The sudden embargo on Qatar pushed this month by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia has peeved the State Department and Pentagon, drawing sharp criticism of those two close Persian Gulf allies.
The Qatar flap has also opened a fascinating window on the inner workings of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. It’s a rare instance in which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the quiet man on the Trump team, appears to have persuaded the president to back off his initial course and, as a White House official put it, “let Rex handle it,” at least for now.
The June 5 announcement of the anti-Qatar blockade surprised the United States on several levels, officials said. It was a diktat, without clear demands or a pathway to resolution. The timing was awkward, coming soon after President Trump had attended a regional summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, at which Qatar appeared to be a valued participant, and just as the United States was launching the final phase of its campaign to clear Islamic State extremists from Raqqa, Syria.
Some senior U.S. officials saw the Qatar boycott plan as half-baked, escalating a feud among allies that might have unintended consequences, and potentially benefiting Iran and other common adversaries. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis feared the blockade might jeopardize U.S. operations at Al Udeid Air Base, south of Doha, the most important U.S. military hub in the region.
Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to Washington, acknowledged the State and Pentagon criticism of his country’s action. But he argued in an interview that the United States should see the issue as an “opportunity” to reduce Qatar’s support for extremism in the region, rather than as “a crisis that needs to be defused.”
Otaiba said that a formal list of demands to Qatar hadn’t been completed yet, because of coordination among the four main boycotters, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The message to Qatar will be: “If you want to be part of our team, here’s a clear list of things you have to do.” Otaiba added that many of the demands would focus on pledges Qatar made in 2014 to reduce support for opposition groups in neighboring countries.
When the blockade was announced, there was an obvious disconnect in U.S. policy. Tillerson said June 5 in Australia: “We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences.” He wanted to de-escalate this Arab family feud before it got too hot, and potentially violent.
But Trump’s instinct was to side with the Saudis and Emiratis. He tweeted June 6: “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!” That was hardly even handed. On a broader level, Trump is said to believe that the United States shouldn’t try to solve problems for Middle Eastern countries and should instead let “the natural order play itself out,” as one official put it.
But over the subsequent 10 days, Trump decided to give Tillerson responsibility for negotiating a solution. Partly, that reflects the White House’s deference to Tillerson’s decades of personal relationships in the gulf, and probably also its appreciation that the former ExxonMobil chief stays out of the news.
Tillerson noted his long experience in the region in a comment June 6 in New Zealand, as the crisis was festering: “I have been in dealings with the Qatari leadership now for more than 15 years, so we know each other quite well. I know the father emir well. I know the current emir well.” He’s equally familiar with Saudi and UAE leaders.
Mattis’s concern partly reflects his desire to concentrate fire on the Islamic State. Commanders say the final conquest of Raqqa, which began more than a week ago, is going better than expected. The U.S.-backed assault force numbers more than 40,000, with somewhere between 35 and 50 percent local Arabs, and the rest Kurds. There’s fragile liaison with the disparate combatants in eastern Syria — Russians, Iranians, Turks and the Syrian regime. The United States wants to “deconflict” (as in its near-daily “professional and responsive” contacts with the Russian military over Syria), not complicate matters with regional feuds.
Qatar’s defense minister, Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah, told me in an interview Wednesday that in the negotiations ahead, Qatari officials “will have maneuvering space to get to a deal that does not jeopardize our sovereignty.”
If that happens, this Arab family quarrel is on the way to getting resolved — and the argument to “let Rex handle it” will gain strength in an administration that’s still learning the diplomatic ropes.
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