Intra-GCC Rift Redux

Monday, June 5 marked the official re-ignition of the intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rift, centered once again on Qatari transgressions against the security of its neighbors. In fact, this time, unlike the spat from three years ago, the rift goes beyond GCC members Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, to include Egypt, Yemen, and even reportedly the Maldives—all of which announced they were cutting diplomatic ties and preventing travel (by land, air, and sea in varying degrees) to Qatar.

On what basis? Is it as some say that Saudi Arabia was emboldened by President’s Trump’s visit? Is it because of last week’s drama in which Qatar’s state-run news agency published comments by Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani praising Iran, criticizing Saudi Arabia, referencing good relations with Israel, and criticizing the Trump administration—a story that was quickly removed, refuted, and blamed on hacking? Or is it simply that Qatar violated its Saudi-imposed probationary period by once again providing material support to the Muslim Brotherhood, to the Houthis, and through indirect channels, to al-Qaeda and ISIS; and by using its media empire to defame and agitate against its neighbors. The answer is likely some combination of all of the above.

Qatar was engaged in all of these same activities in the wake of the Arab Uprisings and it was only through strong Saudi coercion, and not a little bit of American coaxing, that Qatar receded from the public stage and tamped down on its “subversive behavior.” Regional observers are unsurprised by this recent turn of events. It is no secret that Qatari loyalties have long lied with the Islamists of the region and that the Al-Thanis have long bridled under the Saudi yoke, but engaging in and funding activities that blatantly destabilize the region in an era when competition with the Iranians is at an all-time high seems to have been inviting disaster on Doha’s head.

Just from a practical standpoint, closing Qatar off in varying degrees by land, air, and sea will have ripple effects that will be felt in every corner of this small Gulf sheikhdom. For example, 40 percent of Qatar’s food supply arrives in the country via land transport from Saudi Arabia. There have already been reports of runs on supermarkets and ATMs. Qatar’s stock market index sank 7.5 percent thus far, and the cancellation of flights just from within the Gulf will have serious financial implications. And of course, there is also the related financial fall-out from interrupting the 2022 World Cup preparation timeline.

The Americans are not likely to be as involved in rapprochement efforts this time around. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson commented on the development saying, “We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences, and we – if there’s any role that we can play in terms of helping them address those, we think it is important that the GCC remain unified.” However, crafted diplomatic statements aside, observers of the region don’t see the Trump administration doing much beyond encouraging the Saudis to get their regional ducks in a row, so to speak. In fact, just hours ago, President Trump patted the Saudis on the back for their tough stance against Qatar writing:

With comments like this one from the U.S. Commander-in-Chief, one wonders if American basing arrangements in Qatar are going to be rethought in the near future.

For its part, Qatar is blaming this current rift on a terrible misunderstanding stemming from the news agency “hack.” Accordingly, the Qatari foreign ministry said in its statement yesterday, “The campaign of incitement is based on lies that had reached the level of complete fabrications.” This attempt to underplay and divert attention away from this negative press is par for the course, and anyone who is expecting a public mea culpa may be waiting for a long time.

Three years ago when Qatar fell out with its Gulf neighbors, the most extreme public diplomatic stick was the recalling of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors. This time around, the situation is much more serious and will be much more difficult to resolve. In some sense, the Saudis and others are likely to abide by the “Fool me once, shame on you…” proverb. What’s more, the consequences of the ongoing proxy war with Iran and the chaos wrought by ISIS are known factors this time around. Leniency will no longer prevail—especially with Mohammad bin Salman holding the Saudi reins and Donald Trump in the White House. Qatar may be one of the richest countries in the world, but it’s not likely to buy its way out of this pickle.

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Comments on Iraq: Where Do We Go From Here?

On May 18, 2017, FPRI hosted a Main Line Briefing on Iraq: Where Do We Go From Here. The discussion by Denise Natali and Nada Bakos, and moderated by Samuel Helfont, provided an outstanding overview of the challenges facing Iraq after ISIS ceases to be a “state.” However, possibly because of the time constraint, the panelists were unable to discuss two issues in greater depth.

First, both panelists made it clear that the U.S. was not interested in nation building—that the days of the neoconservatives attempting to build Iraq into a reasonably peaceful, reasonably democratic, reasonably prosperous U.S. ally in the Middle East were over. This pronouncement led to an audience question that if the U.S. was not interested in building a new Iraq, then why are we engaged at all? Of course, there are many policy options besides full engagement in Iraq and abandonment. But three options might illustrate the choices.

Full engagement (aka nation building): The U.S. and its allies provide substantial ground forces to defeat ISIS and other insurgent groups as well as help to maintain Iraq’s political and geographic integrity. The U.S. government provides the current Iraqi government with substantial political and diplomatic support. And the U.S. and its allies commit to providing the massive financial support necessary for the reconstruction of post-ISIS Iraq.

Essential interests: The U.S. limits itself to certain essential regional interests. These might include three commitments. First, the U.S. 5th Fleet will keep the Persian Gulf open to peaceful transit. Second, Israel’s security will be guaranteed. Finally, because of the threat of terrorism to the West, the U.S. and its allies will support the anti-ISIS effort with intelligence, communications, training, and special operations forces, but not substantial ground forces. Beyond defending these essential interests, the U.S. disengages from Iraq and the region.

Walk away: In a world where North America is almost energy independent and there is an expectation that oil prices will remain at $60 a barrel or less for the next decade, the U.S. doesn’t “need” Iraq or the rest of the Middle East. Since they still need ME oil, let Asia and Europe deal with its problems.  

Bakos and Natali favored a version of the second option, Essential Interests (listen to conversation beginning at about minute 35:19). In other words, the days of Bush-era full engagement nation building were over. But this raises the question of whether nation building was abandoned because it was impossible or whether the benefit of a democratic and prosperous Iraq who is a strong ally of the U.S. was perceived to be greater than the costs? An argument can be made that by 2008, after a great expenditure of Iraqi and U.S. blood and treasure, Iraq had made substantial progress towards a peaceful democratic future. I was in Baghdad in 2008 and 2009 and was surprised at the changes from three years before. Violence was down sharply, Sunnis and Shi’a were working together to pass legislation in the Council of Representatives, and there was a strong business revival led by the construction industry. However, political, security, and economic progress was stalled by bad policy decisions made by President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki.

Disregarding the progress that had been made, Obama kept his campaign promise of withdrawing all U.S. forces. This premature withdrawal greatly weakened Iraqi security forces and was justified by the failure to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Natali mentioned this lack of a SOFA (39:55) as a reason that future U.S. involvement in Iraq must be limited. However, the lack of a SOFA didn’t prevent Obama from sending hundreds of U.S. troops back to Iraq to aid in the fight against ISIS near the end of his second term, nor did it prevent President Trump from increasing these numbers to over 5,000. Is the failure to agree on a SOFA the true cause of the U.S. withdrawal or just an excuse? Maliki also contributed to the reversal of security progress. He broke his public promises to provide army or police jobs to young Sunnis who had fought al-Qaeda. In addition, he replaced combat tested commanders with persons distinguished only by their personal loyalty to Maliki and their corruption. Just like the cliché, Obama and Maliki snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Second, even if nation building on the scale of post WWII Germany and Japan is possible in Iraq, is it a smart policy? Is the game worth the candle? The panelists predicted that just as al-Qaeda 1.0 was followed by al-Qaeda 2.0 (ISIS), there would be an al-Qaeda 3.0, 4.0, etc. This possibility may shift the advantage from the second option, Essential Interests, to the first option, Full Engagement (aka nation building). Ideally, U.S. full engagement in Iraq would drain the swamp; change the Iraqi political, social, and economic environment so that it will become less likely that another terrorist or insurgent group will arise to threaten the nation and region’s stability. In other words, the U.S. faces a choice. We can choose to accept an enormous short-term expenditure of blood and treasure that will provide a long-term solution to the Iraq crisis or we can choose many decades of dealing with a succession of terrorist or insurgent groups with possibly a greater capacity for attacking our vital interests. And the second choice leads to the possibility that one of these terrorist groups will eventually become capable of hitting Tel Aviv, London, or New York with a weapon of mass destruction. Domestic politics seems to favor the second choice and President Trump is expected to withdraw most/all of U.S. forces from Iraq as soon as ISIS ceases to be a “state.” But the U.S. may be better off in the long term with continued full engagement in that troubled land.

