by Robert E. Hunter
After six months, the Trump administration is facing its first major diplomatic challenge: the blockade of the Persian Gulf state of Qatar by four other regional countries, led by Saudi Arabia. This has led the so-far untested new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to engage in an abbreviated round of shuttle diplomacy—so far to no visible effect.
But there are some “effects” that need to be understood. Most important, the Trump administration is discovering that it can’t just make up policy willy-nilly in critical parts of the world—or, rather, President Donald Trump can’t—without risking enduring US interests. This point arises because of Trump’s strong support for Saudi Arabia during his visit there in May, followed by his public support for the Saudi effort to bring Qatar to heel over what Riyadh alleges have been Qatar’s transgressions.
There are 13 of these sins, a list also endorsed by Bahrain (a total client state of Saudi Arabia), the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.. So, for instance, Qatar stands accused of supporting terrorism in the region and breaking an Arab consensus by having reasonably normal relations with Iran (with which it shares the world’s largest gas field). It has provided aid and comfort to the Muslim Brotherhood (a particular bugaboo of the current Egyptian government). And it houses the cable news channel, Al Jazeera, which, not coincidentally, is the only reasonably free media outlet in this part of the Arab Middle East and thus a threat to absolutist Gulf monarchies for whom uncensored news and commentary are anathema.
When Saudi Arabia and the other three countries came down hard on Qatar, Washington was shocked. The Saudis had clearly taken President Trump at his word and exploited it by pursuing old grudges against Qatar. (The Saudis were also gratified that Trump did not urge it to end its brutal intervention in Yemen, undertaken since the Obama administration with US military support, which has produced great civilian suffering and profits the United States nothing.) Washington was discomfited because Qatar is the linchpin of its entire military position in the region, in the form of the massive military base at Al Udeid, upon which the United States depends utterly to prosecute its military operations both in Afghanistan and against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). The Saudis did not factor this irreducible US requirement into their calculations.
The depth of US concern led the secretary of state to travel to Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to try sorting things out. Whatever other knowledge and experience he might have in foreign policy, as former head of ExxonMobil he is expert in this part of the world and on a first-name basis with many of the principals involved on both sides of the quarrel.
Another effect of the current imbroglio is that the regional states must now understand that the United States is still far from being a paper tiger. Despite the brouhaha over President Trump’s behavior and even legitimacy as president, the United States is not oblivious to its core interests, either in the region or in the global economy. Without the United States having said so, Qatar’s opponents have crossed an important US (and Western) red line. Further, although the Gulf Cooperation Council, to which all parties to the dispute but Egypt belong, is not taken seriously by anyone as able to do anything useful for regional security, its members being openly at sixes and sevens does not serve US interests.
Immediately following the Saudi-led actions against Qatar, the Pentagon thus invited the Qatari defense minister to a ritual signing of a $12 billion arms contract for F-15 aircraft that had been in the pipeline for months. And in Doha, during his mini-shuttle visit to the Persian Gulf, Secretary Tillerson signed with the Qatari foreign minister a memorandum of understanding in which Qatar pledged to work to end all support for terrorism. Tillerson praised Qatar for “being the first to respond to President Trump’s challenge at the Riyadh Summit to stop the funding of terrorism.”
This ceremony was designed to show that the United States was not ignoring the Saudi-Bahraini-UAE-Egyptian demands. But it was also designed to tell the Saudis, the most important supporters of terrorism anywhere in the world, that they need to change their own behavior.
In short, Secretary Tillerson’s shuttle diplomacy, without so much as saying so, seems to demonstrate that the United States will suffer no more nonsense when its own interests are deeply engaged. To be sure, there was no positive outcome of this trip, and Tillerson left Riyadh without even a press conference. But the message is clear: Saudi Arabia must back down but, to save face, some time can be allowed to pass and Riyadh can come up with the formula for doing what the United States now requires of it.
The crisis has now been given a further twist, with the revelation by The Washington Post of the alleged hacking of Qatari government news and social media sites. The hacks falsely portrayed the Qatari Emir as calling Iran an “Islamic power”—a no-no in Arab circles. Qatar immediately denied this “fake news,” but it was still given currency by the UAE and Saudi Arabia and ostensibly served as the reason for launching the punitive actions against Qatar. Perhaps most significantly, however, the Post sourced its story from US intelligence services, prompting speculation that this was another US cease-and-desist message to Saudi Arabia and its anti-Qatar partners. The bottom line in all this is that the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, plus Egypt, need the United States far more than it needs them, political turmoil in Washington notwithstanding.
The Problem of Iran
A major factor in this whole affair has been the desire of the four states confronting Qatar to get it “on side” in their desire to keep Iran isolated. This, in turn, is part of both the Sunni-Shia struggle in the region that was accelerated by the misbegotten US-led 2003 invasion of Iraq and the geopolitical competitions in the region, which also include the more remote states of Turkey and Israel.
Looked at in the cold light of day, however, the United States has no interest in being sucked more deeply than it already is in Sunni-Shia competition, a “no-win” position for America brought on by strategic errors of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
For the longer term, the United States also needs to find a way to be less engaged in the region, at least as a provider of blood and treasure to advance the interests of any regional country, other than what should be a common desire to defeat IS. This needs to include the development, over time, of a viable regional security structure, with appropriate politics and procedures, that includes all the local nations, not just a like-minded subset of them, along with their finally coming to understand that such a step is more likely to profit everyone than continuing conflicts that can have little value for any of them.
This judgment means including Iran, a country with which the United States does not need to have a lasting quarrel. (That judgment is shared by all the other countries, including Britain, France, and Germany, that joined the US in concluding the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, which guarantees that it cannot get nuclear weapons.) Indeed, the United States urgently needs to rethink its attitudes, policies, and approaches toward Iran.
Yet domestic political pressures in the United States militate against exploring the possibility of building on the success of the JCPOA, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency has certified that Iran is in full compliance. Strikingly, this week the Trump administration followed suit, although it added that Iran is “unquestionably in default of the [JCPOA’s] spirit.”
Regrettably, as well, memories of the Iran hostage crisis of 40 years ago, plus the drumbeat of anti-Iranian propaganda by acolytes of some Arab oil states and Israel, along with continuing anti-Israeli statements by Iran’s clerical establishment, made it politically impossible for the Obama administration to explore whether Iran would modify some of its objectional behavior in the region in exchange for full readmission into the international community. President Trump has himself bought into this view of Iran as an enemy of the United States, as has Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Although perhaps understandable, such feelings should not be allowed to substitute for analysis and calculations of national interests.
Despite the analysis presented here, the Trump administration may continue “drinking Saudi Arabia’s Kool-Aid” and permit it to have its own way, US interests be damned. Maybe Secretary Tillerson will be undercut by his own boss. But let’s hope not. Indeed, the Qatar crisis and the effort Tillerson has already put in should presage the beginning of a region-wide strategy promoting the interests of the United States, a strategy whose absence has permitted several countries, including the Russian Federation, to run amok across the region at America’s expense. It is time for the United States again to show what it is made of in promoting what is inherently important to it.
Photo: Rex Tillerson arrives in Kuwait (U.S. Department of State via Flickr).