When President Trump visited Saudi Arabia last month he bragged he had built a new, NATO-like alliance of Sunni Arab states to fight terrorism and counter Iran.
One month later, that Saudi-led alliance has unleashed its wrath not on ISIS but on the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar, one of its members. And Trump, to the dismay of his secretaries of state and defense, is cheering this conflict on.
Far from helping the war on terrorism, this Sunni Arab strife could undercut it — while helping Tehran. Equally worrisome, the president’s plunge into an intra-Arab power struggle illustrates the incoherence of foreign policy-making in his administration — and his resistance to the adults on his team.
All this came into full view when the Qatar imbroglio began last week. Saudi Arabia, its closest Gulf allies, and Egypt cut ties with Qatar and blockaded its land, sea, and air routes. They accused the Qataris of supporting terrorism around the region and cozying up to Iran — a rationale they no doubt knew would win support from Trump.
True, little Qatar (pop 300,000 natives plus 2 million expats), a gas-rich blip on the Arab Gulf coast, has backed Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood — and it lets radical preachers rant on Al-Jazeera, which operates out of the Qatari capital, Doha. Rolling back that support and those hate-mongers would be a good thing.
But, when it comes to support for radical Islamism, Qatar is a mouse compared to the Saudis, whose public and private funds have flowed to far more virulent TV preachers and to violent jihadi groups that threaten America (ditto for fellow boycotter, the United Arab Emirates). Moreover, the Saudis promote their harsh Wahhabi version of Islam all over the Muslim world, providing ideological grounding for would-be terrorists.
So the Saudi charges against Qatar are a prime case of the pot calling the kettle black. And the president has placed himself wholly on the Saudi side.
Moreover, Trump’s stance — and the Arab split — endanger U.S. interests in the region. For starters, they undercut the Sunni Arab unity that the president touted in Riyadh as a bulwark against terrorism and Iran.
And then there’s the big enchilada: The emirate hosts the huge U.S. Al Udeid Air Base, home to U.S. Central Command and 10,000 American troops, which is the staging ground for operations in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Does the president intend to move the air base?
As for Doha’s ties to Iran, the Qataris have an unavoidable link with Tehran, since they share a major gas field. But they are hardly in Tehran’s pocket. This equal-opportunity emirate has long maintained indirect and sometimes direct relations with Israel. And then, of course, there’s that big U.S. base. If Sunni Arab states maintain their boycott, they will push a reluctant Qatar closer to (not further from) Tehran.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis understand the problem. “Tillerson and Mattis are doing their best to reel everyone back in, get everyone to calm down, to resolve this by negotiations, without imposing embargoes,” says the Middle East Institute’s Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen. “It is absolutely not in our interest to be picking sides.”
So, once the Gulf States broke with Qatar, Tillerson and Mattis publicly warned against further escalation. The president ignored them, tweeting out praise — and taking credit for — the Saudi-led blockade. When it came to funding Islamists, he tweeted, “[Arab] leaders pointed to Qatar.”
Last week, Tillerson and Mattis urged the president to take a more balanced approach, according to news reports. Then Tillerson publicly called for a negotiated end to the inter-Arab quarrel and said the blockade was “hindering U.S. military action in the region and the campaign against ISIS.”
But shortly afterward, in a news conference Friday, Trump doubled down on denunciations of Qatar. He claimed, in contradiction with Tillerson, that he, his generals, and the secretary of state had decided together in Saudi Arabia to confront Qatar.
Never mind that, in Riyadh, the president had stressed his friendship with Qatar’s emir and expressed the hope that he would buy “lots of beautiful [U.S.] military equipment.” Never mind that the State Department claimed that the United States only learned of the Saudi-led boycott just before it was imposed.
All this raises big questions about why Trump is taking this position (Susceptibility to Saudi flattery? Advice from son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has bonded with key Saudi royal princes? ) and whether he can grasp the whole Mideast picture or only the need to sound tough.
In fact, the boycott was provoked more by intra-Arab rivalries than antiterrorism. The Saudis are infuriated by tiny Qatar’s efforts to act independently from their tutelage and have been at odds with the emirate for decades. “President Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May emboldened them to believe Trump was 100 percent behind them,” says the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Cook. And so, the Saudis swatted Qatar.
Let’s hope Trump will finally listen to Mattis, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that, even as Washington focuses on halting terrorist funding, “we’ve obviously got shared interests with Qatar. We’ve got to find common ground.”
This would require serious U.S. efforts at mediation and making clear to Riyadh we are aren’t taking sides (an impossibility if the president won’t stop tweeting). It would also require squeezing all Gulf states on terrorist funding.
Letting the Saudis and other culpable Gulf nations off the hook in order to focus on Qatar is nuts.