Juliette Kayyem

Qatar arms deals expose limits of US

DOHA, Qatar

QATAR IS a small country. It is made big, in the sense of influence and importance, because it has a lot of oil and does not think small. The capital city itself, with its eclectic office buildings, luxury hotels, and glamorous shopping malls, caters to a global market. It was just sand a few decades ago; it now has the highest GDP per capita in the world. Today, its sense of grandeur extends beyond wealth. Qatar, like other Persian Gulf nations, is asserting its growing political strength in the battles taking place across the Middle East. Qatar was once content with being a solo agent in the Arab world; it is now a player in a very dangerous neighborhood.

Last week’s New York Times report that Qatar provided weapons and financial support to the Libyan rebels with the Obama administration’s approval, but that some of those weapons ended up in the hands of Islamic militants, has raised questions about the administration’s approach to the Arab Spring.


The key concern is that by having worked through nations like Qatar or, as it was described at the time, “leading from behind,” the administration lost its ability to control who was getting the arms meant for Libyan rebels. It only takes a moment more of speculation to draw a line between the administration’s reliance on surrogates like Qatar during the Libyan uprising to the murders of four Americans in Benghazi. But all this hand-wringing too easily forgets that the forces at work in the Middle East sometimes have nothing to do with the United States at all.

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There are two plausible explanations for how the arms could have found their way to Islamic extremists. The first is that Qatar never had much of an interest in carefully vetting the recipients of its covert arms sales. In a turbulant Arab Spring environment, the emir here hoped to maintain his own power, and that of other Sunni monarches, at the expense of neighboring governments. The monarchs viewed the dictators of Egypt, Libya, and Syria as expendable; whoever replaces them is of less importance.

Thus, moving arms to just about anyone who was willing to bring down Moammar Khadafy would have satisfied three of Qatar’s goals at once: its political desire for relevancy in making a future Libyan government beholden to it; its strategic desire to minimize the influence of the Shi’ite government in Iran, its giant neighbor; and its practical desire to make a lot of money. As if to make the last point clear, Qatar is now asking the new Libyan government to pay it back for all those guns. Qatar’s government, in this view, is shrewd and dangerously manipulative; it invested over a billion dollars to build the Al Udeid air base in order to lure the United States military while simultaneously spending some fraction of that amount arming Islamic insurgents.

The other explanation for the arms going awry has less to do with Qatar, and more to do with the nature of the supply chain during wars, especially civil wars. The combination of arms and money is always, in the words of a senior Interpol official I met here, “fraught with craziness.” It’s not a very exacting explanation, but the notion that countries can send weapons to a rebellion in another country without having some percentage of those goods lost to nefarious activities, sold in the black market, or making their way to potential enemies seems naïve at best. Even our own Defense Department’s internal investigation found that America’s contracting activities in Afghanistan resulted in money going to the Taliban and anti-American insurgents.

Both explanations may be correct, and no one should be surprised. That more proximate nations will have interests different than ours, and that militants will find ways to get arms during times of unrest, are both completely and utterly predictable.


The United States gets actively involved in demanding reform in Egypt, and the result is messy. The United States leads from behind in Libya, and the result is messy. The United States keeps its distance from Syria, and it is beyond messy. Almost two years into the Arab Spring, the only certainty is that it was prematurely titled.

Juliette Kayyem is a Globe columnist. Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem