The Trump administration is sending out two competing messages on its policy toward Qatar, which reflects the different perspectives of President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. As Tillerson works behind the scenes to mediate between America’s feuding Persian Gulf allies, officials and observers say the president’s more aggressive stance could hinder his aide’s ability to succeed.
The trouble began when four gulf nations blockaded Qatar, a U.S. ally, on June 5. Administration officials confirmed that Tillerson is now trying to arrange a summit in Washington this week between the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Tillerson met Tuesday morning with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir at the State Department. The UAE would be represented by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani would represent Qatar.
Late Tuesday evening, a State Department official said the chances of a summit taking place this week had become less likely, as the parties did not yet appear ready to make the move.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Wednesday that Tillerson and Jubeir agreed on the need for all parties to come together to resolve their disputes. She described the mood as “hopeful” and said both officials believed the worst of the crisis was behind them.
Inside the administration, the competing messages of Trump and Tillerson have yet to be resolved. Tillerson issued a statement Friday calling for dialogue to end the dispute, only to have Trump deliver remarks two hours later demanding Qatar end its financing of terror.
Administration officials said the speeches could be construed as being consistent, as both Tillerson and Trump broadly want to resolve the crisis and want Qatar to do more on the issue of terrorism financing. But two officials said Trump’s statement was added at the last minute, did not go through the interagency process and the State Department had no advance notice that Trump was going to take a harsher tone.
“Everybody was taken by surprise by the president’s comments. It undermined what the secretary had to say,” one State Department official said. “The policy that is being worked is the Tillerson policy, Trump’s comments notwithstanding.”
Tillerson’s approach has been to attempt to show the White House he can make progress, before more coercive steps against Qatar are considered. There’s a feeling inside the administration that the White House doesn’t really have a plan for Qatar and so the State Department has space to advance its own strategy.
Qatar signed the U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council agreement on combating terrorism financing that Trump championed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last month, but the text of that agreement has never been released and its details are unclear.
The gap between Trump and Tillerson is troubling to many because it suggests that foreign officials can’t necessarily count on what America’s top diplomat says about U.S. policy.
“If the secretary of state can’t speak for the president, then he shouldn’t be speaking,” said Jon Alterman, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They need to agree on a message and a strategy and not talk like they are in isolation booths.”
Trump’s different tone on Qatar also undermines Tillerson’s efforts because the president has taken a clear side in the dispute, a former U.S. diplomat who worked in the region told me. As Tillerson begins negotiations, the Saudis could believe they have top cover from the White House. “They see a U.S. president who is giving them carte blanche. It definitely makes Tillerson’s negotiating position weaker,” the former U.S. diplomat said.
The Trump-Tillerson difference reflects a similar divide in Washington. Tillerson, who has decades of experience with Qatar, represents a large swath of the foreign policy and national security community who believe that Qatar has been a reliable albeit complicated ally supporting U.S. military operations. Isolating and punishing Qatar runs counter to the goal of getting its leadership to address U.S. concerns, their argument goes.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis testified Monday that Qatar is “moving in the right direction” when it comes to combating terrorist financing. The U.S. ambassador to Qatar, Dana Shell Smith, has repeatedly defended Qatar’s efforts since the crisis broke out. She announced her resignation on Twitter Tuesday.
Trump has very little experience with the Qatari regime. But his tough stance has encouraged parts of the national security community who have long advocated a harsher policy. At a recent conference held by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said that if Qatar doesn’t improve, lawmakers might consider moving U.S. military operations out of Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base, where current coordination for the coalition war against the Islamic State is done.
Short of moving the base, there are other ways lawmakers could turn up the heat on Qatar. Royce has co-sponsored a bill led by Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) that targets the funding of the Palestinian group Hamas. The legislation, which is also co-sponsored by Royce’s Democrat counterpart Rep. Eliot Engel (N.Y.), names Qatar several times as a Hamas sponsor and would have the effect of sanctioning Qatar if enacted.
Tillerson has some time to show that the crisis between Qatar and its gulf neighbors can be resolved diplomatically and defend his longtime friends from their detractors around Washington and inside the White House. If he fails, the U.S.-Qatar relationship could get very rocky very fast.