I learned a great deal from the presentations and discussions of Samuel Helfont, Denise Natali, and Nada Bakos. But like many FPRI events, one wishes that the speakers had more time.


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Donald Trump on ISIS: Being Wrong, and Saying It Wrong, Too

Is it the nature of things that action should partake of exact truth less than speech?

-Socrates, The Republic

Language can perform several functions: it can be informative but also expressive and vocative.[1] It is true that Donald Trump more often than not uses language in a manner that is expressive and especially, vocative. He rarely speaks to inform his audiences, instead using emotional appeals to change (or reinforce) our preferences, i.e., to him. Mr. Trump’s admirers seem intuitively to get that, while his detractors do not. The latter demand his words function solely to inform.

Mr. Trump appears to put great stock in ambiguity, as Rich Lowry wrote several weeks ago:

“Trump favors strategic ambiguity—on everything. He says he doesn’t want to be too explicit about his foreign policy because it will tip off our adversaries about our intentions. He apparently doesn’t want to tip anyone off at home, either.”[2]

Ambiguous, however, is not synonymous with imprecise. Ambiguous language generates two different meanings. Put another way, ambiguous language can be understood in two different ways. One meaning is often incompatible with the other. So his admirers hear him one way and his detractors another. Neither meaning was intended to inform. And each is heard to express something different and thus dissonant.

This is not an apologia for Mr. Trump. Something must condition and control political deliberation—that is, after all, language’s informative function, something too often missing in Mr. Trump’s political rhetoric.

When he fails to inform, Mr. Trump leaves no guideposts to determine which, between two possible meanings, he intended. Invariably, admirers choose the favorable one and detractors the other. Precision in political rhetoric—here the speaker is Protagoras, in Plato’s eponymous dialogue—encourages citizens to listen to persons whose relevant knowledge of a matter can inform them. So informed, we ground our political judgments in shared experiences. Informative language by necessity precedes expressive and vocative language—restated, knowledge grounds the appeal to our sensibility. If politics indeed is an art, then the art of politics is the ability to inform first, and then persuade.

It is here Mr. Trump’s political rhetoric falters—it is all emotion and evocative appeals ungrounded by information. This does not mean Mr. Trump himself is uninformed or ignorant. But it does leave him looking intemperate and lacking an informed grasp of the matter at hand. His admirers claim to “get” his meaning while his detractors find that fanciful. Those still undecided are simply left puzzled. Neither his admirers nor his detractors understand what the other does (or does not) understand about whatever it is Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump’s usual defense is that he is a businessperson who lives in a practical world of action. But that does not, to paraphrase Socrates, excuse imprecise language in his case anymore than it does in anyone else’s.

Take what Mr. Trump said recently about President Obama. “He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS,” he said, adding for effect, “I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton.”[3] He later explained his remarks this this way: “All I do is tell the truth, I am a truth teller.”[4]

Perhaps. But if so, he is one who elides large parts of the backstory. However, if his point was that the Obama Administration watched ISIS emerge—and that is very different than his preposterous claim—then he has ample evidence on which to make an informed case to the American electorate. Of course his own views on whether the U.S. should have remained in Iraq in the late 2000s also then should be fair game.

For lost in Mr. Trump’s rhetorical sloppiness is this: the Obama Administration was indeed warned about the emergence of what became ISIS. We know this from information pried out of the Obama Administration by Judicial Watch. Consider this from a heavily redacted August 2012 Defense Department Information Report marked “Secret” (since declassified):

“D. The deterioration of the situation has dire consequences on the Iraqi situation and are as follows:

                1. This creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi, and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters, ISI could also declare an Islamic state though its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.”[5]

In August 2012, Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State, and her office is listed on the distribution roster.

