The Illiberal Tide
Why the International Order Is Tilting Toward Autocracy
Earlier this month, the Taliban opened an official office in Doha, landing Qatar once more in Western headlines. That might have been part of Qatar’s plan: the decision to host such a controversial office is symptomatic of a desire to play a central role in a wide array of important diplomatic issues. Yet the debacle of the office’s first 36 hours shows just how far Qatar still has to go.
No sooner had the office opened, on June 18, than the trouble began. Despite assurances from the Americans and Qataris to the Afghan government that the office would be relatively low-key and would not resemble an embassy, the Taliban spokesman who opened the office did everything in his power to imply that he was representing a state. The Taliban anthem was played, an official plaque outside referred to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Afghanistan’s name under Taliban rule), and the flag of the Taliban in Afghanistan was raised at a mini opening ceremony. The media circus around the events did nothing to dispel the images of nationhood and power.
Karzai reacted furiously, recanting on promises to send negotiators and pulling out of talks with the United States. The U.S. airbase at Bagram also came under Taliban fire, leaving four U.S. personnel dead. After some frantic diplomacy on the part of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the Qataris forced the Taliban to lower the flag -- apparently by cutting the flagpole in half and then removing it entirely. But the damage had been done, and the Taliban had scored a significant diplomatic victory.
The Qatari authorities could never have been expected to have total control over the Taliban, but they could have been expected to at least extract some guarantees that the Taliban would behave itself on opening week. (After all, what else would funding the office in its entirety have been for?)
Like the opening of the Taliban office, the talks that are supposed to take place there in the coming weeks do not inspire much confidence. It is true that both sides are exhausted from over a decade of fighting, and that both realize that neither can ever fully win. But there is still a deep gulf to bridge. The Taliban are fragmented, with no agreement about the extent to which the office in Qatar officially represents them. And, on the other side, Karzai hates the Taliban, mistrusts Qatar, and acquiesced to the talks only because he had no choice: after all, how could his High Peace Council refuse to go to peace talks? Meanwhile, James Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan who will head up negotiations in Doha, will be dismayed to find that he has to cool tempers and coax the partners back to the table before he has even arrived there.
Qatar’s role in all this was simply to provide a forum where the key protagonists -- the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the United States -- could come together to talk. Although that task might sound relatively mundane, it is critical given that in peace talks in 2010, a Taliban impostor posing as a negotiator walked off with “a lot of money,” and, in talks in 2011, another impostor killed the Afghan government’s lead negotiator.
For the Qataris, how the talks actually turn out is almost beside the point. Never lacking in ambition, the government has gone into overdrive in recent years. After dipping its toe into mediation and international engagement, notably in Lebanon in 2008 and in ongoing talks on Darfur, Qatar jumped into diplomacy in earnest during the Arab Spring. It began by supporting the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt before most other countries, particularly with its assiduous coverage of gathering protests on al Jazeera, the state-funded satellite channel. Subsequently, Qatar gave support to opposition forces against Libya’s Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi and was the first Arab state to officially recognize the opposition after that. Although Western support was critical, the relatively quick removal of the entrenched dictator was interpreted as a confidence-building victory for Qatar’s foreign policy adventurism.
The Qataris hoped that the same trick would work in Syria. After informal elite-to-elite negotiations failed in 2011, al Jazeera began to cover the growing conflict in depth. By Spring 2012 Qatar was one of the leading suppliers of light arms and other supplies to the opposition. But the fears that the world had initially held about intervention in Libya -- that the state would fragment, that the body count would rise, and that the government would ruthlessly repress its people -- are now being realized hundreds of miles away.
A desire to make bold policy moves -- be it quickly and overtly supporting Libya’s opposition, funneling arms to Syria’s opposition, or hosting a Taliban office -- is almost unique to Qatar. An unusual combination of the state’s intrinsic security, which is provided and guaranteed by the United States, its great wealth, and its rulers’ desires to make Qatar a useful international actor, has transformed the state’s foreign policy. Not only, therefore, does the United States implicitly facilitate many of Qatar’s key foreign policies, but some policies -- particularly those aimed at establishing discussions with a variety of groups with whom the United States has difficulty interacting (Hamas, the Taliban) -- are aimed at making Qatar uniquely important to the United States.
Yet Qatar’s leadership is learning that operating at such a high and politicized level requires a level of preparation, planning, and execution that Qatar struggles to meet. After all, there are only 250,000 Qataris, and the state has had modern bureaucracies for barely a generation. It is no great surprise, then, that it lacks certain capacities. Qatar’s elite are simply willing to take the risks that their policies might go awry. Recently, though, there has been a greater reliance on international allies, such as Qatar’s passing of its Syria file to Saudi Arabia, which appears to be part of an appreciation in Doha that it must take more of a multilateral approach.
Complicating foreign policy-making, too, are the changes in Qatar’s leadership. Unusually in the Arab World, under no domestic pressure, the Emir of Qatar stepped down on June 25 in favor of his son and heir apparent, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. At the same time, the foreign minister, who is also the prime minister and has long been synonymous with Qatar’s foreign policy, is expected to step aside as part of a wider cabinet reshuffle. In one fell swoop, then, the two central architects of Qatar’s modern history will be gone.
The next generation of leaders is impressive and skilled at diplomacy. There is as yet no hard evidence that they will continue to make Qatar’s foreign policy as dramatic and interventionist as it has been in recent years. Yet it would be reasonable to assume some continuity: Qatar’s ultimate foreign policy goal will remain making itself as important as possible to a range of key international states. For Qatar, that is the key to living well as a small, wealthy state in an intrinsically unstable region. If the elite in Doha can marry the country’s desires with a nuanced appreciation of their own limitations and either take a more measured approach or act more multilaterally, Qatar could once more be a disproportionate force for good in its wider region.