WASHINGTON (CN) – With the Gulf crisis between Qatar and its neighbors simmering on a low boil, a House panel on Wednesday was told a lack of clarity from the White House is contributing to the tensions in the region.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been trying to mediate the conflict, but Ilan Goldenberg with Center for a New American Century told the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa on Wednesday Tillerson’s efforts are being complicated by mixed messages coming from Washington.
The subcommittee called the hearing to assess the U.S.-Qatar relationship. Goldenberg said going forward, the U.S. needs one clear, unified message. While Tillerson was busy trying to deescalate the crisis in early June, Trump made several public statements pointing the finger at Qatar for allegedly financing terrorism.
“The president cannot publicly criticize Qatar while the secretary of state simultaneously assumes the posture of an objective mediator,” he told the subcommittee. “This simply undercuts any efforts at diplomacy, as all the players are confused about U.S. policy and choose to hear what is most in their interests.”
Underscoring the confusion, Goldenberg said Qatar engages the State Department and Pentagon, while the Saudis and Emiratis turn to the White House.
While not blaming the Trump administration for the crisis, Goldenberg pointed to Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May as a turning point that brought underlying tensions to the surface.
“These countries walked out of Riyadh believing that they had a blank check from the president and that he would support them no matter what,” Goldenberg said.
Jonathan Schanzer, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the committee the White House should apply more muscle in negotiations, perhaps going so far as considering moving the U.S. airbase from Qatar to one of its neighbors.
Even threatening to move the base could persuade Qatar to crack down on terror financing, he said.
Qatar has hosted al-Udeid, the most significant American airbase in the region, since 2003, and more than 15,000 U.S. missions are conducted from it each year.
U.S. Central Command’s Combined Air Operation Center is located there, as is its forward headquarters. It is one of the primary bases from which the U.S. carries out airstrikes in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although the U.S. signed a 10-year defense cooperation agreement with Doha in 2013, the U.S. should not be bound by it, Schanzer said.
“It is incumbent upon Washington to assess whether there are opportunities to operate out of regional countries more aligned with American goals and values,” he said.
Schanzer went on to cite precedent for moving the airbase, noting that the U.S. military assets now located at al-Udeid were moved from the Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia in 2003.
Discomforted by the presence of American troops in the country, the Saudis had refused to allow the U.S. to conduct airstrikes from the base following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
“Just as the United States started building a backup CAOC in Qatar when its access to Saudi territory was becoming more tenuous, now would be the right time to begin thinking about a similar move,” Schanzer said, using the acronym for the Combined Air and Space Operations Center.
“At the very least, it would give the U.S. sufficient latitude to get tougher on Doha when it misbehaves,” he added.
The base could be moved to the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain or even to Irbil, a Kurdish region in Iraq, he said.
The conflict between Doha and its Gulf neighbors has been brewing for years, intensifying with the emergence of the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011. Among the most significant disagreements between Qatar and its neighbors is its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar had given $8 billion to the democratically-elected government of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who ruled for a year until current Egyptian President Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood and instigated a broad crackdown against the group.
The other Gulf states, meanwhile, had supported el-Sisi and view the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to regional stability.
On June 4, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates imposed a diplomatic and trade boycott on Qatar, which has focused on Qatar’s financial support for extremist groups.
The Qatari embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment on the crisis, but Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani has publicly denied the allegations and says Qatar is being punished for forging a foreign policy independent of Saudi Arabia.
While Goldenberg did not endorse the legitimacy of the extremist groups Qatar has been accused of supporting, he encouraged the administration to stop viewing Middle East through a black and white lens.
He said Qatar has at times been a useful partner to the U.S. for its willingness to host groups the U.S. finds problematic. That includes the Taliban and the Palestinian political party Hamas, which the U.S. designates as a terror group.
Qatar has hosted peace talks with the Taliban, which has helped in U.S. efforts to negotiate an end to the war in Afghanistan.
“From Libya, to Sudan, to Lebanon, Qatar’s willingness to host various groups and take all sides has made Doha a useful location for holding peace talks and trying to reach agreements to end various regional conflicts,” Goldenberg said.
But He warned that the administration should buckle up for a long ride.
“All parties have taken public and uncompromising positions, which means resolution anytime in the near future is unlikely,” Goldenberg said.
That will require quiet diplomatic work behind the scenes, and encouraging all parties to tone down their public rhetoric.
The U.S. should also use the crisis as an opportunity to set a level bar for all Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC countries, to stop financing extremist groups.
“Qatar may have been slower than some of the other GCC partners to address terror financing challenges, but the reality is that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in particular still have huge challenges,” he said. “The United States should use this crisis to press all of them to clean up their acts.”