Days after President Donald Trump returned from first trip abroad, stopping in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Italy, the Saudis — along with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain — cut ties with Qatar, halting traffic on sea, air, and land and ordering Qatari citizens to leave the Gulf states within two weeks.
The move amounted to a significant fracture of the relative stability the Gulf had enjoyed in comparison to the turmoil embroiling the wider region and would be a hindrance on US-led efforts to deescalate tensions elsewhere in the Middle East.
Yet, days after the severing of ties, Trump appeared to throw the US’s weight behind the Saudi-led bloc.
“Nations came together and spoke to me about confronting Qatar over its behaviours,” Trump said at the White House.
“We had a decision to make,” he said of his discussions with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. “Do we take the easy road or do we finally take a hard but necessary action? We have to stop the funding of terrorism.”
“I decided, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, our great generals and military people, the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding. They have to end that funding and its extremist ideology,” the president added. “The nation of Qatar has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”
Qatar is home to one of the US’s largest foreign military bases, hosting 11,000 US troops at the Al Udeid air base, which is regional hub for air operations against ISIS. In the wake of Trump’s comments, US military officials told CNN that there had been no immediate interruption to anti-ISIS efforts, but, they warned, their long-term planning ability was being affected.
As a sign of the gulf between Trump’s seeming commitments and the military’s orientation, the US and Qatari navies completed joint naval exercises off the latter country’s East Coast last week.
Nine Qatari ships — including gun boats, coast guard, and supply ships — worked with four US ships to do air-defence and surface-missile simulation exercises, according to AFP.
Qatari Staff Commander Mohammed Desmal Al-Kuwari told AFP that the US Navy asked to do the joint drills “a few weeks back” and that US and Qatari ships do such exercises several times a year.
“There are many allies asking for exercises within our waters,” Al-Kuwari, who commanded the joint exercise with the US, said. “Many navies from our European allies are asking for exercises.”
Operational exigencies likely made it so US commanders could not call off or reschedule the drills on short notice, even if they wanted to.
But other actions taken by the Trump administration suggest a broader lack of coherence when it comes to political and military relations with the Gulf states.
Less than a week after Trump boasted of his agreement with the Saudis and others to take action on what they saw as Qatar’s ties to terrorism, the White House signed off on the sale of $US21 billion in US weapons to Doha.
A deal for $US12 billion of that total for 36 F-15 fighter jets was agreed upon in Washington that week — Qatar’s ambassador to the US even tweeted a photo of Defence Secretary James Mattis signing the deal.
The US State Department doesn’t seem to be on board with joining Saudi Arabia and others to isolate Qatar either.
Hours before Trump’s remarks seemingly aligning him with the Saudi bloc, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the blockade of Qatar was hindering US military operations and that Doha had made some progress in ending support for terrorism.
The State Department has also admonished Riyadh and other Persian Gulf states for cutting off Qatar.
“Now that it has been more than two weeks since the embargo has started, we are mystified that the gulf states have not released to the public nor to the Qataris the details about the claims they are making toward Qatar,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauret said this week.
“At this point we are left with one simple question,” Nauret added. “Were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long simmering grievances” among countries in the region.
Tillerson, who has done over 20 calls and meetings focused on ending the dispute, wants “results,” she said. Tillerson, she said, is telling those involved, “Let’s finish this. Let’s get this going.”
The differences between Trump’s and Tillerson’s statements — and the State Department’s struggles to resolve the situation — are no doubt exacerbated by numerous vacancies in Foggy Bottom.
When Trump departed for his trip in late May, seven of the nine senior jobs at the State Department were unfilled, and the vast majority of about 200 jobs in the department requiring Senate confirmation had no occupants more than 100 days into Trump’s term.
That lack of manpower, coupled with Trump’s own idiosyncrasies, has diplomats from Europe and elsewhere trying to adapt quickly to the new Washington.
“You have to make adjustments,” Tom Malinowski, an assistant secretary of state during the Obama administration, told the BBC. “And you just batten down the hatches and hope things change sooner rather than later.”
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