When Qatar was accused of sponsoring jihadi violence, people around the world drew back instinctively. To charge a country with backing terrorism is the geopolitical equivalent of charging an individual with child abuse. The accusation is so monstrous that, somehow, the presumption of innocence gets reversed.
Behavioral psychologists say that, when we are presented with an assertion, we tend to believe it in the absence of contrary evidence. Sure enough, there was an initial willingness to go along with the anti-Qatar coalition of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. Donald Trump accepted their version of events unhesitatingly, tweeting that their blockade would be "the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!"
Seven weeks later, no one has produced any evidence that Qatar supports banned organizations. Yes, some Qatari residents have sponsored terrorists, but the same could be said of many countries. The Irish Republican Army, for example, raised a great deal of money in New York and Boston, but no one ever suggested that the United States was backing Irish terrorism. On the contrary, American security agencies worked closely with their British counterparts to contain the bloodshed.
In the same way, Qatari security agencies work with Western allies to monitor violent groups. It was at the request of American and British intelligence that they encouraged various radicals, including the Taliban, to open representative offices in Doha. An ex-MI6 source told me, "Doha was like Vienna during the Cold War. It suited us to have a place where we could keep an eye on these groups and, if necessary, open channels of communication." It likewise suited Israel to have Hamas operating out of Qatar rather than Iran.
In truth, this was never about terrorism. That the Saudis, of all people, are moaning about the export of violent Islamism should be enough to tell us that. Rather, it is about Qatar's insistence on pursuing an independent foreign policy rather than behaving as a Saudi protectorate. In Syria and Libya, Qatar supported its own allies rather than falling in behind the other Gulf monarchies.
The quartet want Doha to agree, in effect, to leave its foreign policy to them. They want Qatar to repress criticism of their regimes. They want to shut down Al Jazeera, a TV channel founded largely by former BBC employees, whose independence they resent.
Obviously, they don't put it like that publicly. Saudi Arabia demanding the closure of Al Jazeera is like China demanding the closure of Fox News. Instead, knowing which buttons to press in the West, they accuse Qatar of promoting jihad.
Yet, we now know that the incident that precipitated the crisis — a series of quotations attributed to Qatar's Emir, in which he appeared to praise Hamas and Iran — was a fabrication. Qatar's state-run news agency was hacked, and the fake words were inserted. Worse, American intelligence sources now say that the hacking was conducted by Emirati agents, though the UAE denies involvement.
Be that as it may, it now seems clear that the quartet were aiming for regime change, and were prepared to use force to get it. They might have succeeded but for the immediate deployment of Turkish tanks in Qatar's defense. Turkish soldiers, unlike those of some Arab autocracies, are functional rather than decorative. Their primary purpose is to win wars, not to repress internal dissent. Once they arrived, the other Gulf states wisely backed away from a putsch.
If they were hoping that economic sanctions alone would turn Qataris against their government, they will have been sorely disappointed. Blockades almost always shore up support for the existing regime, and this one is no exception. All over Doha, buildings and vehicles have started displaying patriotic slogans and images of the Emir.
What will happen next? The blockade could become semi-permanent. Qatar can easily withstand an economic siege and, as long as Turkish troops remain, it need not fear a land invasion. But it is hard to see how the quartet — especially the Saudis — can back down without a huge loss of face. Prestige is an almost tangible commodity in parts of the Arab world. Governments that look like losers become vulnerable domestically.
The United States cannot afford a long-term division among its allies on Iran's doorstep. It needs to de-escalate the situation. More can be done to control money laundering and coordinate anti-terrorism across the region, including in Qatar. But any solution must respect media freedom and national sovereignty. America will need to bang heads together to get agreement on those principles. It may fail. But, frankly, no one else has the authority even to try.
Dan Hannan is a British Conservative MEP.