The Saudi-led blockade on Qatar has exposed deep divisions within the Trump administration over its response to the diplomatic crisis rocking the region. Repeated confessions by senior US officials denying any kind of feud have done little to check the suspicion that the American administration has locked horns over the best way to deal with the crisis.
Some in the White House, revealed the New York Times, say that the quarrel over Qatar is the latest example of a larger struggle within the US administration over who is in charge of Middle East policy; is it Mr. Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, or Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser?
A trend not seen since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is once again emerging. Just as the Neo-Cons went on a joy-ride with the US military into a destructive and unnecessary war against the interests of the country, a new group of ideologues are equally hell bent on doing something similar, despite Donald Trump’s election promise to put “America first” and adopt a more isolationist foreign policy.
Once again US foreign policy appears to be hijacked by what seems like a cabal of ideologically driven individuals, with vested interests and questionable associations. This trend was plainly visible during Trump’s so-called Muslim ban which was met with strong resistance from the country’s judiciary and the State Department. The bill has since come into effect after modification by the White House but it is likely to remain a source of contention for the foreseeable future.
Remarks by the US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, who described the crisis as an opportunity “to influence” both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, may point to a country which is aware of its own self-interest and the manner in which to attain it. But dig deeper and you find divisions that are large enough to make foreign governments wonder whether to believe the conciliatory tone of the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson or the more incendiary approach of Trump and his aides.
Disagreements over Qatar have further fuelled the suggestion that the White House and the US State Department are pursuing different foreign policy goals. Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis were both said to be “surprised” and “shocked” by the sudden move to blockade and punish Qatar. A senior military officer described Mattis’ reaction saying that “his first reaction was shock, but his second was disbelief”. The same official added that Mattis believed that “the Saudis had picked an unnecessary fight” at a time “when the administration” thought Mattis had “gotten everyone in the Gulf on the same page in forming a common front against Iran”.
Trump on the other hand, who has continued to flip-flop over both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, was quick to cheer the Saudi-led blockade without any sense of irony. On his campaign trail, his was the loudest anti-Saudi voice ever seen from a future President. Accusing the Saudis of being behind 9/11 and the “world’s biggest funder of terrorism” he called for the termination of America’s nefarious relations with the Saudi monarch whom he accused of funnelling money to terrorists that wanted to destroy the American way of life.
A $400 billion dollar investment deal between Trump and King Salman – which is looking increasingly like a bribe to rival anything else in the history of political bribes – may have had something to do with acquiring Trump’s loyalty, but Tillerson and Mattis, attuned to the harm they may have caused US interest, moved quickly to patch up the fall out between the blockading countries and Qatar.
In the eyes of political realists in America Qatar has been a strong ally. Housing Al Udeid Air Base since 1996, which accommodates 10,000 servicemen, Doha stands out in the region as being literally the launch-pad for Washington’s ongoing ‘war on terror’. The contrast between the strategic significance of Qatar and Saudi Arabia is not lost to American officials. While criticising the Saudis as having been “nothing but trouble”, American military officials say that Qatar is “a key and critical partner in the region”.
Recognising that a blockade against a country housing the largest US military base in the Middle East – which is vital to US air campaigns in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – Tillerson and Mattis were said to be scrambling behind the scenes to undo the damage caused by Saudi Arabia. Within days of announcing the blockade Tillerson called on Riyadh to ease the siege, while lending American support for a Kuwait-led mediation.
Trump, however, had other ideas. He contradicted Tillerson immediately after the secretary of state called on the blockading countries to ease the siege. He then doubled down on a previous comment, which seemed to goad the Saudis into adopting the harsh measures against Doha, while rebuking Qatar in front of the White House saying that it “has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level”. Tillerson was not only “blind-sided by the Trump statement,” wrote Mark Perry, but he was “absolutely enraged that the White House and State Department weren’t on the same page”.
The source of Trump’s anti-Qatar stance, which political realists believed hindered US self-interest in the region, was very revealing. Perry confirmed that Tillerson’s aides were convinced that the true author of Trump’s rebuking statement was UAE ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, who is a close friend of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Officials in the State Department, according to Perry, “put two and two together and concluded that this absolutely vacuous kid was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters”. It was suspected that “Otaiba weighed in with Jared and Jared weighed in with Trump”.
“The mess”, as it was described, was said to have been nearly the last straw for Tillerson: “Rex is just exhausted. He can’t get any of his appointments approved and is running around the world cleaning up after a president whose primary foreign policy adviser is a 36-year-old amateur,” said one of Tillerson’s close associate.
What transpired afterwards further highlighted the strength of disagreement between ideologues in the White House and realists in the State Department. Mattis moved to oversee a $12 billion sale of fighter jets to Qatar, which appears to have been timed suspiciously to undermine the statement from the White House. Tillerson on the other hand, became a source of even greater frustration as he distanced himself from Trump and the blockading countries by telling the House Foreign Affairs Committee that it would be a mistake to classify the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. As support for the Brotherhood was cited as one of the reasons for the blockade, this would have been particularly annoying to the Majlis-ash-Shura in Riyadh and the White House in Washington.
Trump entered the White House promising to drain the government “swamp” by introducing “reforms to make [our] government honest once again”. It was widely perceived as a commitment to introduce new laws that would make it harder for lobbyists and foreign agents from interfering in US policy. But like most political promises it seems nothing more than empty rhetoric. Not only has he failed to do what he promised, Trump has turned US politics into an even greater swamp where only the most corrupt and ideologically degenerate politicians thrive.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.