The Cable

Trump Administration Tries to Salvage Gulf Relations, Contra Trump

The Pentagon, State Department, and White House all struggled to get their story straight on the Qatar crisis.

US President Donald Trump (R) and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani take part in a bilateral meeting at a hotel in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (R) and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani take part in a bilateral meeting at a hotel in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Less than a week after celebrating — and taking credit for — the Persian Gulf states’ ostracism of Qatar, the Trump administration is now scrambling to craft a coherent policy toward the region that won’t imperil U.S. counterterrorism operations or alienate longtime allies.

On Friday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to defuse the diplomatic fallout of Qatar’s deliberate isolation. He cited the potential danger to U.S. military operations at the al-Udeid air base, the centerpiece of U.S. Central Command operations in the region, and urged Qatar to find common ground with its neighbors. “The blockade is hindering U.S. military actions in the region and the campaign against ISIS,” he said.

That was news to the Pentagon, which just minutes before said that the days-long blockade of Qatar had yet to interfere with U.S. operations at al-Udeid, from which are launched many sorties of the U.S-led coalition against the Islamic State. The Defense Department, after Tillerson’s statement, quickly thumbed through the hymnal, and revised its earlier position.

“While current operations from Al Udeid Air Base have not been interrupted or curtailed, 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,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said in a statement.

On Monday, weeks after President Donald Trump’s orb-embracing visit to the region, Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia suddenly broke diplomatic ties with Qatar. They accused Doha of funding terrorism and cozying up to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, and banned travel and trade.  

A day later, Trump took credit on Twitter for the rupture, pointing to Doha’s support for extremists.

Since then, Trump administration officials have tried to walk back the damage, and talk Gulf states off the ledge. On Friday, Tillerson summoned reporters to the State Department and, after only a 90-minute wait, treated the press to a three-minute statement, with no questions allowed.

He bemoaned the “humanitarian consequences” of the Gulf states’ blockade of Qatar, including food shortages and families being forcibly separated.

“The blockade is hindering U.S. military actions in the region and the campaign against ISIS,” Tillerson said, though he declined to say how, even as he contradicted the Pentagon. (Tillerson’s previous work experience was as an oil industry executive in Texas.)

The damage-control campaign broke down Friday afternoon. Speaking at the White House Rose Garden with the Romanian prime minister on Friday, Trump said that  Qatar “has unfortunately been a funder of terrorism, and at a very high level.” He called on the country to stop bankrolling radical groups, saying “no civilized nation can tolerate this violence or allow this wicked ideology to spread on its shores.”

His comments echoed those he made earlier in the week, in which he praised the surprising sanctions handed down by Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt. They also came after Tillerson tried to mend fences.

Photo Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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