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 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 in the Trump team, appears to have convinced the president to back off his initial course and, as a White House official puts it, “let Rex handle it,” at least for now.
The June 5 announcement of the anti-Qatar blockade surprised the U.S. 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 Donald Trump had attended a regional summit in Riyadh at which Qatar appeared to be a valued participant, and just as the U.S. was launching the final phase of its campaign to clear Daesh (ISIS) 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. Secretary of Defense James 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.
Youssef 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 U.S. 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 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 first announced, there was an obvious disconnect in U.S. policy. Tillerson said on 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 on 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 evenhanded. On a broader level, Trump is said to believe the U.S. 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 Exxon Mobil chief stays out of the news.
Tillerson noted his long experience in the region in a June 6 comment 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’ concern partly reflects his desire to concentrate fire on Daesh. Commanders say the final conquest of Raqqa, which began over 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 U.S. 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 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.
David Ignatius is published twice weekly by The Daily Star.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 17, 2017, on page 7.