Qatar Controversy: U.S. Creates Vacuum with Mixed Messaging

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Columnist, The Cipher Brief

Today’s diplomatic chaos pitting Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Egypt, and other Sunni states against Qatar, can be partly blamed on Trump’s ill thought out utterances and his administration’s resultant mixed messaging in the controversy.

Perhaps as important, U.S. response to the Qatar situation also raises questions about whether the White House and its foreign policy team, National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Secretaries of State and Defense, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, can keep Trump informed, under control, and all four working for the same goal.

One result of the Trump team inept handling of the Qatar-Saudi controversy has been creation of a vacuum for another major power, such as Turkey or Russia, to replace the U.S. as the honest broker for the Gulf States.  

Qatar is a small, rich, and independent sovereign country bordering the northeast corner of Saudi Arabia and jutting out as a peninsula into the Persian Gulf. Its population is 2.6 million, but only some 300,000 are citizens. Thanks to oil and liquefied natural gas it is wealthy enough to follow its own path in foreign policy which has for decades led to confrontations with its larger Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia.

Recently, during the Arab Spring revolutions, it gave support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. Its al-Jazeera news organization has caused irritation to governments throughout the Middle East.

A member of the U.S-led coalition against the Assad regime in Syria, ISIS and other terrorist groups, Qatar helped build U.S. Central Command’s forward headquarters at Al Udeid Air Base within its borders. The Combined Air Operations Center and intelligence operations there are key to support of fighting in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan and serves as home to some 11,000 American service personnel.

On the other hand, Qatar maintains decent relations with Iran, with whom it shares the world’s largest, independent gas field beneath the Persian Gulf, making the two the second and third largest holders of gas reserves behind Russia.

Little more than three weeks ago, on May 21, Trump in his major speech at Riyadh to the Arab Islamic American Summit, described Qatar as host of U.S. Central Command and “a crucial strategic partner.” In that same speech, Trump talked of the need to “cut off the financial channels that…let extremists pay their fighters and help terrorists smuggle their reinforcements.” But he mentioned no specific country, although terrorist funders have been found and alleged to be active in several Gulf countries, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

That same day, in a press photo op, after his one-on-one with Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Trump said, “We’ve been friends for a long time, and our relationship is extremely good.” He went on to say, “We have some very serious discussions right now going on” but the one Trump mentioned was Qatar’s “purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment because nobody builds it like the United States and for us that means jobs.”

Three days later, near midnight, a news flash on the official Qatar News Agency site reported remarks allegedly made May 23 by the Emir of Qatar to a military graduation class in which the Emir reportedly had said, “There is no wisdom in harboring hostility toward Iran, an Islamic Power,” and Qatar had “tensions” with the Trump administration. The Emir also was reported saying Qatar’s relations with Israel were “good,” and Hamas was the official representatives of the Palestinians.

Shortly thereafter, Qatar’s Communications Office announced the story was completely untrue and had “no basis whatsoever.” It claimed, “The Qatar News Agency website has been hacked by an unknown entity.”

Nonetheless, less than 30 minutes later, Saudi and UAE news networks began reporting the Qatar Emir’s critical remarks without Qatar’s claim it was a false story.

In addition, based on a text moving on Qatar’s website, Saudi-run Al Aribya reported that Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman Al Thani, had tweeted that Qatar was withdrawing its ambassadors from several nearby countries. Both the story of the Emir’s alleged speech and the text about Qatar recalling its ambassadors were quickly removed from the web.

Despite Qatar’s official denials, Middle East media continued questioning Qatar’s hacking claim. As a result, Qatar on June 2 sought help from the FBI and the British National Crime Agency to investigate the source of its claimed cyber attack. Results of this inquiry have not been released.

However, it was a surprise to the Trump administration when, on June 5, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE announced they were cutting diplomatic relations with Qatar and calling for a blockade of that country by air and sea. They accused Qatar of providing financial support to terrorists.

Tillerson quickly responded diplomatically, saying he recognized “irritants” within the Gulf region countries but urged “the parties sit down together,” because “we think it is important that the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] remain unified.”

Trump, hours later, took a sharply different tack. At 8:06 am, June 6, he tweeted, “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!”

It was an obvious reference to the Saudi action.

Trump followed that at 9:36 am with another set of tweets, “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding…extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”

In subsequent days as the blockade of Qatar continued and harsh words were exchanged between the contending parties, Tillerson offered U.S. good offices for negotiations, without success.

On Wednesday, June 7, Trump spoke on the phone with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar’s emir, offering to host a mediation summit at the White House.

At 12:24 pm on June 9, Tillerson read a balanced statement calling on Qatar to be responsive to its neighbors concerns that it has supported terrorist groups but recognizing “the emir of Qatar…has made progress in halting financial support and expelling terrorist elements from his country, but he must do more, and he must do it more quickly.”

At the same time, Tillerson also called on the Saudis and its allies “to ease the blockade against Qatar.”

Less than three hours later, in a statement he read at the start of a Rose Garden press conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, Trump changed the balanced course Tillerson had set hours earlier.

Trump described Qatar as an historic “funder of terrorism at a very high level” and gave the impression he had approved the decision of the Saudis and their allies to take “a hard but necessary action.”

What’s interesting is that Trump described this U.S. approach as one he decided, “along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, our great generals and military people,” with Tillerson sitting right in front of him.

As The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl pointed out yesterday, since Trump’s grand reception last month in Riyadh, Trump “has swung so fully behind its [Saudi Arabia’s] ruling family that it felt empowered to launch a diplomatic and military boycott against neighboring Qatar, home of the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East.”

Not surprisingly, that next day, June 10, Russia called for dialogue between Qatar and its neighbors in the Gulf, promising help in mediating the crisis, as Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met his Qatari counterpart.

Joining last Saturday was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had already approved deployment of Turkish troops to Qatar to protect what he described as “our Qatari brothers.” He also said he would do everything he could to end the regional crisis.

One other new outcome of the Trump administration’s inconsistency is reflected in Qatar’s June 7 hiring of former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s law firm, with a $2.5 million down payment. Under the agreement filed with the Justice Department, the firm is not only to investigate and show how Qatar was combating global terrorism, but also show Qatar was “in support of and in compliance with international financial regulations, including U.S. Treasury rules and regulations.”

To support the effort on behalf of Qatar, the Ashcroft firm was to hire “former officials who held very senior positions” within the Intelligence Community, FBI, Treasury, and Homeland Security.

The agreement added there was an “urgency” to communicate the results of its inquiry to a “broad constituency and certain domestic agencies and leaders.”

Having seen these types of foreign agent contracts in the past, they are the first sign that countries involved in controversies where the current U.S. administration has no firm position, foreign governments believe they need high-priced lobbyists to safeguard their positions.

I expect more American lobbyists will be hired before this is settled.

The Author is Walter Pincus

Walter Pincus is a Columnist and the Senior National Security Reporter at The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  In 2002, he and a team of Post reporters won the Pulitzer Price for national reporting. He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the 2010 Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy.  He can be reached at wpincus@thecipherbrief.com.

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