- The Washington Times - Monday, February 5, 2001

In July 1990, then-Secretary of State James Baker instructed the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, to pay a fateful call on Saddam Hussein. Amidst evidence the Iraqi despot was massing troops on the border of Kuwait, Miss Glaspie advised him that the "United States had no view of Arab-Arab territorial disputes." The rest, as they say, is history.

Another long-festering Arab-Arab disagreement over boundaries this time involving the Persian Gulf nations of Qatar and Bahrain is now nearing a denouement. No one expects it to precipitate the sort of world-shaking international crisis and multinational bloodletting that followed Miss Glaspie's diplomacy, which Saddam interpreted as a green light to invade Kuwait. Still, the region's demonstrated potential for miscalculations, overreactions and destabilizing repercussions argues for the Bush II administration to eschew Bush I's studied indifference to such "territorial disputes."

Washington should instead play a constructive role by encouraging one of its most important regional allies, Bahrain, to relinquish the Hawar islands that were historically part of the territory of another of its key allies in the Persian Gulf, Qatar. That is, the Hawars had been part of Qatar until 1939 when Great Britain, in one of its last imperialist spasms, assigned them to Bahrain on the eve of World War II.

As was so often the case when perceived British geopolitical interests in this instance, propping up the Bahraini emirate, the island where oil was first discovered in the Gulf and a British outpost deemed an important link in the long and fragile logistical chain that bound colonial India to England conflicted with the facts on the ground, the Brits simply changed the map. The Hawar Islands lie as close as a quarter mile from the western coast of Qatar (in fact, at times, the Hawars are actually connected to the Qatari mainland), well within the latter's internationally recognized three-mile territorial limit and 20 miles or so away from Bahrain. London nonetheless granted the Bahraini emir sovereignty over this island chain.

Qatar has never accepted this capricious and preposterous decision. While Bahrain's interest in the Hawars has ebbed and flowed, correlating closely with the rise and fall of to-date-unrealized hopes for discovering oil and natural gas on or near the islands, the Qataris have rejected the British action since first learning it had been taken on a provisional basis in 1938.

To his credit, the current emir of Qatar has sought to re-establish his nation's sovereignty over the Hawars through peaceful means. The matter has been brought to the International Court of Justice (IJC), which last spring held five weeks of hearings on the dispute. A verdict is believed to be imminent and is widely expected to favor Qatar's claim a position recently endorsed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) comprised of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Kuwait as well as Qatar and Bahrain.

Until now, the United States has adopted a strictly neutral stance on the matter. Nearly two years after Miss Glaspie's infamous chat with Saddam, Mr. Baker's State Department declared that "we do not wish to become involved in the Hawar Island dispute, but support mediation, adjudication or any other diplomatic means of attaining a peaceful solution."

Such neutrality is understandable given the prominent role both Bahrain and Qatar currently play in U.S. defense planning and operations in the Gulf. The former is the home of the U.S. 5th Fleet, a small but strategically critical flotilla that constitutes the United States' only permanent naval presence in the region. The latter provides American forces an airfield and storage for vast quantities of prepositioned war materiel; in fact, Qatar is now said to be the largest repository of American forward-deployed weaponry in the world.

The United States should not have to choose between its two allies. If the ICJ does in fact decide in favor of Qatar, the new Bush administration will be in a position to endorse its findings and encourage Bahrain swiftly to relinquish the islands.

In the event Bahrain proves reluctant to accede to the International Court's ruling (or, however implausibly, the ICJ rules against Qatar), Washington should make clear that this "Arab-Arab territorial dispute" must be resolved once and for all by reuniting the Hawars with their rightful owner. By acting in this principled fashion, the United States can further improve its ties to Qatar without necessarily doing serious harm to those with Bahrain.

A further consideration argues for such a course of action. In recent years, under the current Emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, notable steps have been taken to introduce democratic institutions and practices virtually unknown in the Middle East outside of Israel. Local elections have already been held with women accorded the right to vote. Qatar also has permitted press freedoms without parallel elsewhere in the Arab world, including the only non-government-owned TV station in the Persian Gulf.

Interestingly, the government of Bahrain doubtless sensing that the Qataris' political liberalization was translating into a public relations advantage for their rivals has belatedly and haltingly moved to effect reforms of its own. Most recently, Bahraini Emir Sheik Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa announced on Jan. 23 that his country would hold a national referendum next month on a new "national charter" providing for elections to a representative assembly.

It will serve American interests, as well as those of the people involved, if the United States plays an active role in encouraging such trends. It can do so by being seen as an advocate for justice and the rule of law in the Persian Gulf, as elsewhere even if it means taking sides in an "Arab-Arab territorial dispute."

Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times. A version of this article recently appeared in the American Spectator Online.

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