America’s 18-year war on terrorism just got complicated—or, perhaps, it just got more complicated. At the center of the complication is the tiny state of Qatar, the Persian Gulf emirate that hosts the sprawling al-Udeid Air Base, U.S. Central Command’s forward headquarters for the region and home of the Air Force’s 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, America’s most vital overseas air command.
The American military is dependent on Qatar. Without al-Udeid, the U.S. would have to build a new forward listening post on Iran, relocate Centcom’s forward operating headquarters, and find a different airbase from which to wage its military campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. America has spent billions building and maintaining al-Udeid, and so has Qatar.
“Al-Udeid isn’t some rural airstrip with a windsock,” an official who tracks the Air Force’s senior leadership told me last week. “It is the only place in the Persian Gulf where you can park a B-52.” Yet while Qatar is a blessing for the U.S. military, it’s a problem for the U.S. government.
The challenge for Washington is that while Qatar hosts al-Udeid, it’s also friendly with the Gaza-based Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), is close to the Hezbollah’s leadership (it helped rebuild South Lebanon in the wake of Israel’s war there), supports the region’s Muslim Brotherhood organizations, hosts a delegation of Taliban officials at one of its five-star hotels—and has cozy relations with Iran. Indeed, if Qatar didn’t host America’s largest air base in the Middle East, it would be under pressure from the U.S. to cease much of this behavior. That hasn’t happened, despite the unrelenting efforts of its neighbors and Israel’s friends in Washington.
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and a host of other Arab states broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar, imposed an economic blockade, and launched an intense lobbying campaign in Washington to undermine U.S.-Qatari relations. The effort was led by Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and best buddy to Jared Kushner. The diplomatic dust-up took the U.S. by surprise, forcing then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson into a round of mediation efforts. Tillerson didn’t succeed: Saudi Arabia and its allies not only maintained their blockade, they doubled down on their anti-Qatar lobbying efforts in the United States.
Near the top of the Saudi and UAE anti-Qatar agenda was convincing the U.S. to relocate al-Udeid. This effort was aided by a constellation of Washington hawks as well as a powerful group of pro-Israel advocates, who served as not-so-silent partners in the Saudi enterprise. Among these was the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, whose senior vice president, Jonathan Schanzer, has waged a veritable one-man crusade to force the U.S. to abandon its Qatar base. (Mr. Schanzer did not respond to telephone inquiries seeking comment.) In July 2017, Schanzer told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Qatar has “an alternate view of reality and morality,” and went on to provide four new basing options in the region—Iraqi Kurdistan, Bahrain, the UAE, and Jordan.
“It’s just a lot of noise,” a Centcom officer told this writer of the FDD’s efforts at the time. “Just ignore it.” That may be, but the “noise” over al-Udeid intensified throughout all of 2018 and into this year. In mid-April, the pressure on Qatar over al-Udeid became so intense that a high-level delegation from Qatar visited Washington for economic meetings and to assess the anti-Udeid campaign. The economic meetings weren’t a secret, but the al-Udeid assessment was. “Don’t wave this off,” a senior consultant to the Qatari leadership said at the time. “The Saudis are pressuring the U.S. on al-Udeid and the White House is listening. And, you know, they’ve got friends here who are welcome in the Oval Office. It’s a real worry.”
But that worry, it seems, was misplaced. During their consultations, the Qatari delegation was reassured that the U.S. was in al-Udeid to stay. And for good reason: in January 2018, Qatar agreed to expand al-Udeid’s basing resources, and then, the next January, signed an agreement that included an upgrade of its services at Hamad Port for use by the U.S. Navy. The April consultations confirmed the commitment.
“There is a lot of building going on at al-Udeid and its impressive: new facilities, a new gymnasium for American troops, and an upgrade of a lot of the infrastructure,” the Congressional Research Service’s Kenneth Katzman, one of America’s foremost experts on the Middle East, told TAC. “I don’t see any hint whatsoever that the U.S. is rethinking its military-to-military relationship with Doha. And there are no plans to move al-Udeid. None. Zero.”
