Qatar-Gulf Conflict Puts U.S. In A Bind
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Two wealthy Arab neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are locked in a bitter feud. Both nations are key military allies. President Trump's administration, which touts its America-first policy, had been hesitant to get involved. But as NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre explains, we have much at stake.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Saudi Arabia cut air, sea and road links to punish Qatar, saying the tiny emirate aids and abets Muslim extremists. This blockade hasn't exactly inspired panic in Qatar's shiny, ultramodern capital, Doha. It has, however, inspired a cheeky Twitter feed called Doha Under Siege. Here's a sampling. The chocolate fountain at the Four Seasons Hotel has slowed to a drizzle. Ex-pats are stockpiling Perrier. Some joke of needing an escape yacht. But outside the capital, deep in the desert, the U.S. Air Force is still engaged in serious business.
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MYRE: American war planes like this B-1 bomber are taking off every day at Qatar's Al Udeid air base, the headquarters for the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State. Retired Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula led the buildup of U.S. operations in Qatar back in 2001.
DAVID DEPTULA: It was nothing more, really, than a big warehouse with a bunch of runways and some ramp to park airplanes. It looked very, very much different than it does today.
MYRE: Now it's massive. The 11,000 U.S. personnel there are roughly the same in number as Qatar's entire military. They need each other. The U.S. Air Force presence is an insurance policy for Qatar. And the U.S. now depends on its biggest Middle East airbase to strike in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. This is reason number one the U.S. wants to resolve the current dispute. It doesn't want instability that could threaten its base in Qatar.
Reason number two is the U.S. needs its Gulf Arab allies to work together in the battle against extremists. David Ottaway of the Woodrow Wilson Center says the dispute between the Saudis and the Qataris is, well, complicated.
DAVID OTTAWAY: Like everything in the Middle East (laughter) - full of contradiction.
MYRE: Like the Saudi accusation that Qatar is spreading extremism.
OTTAWAY: Well, there's certainly the ironies because Saudi Arabia has often been accused of spreading a very intolerant form of Islam.
MYRE: Here's another irony. The Americans use the Qatar air base to bomb the Taliban far away in Afghanistan. But just 20 miles from the air base, there's a political office for the Taliban. Qatar's foreign minister, Mohammad Al Thani, speaking in Washington this past week, says this is part of his country's open-door policy that welcomes most everyone.
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MOHAMMED AL THANI: When we are engaging with others and with different adversaries, it doesn't mean that we are endorsing their ideas or their ideologies.
MYRE: His Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir, also made the rounds in Washington but with a very different message.
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ADEL AL-JUBEIR: The point of it is there are people who are designated terrorists and terror financiers by the U.S. and by the U.N. and by us who are roaming freely in Qatar, raising money and sending it to bad guys. That has to stop.
MYRE: Both these American allies and others in the Gulf are looking for the U.S. to help broker a solution, which brings us to reason number three this dispute matters. It's a test of U.S. leadership. The Saudis and three Arab allies have placed 13 demands on Qatar. President Trump has spoken and tweeted in support of the Saudis.
Yet the State Department has criticized the Saudi blockade and its demands. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke with both sides this week. But there's no breakthrough in sight despite a Saudi deadline for Qatar to meet the demands by today. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "HOPOPONO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.