A Way Out of the Qatar Mess

The New York Times Editorial Board

The dangerous dispute between Qatar and other Arab gulf states, chiefly Saudi Arabia, has gone on for three weeks, diverting attention from fighting the Islamic State and other serious challenges. It shows little sign of resolution. The Saudis and the United Arab Emirates provoked the row by breaking diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposing an effective embargo, ostensibly because of Qatar’s coddling of terrorists and other issues.

Senator Bob Corker now suggests a way to end the impasse and force some sort of reconciliation: halt arms sales throughout the region. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Corker, a Tennessee Republican, must give preliminary approval to major arms sales, along with the panel’s senior Democrat, Senator Ben Cardin, and the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday, Mr. Corker said that recent disputes among the gulf states “only serve to hurt efforts to fight ISIS and counter Iran.” Future arms sales approvals would thus be held up until he receives “a better understanding of the path to resolve the current dispute and reunify” the regional group, the Gulf Cooperation Council.

This would give Mr. Tillerson a new tool for resolving the crisis, though the impact may not be immediate. The Trump administration is already moving forward with a plan to send $510 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia for use in the Yemen civil war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and with a $12 billion deal for Qatar to buy F-15 jets. But the Saudis and the emirates might eventually come looking for more weapons to prosecute that war, at which point the United States should say no. The war is a humanitarian catastrophe that urgently needs a political settlement.

President Trump himself is also partly responsible for the mess, having encouraged the Saudis by siding against Qatar when the embargo was declared early this month, even taking credit for the decision. He appeared unconcerned by the fact that Qatar hosts two American military bases crucial to the anti-ISIS effort. And he later added fuel to the conflict by accusing Qatar of funding terrorism at a “very high level” soon after Mr. Tillerson called for calm.

The Saudis and the emirates might have tried to work out their differences with Qatar instead of acting unilaterally and only later outlining what steps could be taken to get the embargo lifted. The demands they finally made public on Friday were obviously intended to humiliate Qatar rather than to serve as the basis for negotiations. Among them were that Qatar shut down the news network Al Jazeera, abandon ties with Islamist organizations, provide details about funding for political dissidents and close a Turkish military base.

There is no question that Qatar needs to crack down harder on extremists and terrorist financing. But so do Saudi Arabia, the emirates and other gulf states, whose anger may have less to do with terrorism than with Qatar’s ties to Iran — Saudi Arabia’s main rival.

Mr. Tillerson, who has close relationships in the region from his days as chief executive at ExxonMobil, has tried to mediate the dispute with little success. On Tuesday, he held separate meetings with the foreign ministers of Qatar and Kuwait. Afterward, there were hints Qatar had agreed with the Americans on tougher antiterrorism efforts, including embedding United States Treasury officials in its central bank to pursue terrorist financiers. But the Saudi foreign minister signaled a tough line, saying his country’s demands were not negotiable. Nothing good can come of this dispute if it is allowed to persist.

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