Robert Malley, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf region under President Barack Obama, is vice president for policy at the International Crisis Group. Jon Finer was chief of staff and director of policy planning at the State Department under former secretary of state John F. Kerry.
It’s been a head-spinning few days for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched a diplomatic and economic assault on their Persian Gulf neighbor Qatar. President Trump went from calling Qatar a “crucial strategic partner” to essentially labeling it a state sponsor of terrorism. His administration scrambled to ease tensions between Saudi Arabia, America’s longest-standing Arab ally, and Qatar, the country that hosts its largest regional military base. That was before the president, at a news conference on Friday, continued to add fuel to the fire by saying that “the nation of Qatar historically has been a funder of terrorism at a high level,” and endorsing the blockade whose easing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had just called for.
It also was a week of shifting impressions: The veneer of Arab unity on display at the Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, summit two weeks ago has given way to what remains a deeply fractured gulf region. The purported restoration of U.S. leadership masked a major power play by Trump’s Saudi hosts. And through fiery tweets and appearing to issue Saudi Arabia a blank check of support, Trump eroded his campaign promise to avoid misguided entanglements in the Middle East. Instead, his actions fuel an escalation that will distract from and undermine core U.S objectives.
The cause and sequence of events remain puzzling. The Riyadh summit — where Trump showered Qatar with praise — left no hints that a rift of this magnitude was about to erupt. Some analysts saw the trigger in a speech the Qatari emir supposedly delivered after the summit, but Qatari officials immediately claimed it was a hoax. Others pointed to a ransom payment to Iranian-backed groups that held Qatari hostages, although the incident took place months ago. Still others suggested Qatar had become cozy with Iran, with which it shares a major offshore gas field, even as Qatari soldiers fight alongside Saudi troops against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen and with Syrian opposition groups against the Iranian-backed regime in Damascus. When asked, officials from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates cite no specific catalyst, aside from mounting frustration with Qatar’s unmet promises and double-dealing.
The most plausible theory at this stage is that this was more about Saudi and Emirati enforcement of gulf domination than the other explanations would suggest, and more enabled by Trump’s implicit blessing of that bid.
Long-standing differences in the approach to the region, particularly with regard to the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam — which Qatar supports and Saudi Arabia and especially the Emirates abhor — met a unique opportunity: a simplistic U.S. regional policy of boundless support to certain partners and unstinting opposition to Islamism, terrorism and Iran. Nuance is brushed aside, despite contradictions among those goals. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi seized that opportunity to try to deal a blow to Qatar, an often pesky rival.
The question is not so much why Saudi Arabia and the UAE did what they did, but rather why Trump led them to believe he would back them. It’s one thing to bolster ties with our closest gulf allies, but quite another entirely to blatantly take one side in an intra-gulf dispute where we have partners on both sides. On many issues, U.S. interests and those of Saudi Arabia and the UAE align. But not when it comes to exacerbating sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims; courting a confrontation with Iran; turning a blind eye to authoritarian practices; and labeling virtually all Islamists, peaceful or violent, as terrorists. All of these practices tend to empower extremists, who feed off sectarianism, conflict and suppression of non-violent means of expression.
Defenders of the administration’s approach argue, with some justification, that the United States can’t stand idly by as Iran engages in destabilizing activity or the Muslim Brotherhood expands its influence, and that maximum pressure to bring Qatar to heel will help squeeze Iran and defeat extremists. Balance and nuance, they believe, are an excuse for policy paralysis and a barrier to moral clarity.
But the assumption that granting Riyadh a blank check to pressure Iran in Yemen, Syria or Iraq automatically will curb Tehran’s influence ignores a history of unintended consequences. Invasion and occupation of Iraq paved the way for Tehran’s massive interference in that country. Pressure on Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria led it to rely further on Iran. And the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen has deepened Iran’s historically modest ties to the Houthi movement there. Given this track record, it is not inconceivable that today’s Saudi/Qatari rift bring Doha and Tehran closer together. In short, there is no logic to exacerbating the regional conflicts Tehran both promotes and profits from. Same with attempting to curb violent extremism by crushing all political Islamists, since those seeking change might conclude they must resort to violence.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s attempt to shift from arsonist to firefighter was undercut by the president even as Tillerson emphasized Gulf Cooperation Council unity and offered his services to help resolve differences. At this point, Trump probably has done quite enough: he would be wise to step aside and let professional diplomats work before things get any worse. The prospect of escalating conflict between an emboldened Saudi Arabia and Iran is not mere idle speculation: as the Qatari crisis lingered, a rare terror attack in Iran, claimed by the Islamic State, killed a dozen people. Without offering evidence, Iran blamed Saudi Arabia.
A good general rule in Middle East policy is that if things start to seem clear-cut, you probably are not looking closely enough. The United States must, of course, stand by its allies. But the impression that they have carte blanche to pursue policies that risk empowering our foes is, arguably, not good for them. It definitely is not good for us.