Lobbying against the holy trinity

Lobbying against the holy trinity
America's Israel supporters have Qatar in their crosshairs for the emirate's support of Hamas in particular. US interests in Qatar, however, are too deeply entrenched to be affected much by any media blitz.
10 min read
16 December, 2014
US pro-Israel lobby's anti-Qatar media blitz ignores emirate's strategic centrality (Anadolu)

Near the end of 1982, then-President Ronald Reagan directed the US Joint Chiefs of Staff to establish a new military command for the Middle East to respond to the apparent growing Soviet threat to the region – including a possible Soviet invasion of Iran.

A number of influential senior US military commanders opposed Reagan’s initiative: the idea that the Soviets would invade Iran was ludicrous, they argued, and the creation of the new command would thin out American forces needed elsewhere.

But Reagan’s directive was preemptory and so, on January 1, 1983, then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger

     When Israel’s friends lobby against Qatar they are lobbying against ExxonMobil, the American military and US arms exporters.

announced the creation of the US Central Command encompassing twenty Middle Eastern countries.

Now retired General Joe Hoar, who would later head up the new command, remembers the controversy.

“There wasn’t a lot of support for the move,” he confirmed to me in a wide-ranging interview several years ago. “It was the middle of the Cold War and the US military was focused on Europe.” But Hoar, celebrated for his bluntness, added this: “You want to know why Reagan insisted that we set up Centcom? I can sum it up in two words, and the words are not ‘Soviet Union.’ The two words are ‘natural gas.’”

In 1981, Qatar brought two natural gas processing plants on line at Umm Said, and international oil companies began scrambling for the rights to export the resulting propane and butane – and to be in on the ground floor for developing Qatar’s North Field, with its 900 trillion cubic feet of potential gas reserves.

Among the companies involved was the Mobil Corporation (now ExxonMobil), the petroleum behemoth. Put simply, the oft-quoted phrase – that the business of America is business – found its truest expression in the Centcom decision. For if Mobil, and other companies, wanted to do business with Qatar, then ships bringing the natural gas to the US, Japan and Europe would need to be protected. And only the US navy could do that.

The business of America

In fact, Reagan’s decision now looks prescient. Since its establishment, Centcom has conducted ten separate military operations in the Gulf – from the 1987 reflagging of Kuwaiti oil tankers during the so-called “Tanker War” with Iran, to the recent US-led coalition’s offensive against the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS).

In between, the US Central Command has fought two separate conflicts in Iraq and one in Afghanistan – all of them coordinated with the help of America’s allies among the Gulf Cooperation Council, GCC, which had been established the year before Reagan’s decision on Centcom. But of the six GCC members (Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait), none is more important than Qatar.

The emirate is not only a major petroleum exporting nation (an essential key, with its neighbours, to continued economic growth among key US allies in Europe and Asia), it’s also the home of one of the largest US Air Force bases in the region, the location of the US Central Command’s forward operating headquarters in the Gulf, a recipient of nearly $5 billion in US exports and a host for the overseas branches of six major US universities.

“To the degree that Americans even talk about the Gulf, they think about Saudi Arabia,” a senior US Centcom officer says. “But when US policymakers talk about the Gulf, they talk about Qatar. For us, Qatar is the linchpin.”

Which is what makes Israel’s recent, and nearly unrelenting drumbeat of criticism of Qatar (culminating in a high profile and unrelenting diplomatic offensive during the Gaza war this past summer), so difficult to understand – and ironic.

When Ronald Reagan first talked about establishing a new military command for the Middle East, one of the reasons he gave was that the military needed to provide a regional force to protect Israel. It was also believed that the creation of Centcom might ease relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and perhaps lead to the export of Gulf petroleum (Israel was then an energy poor nation), to America’s leading regional ally.

For a short time, the Reagan administration even hoped that Israel could be included as one of the nations protected by Centcom – before deciding that US military aid to Gulf nations might run afoul of Israel’s powerful Washington lobby. Mixing arms sales to Arab nations with arms sales to Israel seemed to be inviting trouble, with arms exporters particularly concerned that the lobby might leverage its power in the Congress to block selected arms sales to Washington’s Gulf allies. Arab allies. And so it was that Centcom became an almost exclusively “Arab club.”

Surprisingly, in the early 1990s (just over ten years from Centcom’s founding), Israel and Qatar began to forge friendly, if warily distant, relations.

Wary relations

“Of all the nations of the GCC,” a respected and retired US diplomat says, “we [in the U.S.] always looked at friendly relations between Qatar and Israel as a kind of leading edge for better relations between Israel and the rest of the Arab world.”

Starting in 1996 Israel operated a trade office in Qatar and even when it was closed, in 2008, Qatari and Israeli business executives continued to meet privately in an effort to forge better relations.

Then too, relations between the two countries were punctuated by a series of high profile handshakes between Israeli and Qatari officials – between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani at the United Nations in 2000; between Qatar’s foreign affairs minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jasim and Israel’s Vice-Prime Minister Silvan Shalom in 2003; between former Israeli PM Shimon Peres and Qatari educators in March of 2007; and between Tzipi Livni and Sheikh Hamad in April of 2008.

But these openings were eventually undermined by Israel’s conflicts with Hizballah and Hamas – and Qatar’s continued financial and political support for those groups. Israel’s relations with Qatar first cooled in the wake of Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon when Hizballah's damaged infrastructure was repaired with an infusion of badly needed Qatari funds, then worsened in early 2009 – after Qatar criticized Israel for launching Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s first major military offensive against Hamas in Gaza.