In fact, as a retired Centcom officer noted, the Qatari delegation was told that while the U.S. military had investigated other basing options, no one could match Qatar’s commitment. “The Emiratis made an offer,” the officer said, “but compared to the Qataris, it was pathetic. Not even close.” The U.S.-Qatar Defense Cooperation Agreement, this officer said, “is as close to a sweetheart deal as you can get.”
Retired General Anthony Zinni, a former Centcom commander brought on by the State Department to mediate the Saudi-Qatar dispute (he has since left that position), agrees: “I am not totally in the loop on this,” he told me, “but moving our base out of Qatar just doesn’t make sense.”
In fact, not only is relocating al-Udeid out of the question, since the start of the anti-Qatar campaign U.S.-Qatari military cooperation has actually increased. “I don’t think the relationship between Qatar and the U.S. has ever been better, and that includes military-to-military coordination,” Dr. John Duke Anthony, the head of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, says. “The U.S.-Qatar relationship is deeply rooted and based on trust. I know there’s been an effort to get the U.S. to abandon al-Udeid, but I would say that that effort has failed.”
Also having failed is the Saudi and UAE effort to isolate Qatar—and starve it into submission.
“I think we have to be clear-eyed about the consequences of the Saudi-led blockade,” Katzman says. “The Qataris were forced to import food to ease the blockade, with the result that a lot of it now comes from Iran. And Qatar was forced to shift many of its airline routes, to keep them out of Saudi and Emirati airspace. The Iranians were happy to help. I think it’s clear: the blockade may have actually deepened relations between Doha and Tehran.”
For some, those enhanced relations provide a told-ya-so moment (as in “see, we told ya they were in the pockets of the mullahs”). But for others, Qatar’s friendship with Iran could well make the difference between war and peace.
The truth of this was obvious last week when, in the midst of escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin al-Thani arrived in Tehran for talks aimed at dampening the crisis. While we don’t what al-Thani said, senior U.S. Air Force officers have long argued that America’s forward deterrence strategy in the Persian Gulf looks like “forward provocation” to the Iranians. They say too that the Trump administration’s decision to send additional bombers to al-Udeid and another aircraft carrier battle group to the Persian Gulf will be perceived in Iran as preparation for war.
It’s likely, as this writer has been told by senior Pentagon officers, that al-Thani brought just the opposite message: that the new deployments are not a preparation for war, but an attempt to prevent it. Al-Thani, senior Pentagon officials say, continued these efforts into this weekend. The question is: will he be believed?
“He’s one of the best, a top-notch diplomat. I wish he was ours,” John Duke Anthony told me. “It might be that the Iranians were a little miffed to see him, as he’s not the representative of a great power, but they know he has close relations with the U.S. and influence in Washington. That matters.”
This seems more than notionally true. Qatar matters. It’s the mouse that roared—the Qataris, not the Saudis or Emiratis, have become America’s most important ally in the Persian Gulf. But Qatar’s outsize influence has failed to check Washington’s anti-Qatar warriors, who continue to beat the drums over the tiny country’s ties to the region’s “extremists” –and continue to call for the U.S. to abandon al-Udeid. Most recently, FDD hosted newly minted Centcom commander Marine General Kenneth MacKenzie, Jr. at a forum inaugurating their new “Center on Military and Political Power”—which is headed up by retired General H.R. McMaster, Donald Trump’s former national security advisor and the FDD’s newest and most prominent hire.
MacKenzie’s appearance at the forum shocked a number of his fellow officers, as it seemed to signal that the Centcom head agreed with the FDD’s anti-Iran and anti-Qatar crusade. (Centcom spokespersons did not respond to inquiries on MacKenzie’s appearance.) But others dismissed the criticism, including a retired senior officer who knows MacKenzie and served with him. “Oh, come on, this doesn’t mean anything,” this retired officer said. “MacKenzie did this for H.R., as a personal favor. The people who think we should move al-Udeid just don’t get it. The Iranians would jump for joy. These anti-Qatar people are idiots. MacKenzie’s not.”