tone down their public rhetoric and maximalist public ultimatums and emphasize that while the U.S. is willing to play a constructive mediating role this is ultimately an intra-Arab disagreement that they will need to be at the forefront of solving.

The full testimony is available online.

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