The referenced ISI is an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq aka al-Qaeda in Iraq. In January 2014—eighteen months after the report was written—ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra (aka al-Nusra Front) would henceforth be known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or “ISIL”. The document’s final un-redacted line of text warns of “the renewing facilitation of terrorist elements from all over the Arab world entering into Iraqi arena” [sic].

There is another now-declassified secret Defense Department Information Report obtained by Judicial Watch, this one dated October 2012 and covering the period 1 May-1 September 2012. Its anonymous author states “weapons from the former Libya military stockpiles located in Benghazi, Libya were shipped from the port there to the ports of Banias and the Port of Borj Islam, Syria.”[6] The heavily redacted document goes on to identify the type and number of weapons “shipped from Libya to Syria in late August 2012.” That of course is the same month in which the Obama Administration was warned the Islamic State of Iraq aka al-Qaeda in Iraq might “declare an Islamic state.”

To repeat, this is no defense or Mr. Trump. He chose his words and bears responsibility for allowing himself to appear ill informed. How much different, though, might the week have been had Mr. Trump taken care to point out what we know from these formerly secret reports: that in August 2012, the Obama Administration including Secretary Clinton was warned about the emergence of what became ISIS—fully a year and a half before it ultimately happened—during the same month in which weapons were shipped to the region from Libya? Someone should have cautioned the Obama Administration at the time that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

“Truth is always strange; stranger than fiction,” wrote Lord Byron. But truth in the everyday sense of facts is not so strange, though facts may indeed tell a strange tale. Here, that strange tale is why warnings went unheeded while arms were brought in from Libya. That tale, however, is not the one Mr. Trump chose to tell. The documents cited here do not require interpretation: their plain meaning is quickly apparent.

If language is indeed code as Ferdinand de Saussure insisted, then we must wonder about a tendency to evade the informative in favor of raw emotional appeals. We heard one uncoded answer to that question from 50 senior Republican national security officials. It was not favorable to Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump would do himself—and all of us—a great service by sticking to the truth, no matter how strange, and rejecting fiction, no matter how enticing.


[1] Karl Bühler identified these functions in his 1934 book Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache.

[2] Rich Lowry (2016). “Trump Wants to Make a Deal.” National Review [published online 13 May 2016]. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[3] ” Donald Trump Calls Obama ‘Founder of ISIS’ and Says It Honors Him.” The New York Times [published online 10 August 2016]. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[4] CNBC transcript 11 August 2016. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[5] See: Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[6] Last accessed 12 August 2016.

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Why the US doesn’t have a Muslim problem, and Europe does

I’m first generation American, with a Pakistani-born father. My dad and his older brother both left Pakistan at the same time, but that is where their similarities end. My uncle, an engineer working for the German Space Agency, never felt German. His son avoided mandatory German military service and struggled with finding his identity. My father, on the other hand, came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship, ran a successful business, raised two sons (one of whom joined the United States Navy), and proudly votes in every election be it local, state or federal. The contrast between these two brothers is why Europe has a Muslim problem. It’s not the influx of Muslims; rather, it’s Europe’s inability to welcome and assimilate immigrants. The resulting racial tension creates a perfect recipe for ISIS recruitment among disenfranchised young men. America is doing it right, and we cannot repeat the European model.

Officials believe that over 5,000 Western Europeans have made their way to Syria to support ISIS. However, the actual number is considerably higher according to the Soufan Group, with several European countries contributing a disturbing number of fighters to ISIS: France (1700), Russia (2400), UK (760) and Belgium (470)[1]. For a country like Belgium with only 11 million citizens, having almost 500 citizens join ISIS is a shockingly high number. Furthermore, large pockets of Muslims are concentrated in cities like Brussels where more than a quarter of Belgium’s Muslim population resides. These heavily concentrated Muslim enclaves, according to a 2007 report from the Centre of European Policy Studies, are more likely, than the EU general population, to be poor, segregated and crime-prone neighborhoods[2].  But the question remains, why is this trend of European Muslims joining ISIS happening now?

With the crisis in Syria, Europe has received a massive influx of Muslim refugees. However, with 19 million Muslims in Europe, have the refugee numbers contributed to ISIS’ recruiting efforts? The short answer is no. Of the UN reported 4.2 million Muslim refugees, only 850,000 have fled to Europe. While this is a large number of refugees a large number are women and children, with only 62% being men[3]. The reality is that the Muslim migration started long before the crisis in Syria. In fact it grew as a result of an influx of foreign workers taking advantage of lax guest worker programs after the Second World War. Originally meant to be temporary, these workers became permanent and brought with them waves of descendants. Once settled these immigrants did what first generations immigrants do: they had babies. As a result the Muslim population has been steadily growing, not from immigration but by births. The increase in the number of Muslims is a pattern that is expected to continue through 2030, when they are projected to make up 8% of Europe’s population.  Even though the population has been steadily growing the consistent poverty has contributed to racial tensions between Muslims and Europeans even well before the Paris attacks.

Unlike Europe, the US has a very different track record with Muslim immigrants. According to the Pew Research Center there are 3.3 million (or 1% of the population) Muslims living in the US. Furthermore, in the US Muslims make up 10% of US physicians, are the 2nd most educated group after the Jewish population, are as likely as other American households to report an income of $100,000 or more, and over 6,000 serve in the military[4].  The report found that Muslim Americans are “highly assimilated into American society and . . . largely content with their lives.” Unlike European Muslims the report also found that 80 percent of US Muslims were happy with life in America, and 63 percent said they felt no conflict “between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.”[5] Furthermore, this integration into American culture and society, according to the report, is evident in the rates they participate in various everyday activities such as following local sports teams or watching entertainment TV — all similar to those of the American public generally. Lastly, most telling of their loyalty and sense of inclusion, according to the Pew report, is that half of all Muslim immigrants display the US flag at home, in the office, or on their car.[6] It is this sense of inclusion that in large parts contributes to the fact that only an estimated 250 Americans have joined ISIS – a number far less than the number of Belgium citizens who have gone to Syria and Iraq.

My uncle was one of the immigrants who came to Europe under the guest worker program. Unlike current refugees, neither her nor my father were fleeing war; instead they left to pursue professional careers. My uncle was an educated and a skilled worker who climbed the ranks of German’s fledgling space agency to hold a senior scientist post. While he was professionally successful, his children, who were both born in Germany, struggled. They still feel they are outsiders, not quite German but definitely not Pakistani — a feeling that is repeated as they have children of their own. This experience juxtaposed with that of my father shows a clear difference. Even though I was raised in a predominantly white New York City suburb, I was never considered anything other than American. It is treatment that is extended to my children who, like the subsequent descendants of immigrants, are only aware of the ethnic roots as a distant fact. This is the fundamental difference between European and American Muslims: the ability for American Muslims to assimilate. It is an ability that is key to winning the battle with ISIS, which relies on a steady stream of volunteers. As such, as long as Europe continues to make it difficult for Muslims to integrate and assimilate, ISIS will have a pool of disenfranchised and angry young Europeans from which to recruit.

Naveed Jamali is a Senior Fellow in the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an author of How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent.


[1]The Soufan Group, “Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq”,, (December 8, 2015).

[2]Richard Youngs and Michael Emerson, “Political Islam and European Foreign Policy: Perspectives from Muslim Democrats of the Mediterranean”,,  (28 November 2007).

[3], “Facts about the Syrian Refugees”,, (Posted on November 23, 2015).

[4] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middleclass and Mostly Mainstream”,, (May 22, 2007).

[5] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middleclass and Mostly Mainstream”.

[6] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middleclass and Mostly Mainstream”.

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