The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The crisis over Qatar highlights Trump’s foreign policy confusion

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Just last month, a White House aide told the media that President Trump's attendance at a summit of Muslim leaders in the Saudi capital had "united the entire Muslim world in a way that it really hasn’t been in many years." In reality, that Trump visit seems to have prefigured a startling period of division.

The showdown in the Persian Gulf over the tiny emirate of Qatar is now well into its second week. As we explained when it first began, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and a number of other allied Arab states are seeking to isolate Qatar over its supposed support for Islamist extremism abroad, its perceived friendliness to Iran, and the subversive commentary of its Al Jazeera news channel and other affiliated outlets. There's little sign that Qatar, whose officials reject the allegations, is willing to acquiesce to Saudi and UAE demands.

Regional officials and sheikhs are now conducting hurried rounds of shuttle diplomacy, hoping to calm a feud that threatens to split apart the Gulf Cooperation Council, a bloc of six Arab monarchies that once seemed the most stable and coherent group in the region. Meanwhile, borders have been shut and flights grounded. Ambassadors and diplomats have been withdrawn. Families with roots and relations in different kingdoms are suddenly facing a traumatic, uncertain new reality.

It seems increasingly clear that the Saudis and Emiratis have bitten off more than they can chew. Despite its tiny size, Qatar is the largest producer of natural gas in the Middle East; it is wealthy and has friends. After Saudi Arabia closed its land border with Qatar, Turkey and Iran flew in hundreds of tons of goods to help stave off potential food shortages. Qatar has also launched new shipping routes via Oman to boost its supplies from other sources. The Qatari public has rallied in a show of nationalist defiance.

"I will never buy Saudi Arabian and UAE products again," said a Qatari man recently to my colleague Sudarsan Raghavan. "I will stay loyal to the people who support us now."

The role of the Trump administration in the crisis has been both conspicuous and confusing. Qatar is a long-standing, albeit problematic, U.S. ally. It hosts a number of American university campuses and a vast U.S. military base that is critical to counterterrorism operations in Iraq and Syria. Yet Trump, fresh from his trip to Riyadh, seemed to giddily join the Saudi and UAE bandwagon.

This raised eyebrows for quite a few reasons. First, it's a bit much to single out Qatar for not doing enough to curb terrorism when similar accusations can be leveled at its neighbors, perhaps especially Saudi Arabia.

"Such is the nature of the Middle East that while it is entirely true that the Qataris are difficult partners and pursue unsavory policies, that does not make them all that different from any of Washington’s other Middle Eastern allies," wrote Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. "All of these countries have questionable records on human rights, and some have distinguished themselves as incubators of extremism. People who live in glass houses should not throw stones, except that's exactly what happens in the Middle East."

Some critics suggest the real impetus for the move is Saudi and UAE irritation with Qatar's Al Jazeera, which embraced democratic struggles across the Arab world in keeping with Doha's own tacit support for the Islamist political parties emerging in various countries.

"Not content with muzzling their own media, they want to shut down all media that reveals the inconvenient truth about their despotic, venal, corrupt regimes, wherever it is in the world," wrote David Hearst, editor-in-chief of the Middle East Eye, an English-language news website that is critical of the region's autocrats.

Moreover, Trump's own line seemed to contradict the far more cautious approach pushed by his lieutenants. From the onset of the crisis, both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis counseled conciliation, not confrontation. On Wednesday, the Pentagon even completed a $12 billion agreement over the sale of as many as 36 F-15 jets to the Qataris — hardly the sort of deal you make (or signal you send) if you want to isolate a rogue actor.

Tillerson, whose credibility in Washington has taken a series of hits, also spent much of this week attempting to broker an understanding between the two sides. Trump's statements have not helped. "Everybody was taken by surprise by the president’s comments. It undermined what the secretary had to say," one State Department official told my colleague Josh Rogin. "The policy that is being worked is the Tillerson policy, Trump’s comments notwithstanding."

Rogin explained the conundrum facing the U.S's top diplomat: "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."

Qatar's detractors in Washington are mostly keen on punishing a country that won't get in line with the broader neoconservative project to contain Iran, a goal championed by the Saudis and cheered on by Trump. But the current crisis is achieving the opposite, creating new fault lines between Arabs and pushing Qatar potentially closer to Iran.

"By not leaving diplomatic space for Iran and its Arab neighbors to manage their own differences, Trump has set the United States squarely alongside the House of Saud on a collision course with Iran’s Shi’ite regime," wrote Amir Handjani, a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. That's a problem, argues Handjani, because Trump "needs Iran and its Arab neighbors to work together in finding holistic solutions for the sectarian wars that have inflamed" the Middle East.

Last week, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel lamented Trump's bluster over Qatar. "A further escalation would serve nobody. The Middle East is a political and a military powder keg," said Gabriel to reporters. The heavy-handed approach of the Saudis and Emiratis, he said, is a dangerous "Trumpization" of regional affairs.

The original version of this story misspelled the name of a regional expert. It is Amir — not Amar — Handjani.

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