Donald Trump’s supposed support of free speech and his opposition to excessive political correctness helped garner him him legions of followers. Cherry picking examples, Trump made it appear as if there was a credible threat to free speech, and thus set himself up as a defender of the First Amendment. His war against left-leaning media outlets, combined with his stream-of-consciousness tweeting style, also make clear that his loose definition of free speech is largely one of self-convenience. His hypocrisy, however, is especially evident right now in regard to a very different issue: his handling of the Saudi-Qatar crisis.
In June of this year, Saudi Arabia cut off relations with Qatar; the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and others quickly followed suit. This has left Qatar isolated and suffering from a land, sea, and air blockade. Before the crisis, it imported 40 percent of its food over the Saudi border, so these moves forced the small nation to find alternative ways to feed its people, mostly by cozying up to Turkey and ironically, Iran. Adding to this strife, the markets in Qatar immediately fell by 10 percent and three countries have expelled Qatari citizens.
Saudi Arabia stated that it cut ties and imposed restrictions primarily due to Qatar’s sponsorship of terrorists. To support this accusation, Saudi officials said Qatar has maintained relations with Iran and has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, ISIL, and Hezbollah. Some in the press have cited this as an example of the pot calling the kettle black, but that would assume that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are equally at fault for sponsoring terror. In reality, Saudi Arabia inspires and funds more terror than any other state, including Iran.
Wahhabism, the puritanical and warped religious movement observed in Saudi Arabia, is responsible for inspiring much of the radicalism in the Middle East. The oil boom in Saudi Arabia brought laborers from all over the region into the kingdom looking for work. While there, they were indoctrinated with the this unfortunate distortion of Islam. When these laborers returned home, Wahhabism was exported to other parts of the Middle East, where it became integral to the founding ideology of many terror organizations. Furthermore, of the 61 terrorist organizations officially designated by the U.S. State Department, most are inspired by Saudi Wahhabism and receive funding originating in Saudi Arabia. Only two of the 61 terror groups, in contrast, are Shia, the sect of Islam practiced in Iran. These facts alone evidence the absurdity of Saudi Arabia blaming Qatar for being a main supporter of terror either through their relationship with Iran or other dealings.
If this conflict is not about sponsoring terrorism, it begs the question why Saudi Arabia is so furious at Qatar. The answer lies heavily in the third and fourth points on the list of thirteen demands that Saudi Arabia made of Qatar. It ordered Qatar to “shut down Al Jazeera and its affiliate stations … [and to] shut down news outlets that Qatar funds directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al Araby, Al Jadeed, and Middle East Eye.” While Qatar has its own share of domestic human rights issues, we should applaud advances it has made toward fostering a level of media freedom that is not present in Saudi Arabia. These news outlets, Al Jazeera especially, reveals to citizens of many countries in the region the issues within their own governments. Nothing is more dangerous to an authoritarian government than an informed populace. Understandably, the Saudi government felt threatened, and, in retribution, it is working to force Qatar to censor its media by cutting off ties and imposing restrictions on its tiny neighbor.
America’s role in this conflict is difficult to define. Morally, it would be best to support Qatar and oppose the Saudi crackdown on free speech and free media, but international situations can rarely be examined purely from a moral perspective. As a close ally of Saudi Arabia, the United States would be unwise to blatantly oppose it. However, Qatar hosts the Al Udeid Airbase, the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East, and this base is essential to our influence in the region. It is best, then, for America to either stay out of the conflict or work as a mediator since it has ties to both countries.
While it is morally in our interest to side with Qatar, and politically in our interest to remain neutral, President Trump has decided to side with Saudi Arabia. On June 6 he tweeted: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the end to the horror of terrorism!” The Pentagon tried unsuccessfully to mitigate the damage from the tweets. With a just a few words over social media, Trump made it impossible for the US help resolve the conflict as an impartial actor, and also demonstrated how little he cares about either morality or rationality.
Once again, President Trump has shown how willing he is to work against the cause of free speech and a free press. The Middle East has so much potential, and we should be encouraging all steps in the region toward an open media. His actions are contradictory to the overall U.S. goals for the Middle East, and to the core values of our nation. As the crisis wears on, one must wonder how it will be resolved. Since Trump has made it impossible for the U.S. to act as a mediator by siding with the Saudis, a solution to this conflict remains steadfastly out of reach.