Amid growing scrutiny of Qatar, U.S. renews military base agreement
Some in Washington argue the agreement should have come with conditions on the country’s relationship with Hamas and role in the region going forward
KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images
Amid growing scrutiny of Qatar’s role in harboring Hamas leadership and funding the terrorist group, the Biden administration earlier this week reportedly renewed the agreement keeping a key U.S. airbase in the country for another decade.
The Al Udeid Air Base is home to the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East. The renewal of the base agreement comes as a growing number of lawmakers call on the administration to exercise more pressure on Qatar to accelerate hostage release talks with Hamas, turn over the Hamas officials on its soil and otherwise temper its publicly aggressive stance toward Israel.
But the U.S.-Qatari military relationship and the air base have also contributed to reluctance from some lawmakers to openly or aggressively criticize Qatar or its relationship with Hamas.
“Qatar has the obligation and responsibility to help get every hostage, including the six Americans, released and should be acting as fast as possible. We need to make that clear to the Qataris,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), who led a letter calling for more pressure on Doha, told Jewish Insider this week. “I believe it’s incumbent upon them and expected upon them to do everything they can, in their conversations with Hamas, to bring everyone home.”
Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JI that the U.S. should have pushed for concrete commitments from Qatar before extending the base agreement.
“It’s troubling that we’re just on autopilot in our relationship, as if nothing has happened, as if there’s no conditions being set for the future, no expectations being set for what has to change and no attempt to use our leverage to achieve that change,” Goldberg said.
The Pentagon, which has not formally announced the agreement, did not respond to an inquiry about the reported agreement or whether there were any specific commitments or concessions from the Qatari government connected to it.
“I know, the conventional wisdom in Washington — that’s been sold mostly by the Qataris themselves — is that the base is the Qatari leverage in the relationship, not the American leverage,” Goldberg said. “But that’s actually not true. We have choices of where we can base.”
Others in Washington see the situation differently, describing the air base agreement as a generally apolitical move geared toward military interests and needs.
“It’s a bit of unfortunate timing,” Jonathan Lord, a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told JI. “Typically these basing agreements are contracted out and negotiated [and] discussed with very long lead times. So it wouldn’t surprise me if this has been something the department has been working on for quite some time, well before Oct. 7.”
Lord described the base as having been “mutually beneficial” to the U.S. and Qatar, providing “a tremendous amount of capability” in the region.
Simon Henderson, the director of the Gulf & Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, added that other countries may not be able to offer a viable alternative to replace Al Udeid.
“I think the U.S. military thinks, ‘If we’ve got a system which is working, why change it?’ … Secondly, which is more contentious, perhaps, is that — historically at least — the Qatari option has been politically and militarily better than the other options offered in the Gulf,” Henderson told JI. “The bottom line is that it’s been a good arrangement from the U.S. Air Force’s point of view, and there’s nothing to match it.”
Goldberg said there must be congressional scrutiny of the agreement and of the U.S. relationship with Qatar, adding that the base’s future should be conditioned on reforms including cutting off support for Hamas and turning over Hamas leadership. He also said lawmakers on the Appropriations and Armed Services committees could begin examining other potential replacement bases in the Middle East.
And Goldberg argued that the agreement to continue the base should not have been finalized until after all hostages — whose release Qatar has been negotiating — are released.
“If I was in charge of the diplomacy, I would keep everything open until the Qataris have delivered the hostages — hanging it over their heads, to make sure they understand that they’re not entitled to U.S. support,” he said.
While the administration has said that Qatar plans to reevaluate its relationship with Hamas at the end of the current crisis, Goldberg argued that allowing Qatar to delay those changes creates a “perverse incentive for the Qataris to work with Hamas to make sure the hostages never get released in full.”
Lord said that, while there are reasons for concern with Qatar, Al Udeid shouldn’t be connected to those debates.
“There’s a separate debate to be had about the way Qatar does business in the region and who they host and who they talk to, but looping in basing and these strategically important positions — ultimately I’m not sure if it’s useful to us,” he argued. “It might do strategically more damage to us than thinking about other ways to influence the Qataris.”
He acknowledged that it’s “repugnant” that Hamas leaders are able to roam Qatar freely and said there could be room to leverage the U.S.-Qatar relationship, such as its status as a major non-NATO ally, to press for reforms.
But Lord also noted that Doha has successfully helped bring Americans and Israelis home, that Qatar has sought to mediate a range of regional conflicts and that the U.S. had allegedly asked Qatar in the past to allow Hamas to maintain a presence so that Qatar can act as a channel for negotiations.