It’s Hard To Overstate How Badly Trump Botched The Qatar Crisis

The president’s avoidable errors made things worse
U.S. President Donald Trump, right, holds a bilateral meeting with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

U.S. President Donald Trump, right, holds a bilateral meeting with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The crisis began on June 5, when Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, cut all diplomatic ties with Qatar. They withdrew ambassadors, halted trade, and banned travel, suspending flights to Qatar by airlines based in their countries, even if they originated elsewhere. Officially, the reasons were Qatar’s support for terrorism and ties to Iran.

President Trump crowed in response:

On May 21, the president gave a speech in Riyadh in which he blamed terrorism and Middle Eastern instability primarily on Iran. It was the official announcement of a policy shift the Trump administration had been working on for months, moving the United States fully behind Saudi Arabia in the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry.

(I wrote about the Riyadh speech in greater detail here).

Saudi Arabia has long been a U.S. partner, and Iran a U.S. adversary, but previous administrations tried to avoid taking sides in their competition for regional power. Balancing the two helped prevent greater instability in the Middle East, and gave U.S. foreign policy more flexibility for responding to regional challenges.

Trump sees the situation as good guys (Saudis) vs. bad guys (Iran). But — and I can’t believe I have to write this — the Middle East is complicated.

Iranian-backed Shia militias killed Americans during the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. And Iran sponsors Hezbollah, which the United States, European Union, and Arab League designate as a terrorist organization. But the Iranians are also fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Iran is Shia, but most anti-American terrorists are Sunni. Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadists are Salafi, a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam spread around the world by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis directly supported some jihadists fighting in Syria — because Syrian President Bashar al Assad is allied with Iran — though they backed off somewhat as ISIS gained power, because ISIS, like al Qaeda, wants to overthrow the Saudi royal family.

And 15 (out of 19) September 11th hijackers were Saudi. No Iranian terrorist has killed anyone on American soil.

My point is not that the United States should abandon the Saudis — they’re valuable intelligence partners, and the plausible alternatives to the royal family are an ISIS-controlled state or Syria-style chaos — just that the Middle East defies simple good guys-bad guys classification.

But the Saudis convinced Trump that Qatar is a bad guy. It wasn’t even hard.

They flattered him with a royal welcome, projecting a five-story image of his face onto the hotel where he was staying. And, by challenging Qatar as a sponsor of terrorism, they gave him a “win” he could brag about. That’s all it took.

The Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, May 19, 2017. King Salman’s on the right.

The Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, May 19, 2017. King Salman’s on the right.

What the Sunni Arabs Really Want

The problem is, Qatar’s not a bad guy. That doesn’t mean Qatar’s a clear cut good guy, just that — like everything else in the Middle East — it’s complicated.

It’s true the Qatari government has supported terrorists. Like most Sunni Arab governments, they’ve funded some jihadists who are fighting their adversaries, such as anti-Assad rebels in Syria. They’re also among the biggest financial backers of Hamas, which controls Gaza and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and EU.

But those aren’t the “terrorists” the Saudis, Egyptians, Emiratis, and Bahrainis are most concerned with. Qatar supported various Arab Spring movements, as well as the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt that followed. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain designate the Brotherhood a terrorist group, as does Syria and Russia, but the U.S. and EU do not.

And, while other Sunni Arab states line up behind Saudi Arabia in its cold war with Iran, Qatar — which is majority Sunni — has played both sides, maintaining relations with the Iranians.

After initiating the crisis, the Saudi-led coalition issued a list of 13 demands, insisting Qatar “scale down” relations with Iran and sever ties with all “terrorist, sectarian and ideological organizations,” including the Muslim Brotherhood. But they also demanded Qatar “cease contact with the political opposition in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain,” align its “military, political, social and economic policies with the other Gulf and Arab countries,” and pay reparations.

And they demanded Qatar shut down Al Jazeera and its affiliates.

That reveals the four countries’ primary interests. Al Jazeera is a global media company, funded by the Qatari royal family, similar to how the British government funds the BBC. Its satellite TV channel and website are popular throughout the Middle East. Critics, including the Saudis, accuse Al Jazeera of spreading propaganda.

In 2000, an Arab public opinion survey asked Egyptians where they get their news. About 75% said state television. Responding to the same question in 2010, nearly 80% said satellite television or the internet.

Arab Spring protests broke out in Egypt in January 2011.

Al Jazeera, more than any other organization, broke the Arab autocrats’ monopoly of information. They want it back.

The US-Qatar Relationship

From the American perspective, a news network that doesn’t toe the Saudi or Egyptian government lines is not a problem. Support for terrorism is, but the Saudis do that too, and that doesn’t stop the United States from working with them when their interests align. Nor should it.

Most importantly for American interests, Qatar is a valuable military partner. They host the Udeid air base, which is the United States’ largest in the Middle East. The U.S. military is running the air war against ISIS out of Udeid, and, with its location near the Gulf, it’s effectively America’s first line of defense if war breaks out between Israel, or any other American allies, and Iran.

Additionally, Qatar has committed troops to numerous American missions in the Middle East. Qatari Special Operations Forces were on the ground in Libya, organizing rebel groups while the US bombed regime targets. Currently, they’re helping fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

As a retired senior US military officer put it:

Every time we’ve asked the Qataris for something they’ve said ‘yes,’ which isn’t true for the Saudis.

Jeopardizing this relationship is definitely not in America’s interests. On June 6, a day after the crisis broke out, the Pentagon released a statement thanking Qatar for hosting the Udeid air base, and praised the Qataris for an “enduring commitment to regional security.”

Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — concerned the crisis could undermine American-Qatari military cooperation and the Trump administration’s efforts to isolate Iran — worked out a joint strategy to calm things down. Tillerson gave a speech criticizing the blockade on humanitarian, economic, and strategic grounds. He diplomatically noted “the emir of Qatar has made progress in halting financial support and expelling terrorist elements from his country, but he must do more” and announced that the United States supports Kuwait’s efforts to mediate the crisis.

Just hours after Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain to ease the blockade, President Trump undercut the Secretary’s statement with a Rose Garden speech demanding Qatar abandon “its extremist ideology.” According to Trump:

The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.

Reports say Tillerson was furious. And State Department officials noticed something odd in Trump’s statement. The language — funding “terrorism at a very high level” — resembled the UAE’s criticisms of Qatar. Some of Tillerson’s people believe Trump’s statement was heavily influenced, or even directly written by UAE Ambassador Yousef al Otaiba, who is close friends with Jared Kushner.

That means Kushner is running foreign policy out of the White House, without input from the departments of State or Defense. Kushner, rather than the nation’s diplomatic and military professionals, has the president’s ear. And there’s no reason to believe he knows what he’s doing.

Why Is Anyone Defending Jared Kushner?

Even more concerning, the shift in American policy towards Qatar came shortly after Kushner failed to secure a half-billion dollar investment in his family’s NYC building, 666 Fifth Avenue, from Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, a Qatari billionaire, and former Prime Minister.

Nobody Capitulates

This possibly corrupt, definitely amateurish foreign policy has the United States supporting a poor, Saudi-led strategy.

The Saudis are trying to rope Qatar back in line, but they overplayed their hand. Cutting off diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar will sting, but Qatar will survive. Its only land border is with Saudi Arabia, but it’s also on the water.

Qatar’s biggest export partners are South Korea (18.3%) and Japan (18.2%). The UAE is fourth, buying up 8.8% of Qatari exports.

Its biggest import partners are the United States (13.7%) and France (10.1%). The UAE is fourth, with 7.9%, and Saudi Arabia is eighth, producing 4.4% of Qatari imports.

Most importantly, as you can see from that map, Qatar is right across the Gulf from Iran. A lot of Qatar’s food supply enters from Saudi Arabia via truck — only 1% is produced domestically — and the blockade briefly set off a panic as supermarket shelves emptied. But Iran and Turkey promised food aid, and on June 11, six days after the crisis began, four Iranian cargo planes arrived with fruit and vegetables.

This means the crisis, rather than bringing the Qataris in line with the Saudi position, has pushed them closer to Iran.

On June 25, the Saudi Embassy in the United States tweeted a pro-Qatar statement from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Presumably, this was supposed to seem sinister. But it mostly signaled how badly their policy was backfiring.

The Saudis and their regional partners — and by extension, Donald Trump — made a fundamental error. No one capitulates unless they absolutely have to. The only successful modern examples are Germany and Japan’s total surrender in World War II, and Germany (unwillingly) at the end of WWI. No one who hasn’t lost a massive war agrees to harsh foreign demands.

The logic is simple: capitulating forfeits sovereignty and sets up further demands in the future. “If you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile” is a cliché for a reason. Capitulating in response to a blockade or sanctions demonstrates that those relatively low-risk tools work. If Qatar gave in under these circumstances, it would effectively become a vassal state of Saudi Arabia.

No one is that weak. America’s embargo of Cuba since 1962 hasn’t ousted the Castro regime or led to democracy. And America’s unilateral sanctions against Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution haven’t led to regime change there either.

However, sustained economic pressure, if it’s painful enough, can lead to negotiations. That’s the lesson of the Iranian nuclear deal. The U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, and China — along with other large economies, such as India and Japan — sustained an escalating sanctions regime that forced Iran to the table. Because the economic pressure was global, and because the demands focused on a single issue, Iran eventually agreed to curtail its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

President Trump, a harsh critic of Iran in general and the Iran nuclear deal specifically, has twice certified that Iran is living up to its obligations, most recently on July 17, 2017.

Trump vs. Iran

By contrast, the Saudi-led countries made absolutist demands with less economic leverage. Qatar, unsurprisingly, refused.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain sustained the blockade and got Yemen and Senegal to join. And they’ve managed to keep the United States from working with Kuwait and other countries pursuing diplomatic solutions to the crisis. But they’re no closer to getting Qatar to capitulate.

However, they did manage to create a rift with Turkey. In response to the crisis, Turkish President Erdogan announced his country’s support for Qatari sovereignty and deployed additional ground forces to Qatar, where the Turkish military has a base.

Today — July 19, 2017 — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Bahrain dropped their 13 demands, asking Qatar to agree to six watered-down principles. These new demands focus on general statements about combating terrorism and extremism and refraining from interfering in the internal affairs of other states. There’s no mention of Al Jazeera.

It’s unclear if Qatar will agree to these principles. It’s far from capitulation, but it still signals they’ll give in to foreign pressure. Thanks to Iranian and Turkish help, the blockade isn’t causing Qatar much pain. And it isn’t clear what Qatar would have to do under the agreement to fight terrorists and extremists. As noted above, Egypt and Saudi Arabia classify some organizations as terrorists that Qatar, and most of the world, do not.

Hopefully, this will lead to a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

But, no matter what happens, President Trump risked the military effectiveness of the American campaign against ISIS, and weakened the United States’ position in the Middle East by pushing Qatar towards Iran and facilitating the formation of an Iran-Turkey-Qatar alliance — backed by Russia — all because the Saudis flattered him and gave him something he could call a “win.”

And because Jared Kushner’s friend from the UAE said so.

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