Even as his top advisors sought to defuse an escalating crisis in the volatile Middle East, President Trump on Friday doubled down on his criticism of Qatar, a key U.S. ally, calling it a longtime “funder of terrorism at a very high level.”
Trump again took credit for what he described as a growing movement to fight Islamist-inspired terrorism in Sunni Arab countries. He did not acknowledge any responsibility, however, for adding to the tensions with criticisms that his aides have been struggling to walk back.
To that end, just an hour before Trump’s comments at a Rose Garden news conference, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia and three other Arab nations to ease their recent crackdown against Qatar.
Tillerson said the decision of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to cut diplomatic and economic ties with the neighboring, energy-rich emirate was having dire humanitarian consequences and harming U.S. military operations fighting Islamic State militants.
Qatar is the site of the largest U.S. military base in the region and the launching point of numerous U.S. Air Force bombing missions.
“Our expectation is that these countries will immediately take steps to de-escalate the situation and put forth a good faith effort to resolve their grievances they have with each other,” Tillerson said, reading a statement to reporters.
He called for a “calm and thoughtful dialogue” to ease the crisis, which he said was causing food shortages, separation of families and loss of business in Qatar. He took no questions.
Trump, however, did not seem to be on the same page and a short time later contradicted his secretary of State, again praising Saudi Arabia, “my friend King Salman” and the “truly historic summit” that the Saudi ruler hosted in Riyadh.
Trump also used the appearance to make an explicit commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s core mutual defense obligation, weeks after he declined to do so at a meeting of alliance members in Brussels.
“I am committing the United States to Article 5,” Trump said in response to a question during the news conference, with the president of Romania at his side.
By siding so vociferously with Saudi Arabia, the president’s latest foray into Middle East diplomacy has managed to roil allies and adversaries alike, and inflame already volatile tensions between the Gulf region’s two powerhouses, Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.
Veteran diplomats called Trump’s actions confused or simplistic at best — and at worst, reckless and dangerous. They warned that the contradictions ultimately undermined Trump’s broader desire to form a coalition of Arab states that would fight Islamic State, isolate Iran and help with peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Administration officials “have been all over the map,” said Michele Dunne, a former specialist at the State Department and director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The Saudis “have long wanted to bring Qatar to heel … but it is not in the interests of the United States at all.”
Many experts saw the decision to turn on Qatar as a move promoted by Saudi Arabia to punish the tiny emirate for its independence and efforts to punch above its weight on foreign policy matters. Unlike more authoritarian Gulf states, Qatar reacted positively to the so-called Arab Spring of anti-regime protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, and has been more proactive in reaching out to Israel, still officially shunned by most of the Arab world. It also welcomed the establishment of the Al Udeid U.S. military base.
Qatar’s capital city, Doha, is also the home base of the Al Jazeera international news network, highly regarded in much of the Arab world and also quite critical of Riyadh and other authoritarian regimes. That earned it enmity in Saudi Arabia, which ordered its offices closed as part of the freeze on Qatar.
This international activism has been a mixed bag. Qataris have supported anti-authoritarian groups but also pro-Islamic groups, which in some parts of the region are the same thing.
Hence Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt riles the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, who sees the Islamic political and social organization as a terrorist front.
Tillerson, along with Defense Secretary James Mattis, had been working the last few days to repair the rift and were holed up part of the time with Trump, even during the hearing of fired FBI Director James B. Comey on Thursday. Trump also was on the telephone to several Gulf leaders Thursday and Friday, including the emir of Qatar, all in an urgent attempt to avoid further escalation. The latest of those was Friday with Sisi, to whom Trump expressed “the importance of maintaining unity among Arab countries,” the White House said.
In addition to offending Qatar, Trump’s efforts to boost the Saudis and other Sunni nations against Iran — while not completely out of line with past U.S. policy — does end what had been Obama-era efforts to promote a soft rapprochement with Tehran to bolster moderates, and keep Iran in check with a landmark international accord limiting its nuclear ambitions.
“This poses serious problems for the United States and brings to the fore the battle of wills between the Saudis and Iran,” Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East envoy for Democratic and Republican administrations, said Friday. “And all of this is swirling about when the administration is looking for coherence in policy while trying to assemble this effective [Sunni Arab] coalition.”
Referring to the mixed signals from Trump and his government, Miller, now a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, added, “Who knows what the debates inside the administration have been on this?”
Foreign policy expert Richard Haass said “siding unconditionally” with the Saudis against both Qatar and Iran was “dangerous” because it could encourage Riyadh to act “recklessly.”
“In the Middle East, things tend to get worse before they get even worse,” Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said. “[The] odds of a direct Saudi-Iran clash [are] increasing.”
The Pentagon has insisted that the conflict with Qatar has not interrupted the daily air wars orchestrated by the U.S. military out of the Al Udeid base. But on Friday, spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said: “The evolving situation is hindering our ability to plan for longer-term military operations.”
“Qatar remains critical for coalition air operations in the fight against ISIS and around the region,” Davis said, using another term for Islamic State.
By favoring the Saudis over Qatar, Trump is ignoring those who have been equally supportive of terrorism abroad, critics say.
Despite vital Riyadh-Washington economic connections and intelligence-sharing over the years, the U.S. has “largely ignored some of the malevolent influence that the Saudis and Saudi money plays in the region and worldwide when it comes to the spread of these very violent terrorist groups,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a leading Capitol Hill critic of the desert kingdom.
“We are not well-served by a U.S. policy that weighs in so definitively on the side of the Sunnis in the growing set of proxy wars between Sunnis and Shiite,” he added, saying it ultimately does not serve U.S. national security interests to alienate Sunnis and bring about more radicalization and humanitarian disaster, as in Yemen. Murphy is a sponsor of a bipartisan Senate resolution that would ban part of a U.S. sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia because of the killing of civilians in Yemen, where the U.S. backs a Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-supported Houthi rebels.
Times staff writers W.J. Hennigan and Michael A. Memoli in Washington contributed to this report.
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