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, described Israel’s 2008-2009 attack as a “flagrant, savage aggression against the Palestinian people”. Qatar then severed its unofficial ties with Israel, shuttered its trade office and summarily invited Israeli officials to leave the country.

Despite the harsh words, Qatar attempted to thaw relations with Israel in 2012, in the wake of Operation Pillar of Defense, the Israeli army’s second anti-Hamas offensive. In October of that year, Israel carefully looked the other way when Qatar’s Emir visited Gaza, in the apparent hope that the emirate could move Hamas away from its relationship with Iran.

Media blitz

But this prospective thaw did little to shift the views of Israel’s US supporters. In August of 2013, Jeremy Shapiro, a former Obama administration State Department official, penned a high-profile criticism of Qatar that appeared on the Foreign Policy website – entitled “The Qatar problem”.

“The tiny yet ambitious Gulf emirate has sought to use its immense hydrocarbon wealth to finance and arm civil wars in Libya and Syria, to support Hamas in Gaza, and to mediate disputes in Sudan and Lebanon,” Shapiro wrote.

Claiming that Qatar’s policies in the region had “actively and purposely” undermined US interests in the region, Shapiro suggested a rethinking of US-Qatari relations, saying – without any apparent sense of irony – that America “is being held hostage by the contrary agenda of a tiny country that the United States defends militarily. This is a massive failure of diplomacy.”

As it turned out, Shapiro’s article was the opening shot in an anti-Qatar media blitz that reached a crescendo in July of this year – in the midst of Israel’s third war on Hamas.

In late July, as Israel’s bombs were falling on Gaza, Israel castigated US Secretary of State John Kerry for working with Turkey and Qatar on a possible Hamas-Israel ceasefire, saying that he was giving the two nations “a prize for terrorism”.

Israel’s criticism inaugurated a three-month anti-Qatar offensive that has yet to be dampened. Israel’s claims against Kerry were repeated by the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin on July 28, while Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the US Treasury Department, took on Qatar in a prominent article in Foreign Policy on August 4. Under a headline that claimed that Turkey and Qatar were “proxies for terrorists”, Schanzer – who now serves as the Vice President for Research of a Washington, DC-based “Foundation for Defense of Democracies” – wrote that instead of brokering ceasefires, Turkey and Qatar should be “sitting alongside the terrorist group’s representatives, where they belong”.

But Shapiro and Schanzer’s high-profile attacks were nothing when compared to the one launched by Ron Proser, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Writing in the New York Times on 24 August, Proser labeled Qatar “a Club Med for terrorists”, saying that Hamas’s “tunnels and rockets might as well have had a sign that read ‘Made possible through a kind donation from the emir of Qatar.”

This was followed up on 9 September, when Shimon Peres (who was once seen in the company of Qataris) called on the international community to level sanctions against Turkey and Qatar “to punish them for financing terror.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Peres’s statement came on the same day that Qatar’s most vocal American critics, including FDD’s Schanzer, told Congress that the US should choke off support for the emirate by adopting policies that would “send shock waves through the Qatari financial system.”

No traction against the holy trinity

While the recent anti-Qatar campaign has the features of a sophisticated and coordinated initiative (its most prominent voices are steadfast supporters of Israel – and defenders of its most recent military operation in Gaza), what is surprising is how little traction it has actually received.

Or, perhaps, it isn’t surprising at all. “It’s noise,” a retired and prominent US army general who served in Centcom in Iraq told me several weeks ago. He shook his head and waved me away: “Why are you even paying attention?”

Noise? A currently serving and high ranking officer who travels regularly to Doha as a part of his Pentagon assignment, provides an explanation. “When Israel’s friends lobby against Qatar they are lobbying against ExxonMobil, against the American military and against US arms exporters. Qatar provides Americans with jobs, the US military with a forward base and arms exporters with profits. It’s like lobbying against the holy trinity.”

A large number of Israel’s supporters in the US understand this – though whether the message has gotten through to the Israeli government seems very much in doubt. “Is the US listening to Israel on Qatar? Almost certainly not,” Simon Henderson, an official with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told The Jewish Daily Forward in September.

Then too, as it turns out, a part of the anti-Qatar campaign is fueled by funds provided by the United Arab Emirates, as journalist Glenn Greenwald reported on 25 September. Writing in The Intercept, Greenwald chronicled how the UAE has paid “millions of dollars to a US lobbying firm – composed of former high-ranking Treasury officials from both parties – to plant anti-Qatar stories with American journalists.”

While it seems perverse to assume that many of Qatar’s most prominent critics need a monetary inducement to reinforce their views, the Greenwald expose spurred Foreign Policy (where the most high-profile anti-Qatar articles have appeared) to mention it in a wide ranging article on the Qatar controversy (“The Case Against Qatar”), penned by Elizabeth Dickinson – the assistant managing editor of Foreign Policy Magazine. Her parenthetical was a bow to Greenwald’s thesis: “Disclosure: Foreign Policy’s PeaceGame program, presented in conjunction with the US Institute of Peace, is underwritten in part by a grant from the UAE Embassy,” she noted. “All FP editorial content, however, is entirely independent.”

But perhaps more crucially, while many of Qatar’s American critics want the US to “punish” the emirate and “send shockwaves” through its financial system, they remain silent in demanding that Israel do the same. At the height of the recent war on Hamas, members of the Israeli Knesset demanded that their government end all trade with Qatar, which includes the export of Israeli computer equipment and medical instruments, and the import of Qatari-manufactured polymers. The trade between the two countries remains modest to be sure – which must be why the Israeli government has, at least so far, decided to maintain it.