Why Qatar’s rise to Major Non-NATO Ally is not the best way forward
The Biden administration announced this week that it was naming Qatar as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA), making the small client the third government in the Persian Gulf to receive this designation after Bahrain and Kuwait.
The new status involves no U.S. defense obligations to Qatar, but it facilitates closer security cooperation and gives them greater access to U.S. weapons, research, and technology than other clients. Qatar proved itself useful to the U.S. in Afghanistan, especially during the evacuation from Kabul, and this designation appears to be their reward. The MNNA designation demonstrates that it has fully regained its position in Washington less than five years after Trump gave a green light to the Saudi-led blockade of the country.
Unfortunately, the upgrading of the relationship with Qatar also shows that the U.S. is further entangling itself in Middle Eastern affairs at a time when the region is decreasingly important for American interests. Taken together with the increasing support for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced by the Pentagon, including the additional deployment of jets and a warship, Biden is binding the U.S. military more closely to Middle Eastern clients instead of finding ways to reduce the U.S. military’s footprint there. Given limited resources and attention, deeper involvement in the Middle East is bound to come at the expense of focusing on more vital regions.
The turnaround in Qatar’s fortunes in Washington in recent years has been remarkable. In 2017, the Trump administration was initially content to let their neighbors try to starve them into submission after Saudi Arabia and the UAE convinced Trump that Qatar was a sponsor of terrorism. Presented with an absurd ultimatum that would have required them to give up an independent foreign policy and much of their sovereignty, Qatar proved resilient, relied on its considerable wealth, and strengthened ties with Iran and Turkey to ride out the worst effects of the blockade. Within a few years, Qatar’s lobbying operation matched and outcompeted that of the UAE and the Saudis. The blockade finally broke down when Saudi Arabia and Qatar restored relations last year.
On the positive side, Qatar has distinguished itself as practically the only regional client that has been helpful in getting the U.S. out of one of our wars rather than making our government the enablers of theirs. In the near term, a closer relationship with Qatar may have some benefits because its more independent foreign policy and better relations with Iran may allow it to act as an intermediary and facilitator in supporting diplomatic engagement with Tehran. It is also conceivable that Qatar could serve a similar role in establishing a working relationship with the Taliban in the interests of addressing Afghanistan’s severe humanitarian crisis. There is also an interest in securing Qatari supplies of liquefied natural gas for Europe in the event of escalation in Ukraine. However, insofar as the deepening of the relationship makes it harder to shrink the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, that could end up costing the U.S. much more over the longer term than it gains us.
Closer ties with clients in the Persian Gulf reflect the Biden administration’s strategic incoherence. Despite emphasizing the importance of East Asia and the “Indo-Pacific” to the U.S., the administration remains overcommitted to other regions and seems determined to increase commitments in both Europe and the Middle East. As Reuters reported, Biden “directed the Pentagon’s Austin to do everything he could to communicate the support of the United States for the UAE, Saudi Arabia and throughout the Gulf region.”
This is obviously not the language of burden-sharing. Biden has fallen into the same trap that snared Obama during his second term, where he indulged regional client states to counter hawkish attacks that he was “abandoning allies.” Indulging the clients didn’t stop the attacks and it didn’t even buy much goodwill from the clients, but it did implicate the U.S. as an enabler of a senseless war and a catastrophic humanitarian catastrophe.
Granting Qatar the MNNA designation isn’t going to score Biden any points with his hawkish detractors. Because of Qatar’s constructive relationship with Iran and its support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinian cause, Qatar has long been the target of criticism from “pro-Israel” hawks, who have been only too happy to amplify Saudi and UAE talking points about Qatar’s supposed villainy. There are already demands from some conservative think tanks that Biden should reverse the MNNA designation and impose a state sponsor of terrorism designation instead.
Because the UAE will be unhappy with Qatar’s new status on account of the long-running tensions between them, the Biden administration is evidently eager to “reassure” Abu Dhabi that the U.S. is supporting them more than ever. Secretary Austin said that the new military deployments to the UAE serve “as a clear signal that the U.S. stands with the UAE as a longstanding strategic partner.” While this deployment is being presented as purely defensive, it is being done in support of a government that continues to fuel the war on Yemen. Failing to extricate the U.S. from the war has now led to a growing American military presence in the region and an increased role in providing for the defense of a country that the U.S. is not obliged to defend.
The administration’s so-called “back to basics” approach to the region has meant more of the same failed policies that have kept the U.S. mired in conflict for decades. As the Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi recently observed, “If U.S. foreign policy is centered on ‘strengthening our partnerships and alliances,’ as [Brett] McGurk suggested, rather than U.S. interest rigorously defined, then not only will it manifest itself in regime changes in states that a threat to those partners, but it will also continue to entangle America in a variety of regional conflicts that are at most marginal to U.S. security.” The U.S. has often erred in the past by conflating the preferences and goals of its clients with U.S. interests and adopting their enemies as our own, and the Biden administration’s moves this week seem to be following the same pattern.
The main question that needs to be asked about all of these relationships is whether and how they advance U.S. security. There is a tendency in Washington to treat partnerships and client relationships as if they were ends in themselves rather than the means to U.S. ends that they are supposed to be. Throwing more weapons and support at Middle Eastern clients may keep those governments quiet for a time, but we know that military support for and arms sales to these states have a destabilizing effect over the longer term.
The Biden administration ought to be finding ways to scale back U.S. commitments and responsibilities in regions where the U.S. has so few compelling interests, but with Qatar’s MNNA designation and more military support for the UAE they are going in exactly the wrong direction.