June 22, 2017

Washington’s Competing Priorities in the Qatar Crisis

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson walks in to a news conference to speak about Qatar at the State Department in Washington, DC, June 9. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

On June 20, a U.S. State Department spokesperson announced what seemed to be a crucial shift in the U.S. approach to the confrontation between a group of Washington’s core Arab allies – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt – and another major partner, Qatar. Noting that “it’s been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar.” Now, she pointedly added, “we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long simmering grievances between and among the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries?”

The countries confronting Qatar were clearly stung by this blunt criticism, and moved quickly to address the U.S. concerns. On June 21, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement saying, “we understand a list of demands has been prepared and coordinated by the Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians, and Bahrainis.” He added, “We hope the list of demands will soon be presented to Qatar and will be reasonable and actionable.” However, none of this alters the fundamental equation since the June 20 State Department criticism was not withdrawn or amended. The U.S. criticism was not only unusually harsh diplomatic rhetoric questioning the motives and veracity of long-standing U.S. allies, it also seems to complicate, if not contradict, earlier remarks on the dispute by Tillerson and President Donald J. Trump. The harsh and contrasting administration comments highlight the intensity and complexity of U.S. interests at stake in the crisis.

Through a series of tweets and statements, Trump initially seemed to side heavily with the countries confronting Qatar, and with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz personally. Trump said Qatar “unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” and linked that funding to “its extremist ideology.” Trump appeared to take credit for the campaign to pressure Qatar to change its policies, tweeting that it showed that his trip to Saudi Arabia was “already paying off.” He said that during or after his Middle East trip several national leaders “spoke to me about confronting Qatar over its behavior” and called the ensuing campaign to confront Doha “a hard but necessary action.”

Tillerson adopted a more nuanced tone that stressed the urgent need to resolve the crisis. The striking difference in their tenor and style led many observers to conclude that Trump and Tillerson had contradicted, or undercut, each other. While Tillerson’s remarks appeared – and to a large extent were – balanced and evenhanded, in effect he sided with the countries demanding policy change by Qatar, just as Trump had. Tillerson urged them “to ease the blockade against Qatar,” but added that, while Qatar has made some progress in halting financial support for terrorists and expelling them from the country, it “must do more and … more quickly.” Thus, while all the other parties were expected to quickly return to the status quo ante, Qatar was being told to change its existing policies and conduct.

Yet, in diplomacy, tone and style are weighty matters that shape perceptions and, often, the practical meaning of policies. Trump and Tillerson may not have contradicted each other, exactly, regarding Washington’s expectations and its desired outcome: a swift resolution to the crisis and for Qatar to crack down on terrorism financing and end its support for extremists. Yet the chasm between their rhetorical approaches fostered considerable uncertainty about the U.S. position and a widespread impression that the administration was at loggerheads over the issue. The latest comments from the State Department, however, raise more substantive questions about Washington’s attitudes. For the first time, they shift the onus from Doha to its critics, and draw a distinction between “support for terrorism” and other unspecified “long simmering grievances” among GCC states.

This distinction helps illustrate the contours and complexity of Washington’s concerns about the confrontation between its Gulf Arab allies. When Trump was in Riyadh in late May, his primary theme was the need for unity within the pro-U.S. camp. The trip also confirmed the administration’s three priorities in the Middle East: combating terrorism (which includes cracking down on terrorist financing and extremist ideology), confronting Iran, and pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace. The initial impulse, particularly by Trump, to side unequivocally against Qatar may have been shaped by the fact that many of the accusations against Doha were framed in terms of the first two of his three priorities.

Both Trump and Tillerson specifically cited the first issue – counterterrorism and terrorist financing – directly in their remarks on the crisis. Trump’s accusation that Qatar has been funding terrorism “at a very high level” – although it remains unclear whether by “high level” he means large amounts of money, or senior government figures, or both – was echoed by Tillerson. The secretary of state said, “Qatar has a history of supporting groups that have spanned the spectrum of political expression, from activism to violence.” In both cases, the implication is that the campaign to pressure Qatar was provoked by that history and Doha’s ongoing practices.

The State Department’s comments, however, reflect the broader Trump administration theme of unity. The administration is becoming frustrated that this confrontation among U.S. allies is persisting without much movement toward resolution, and seems to have been especially dismayed that the coalition confronting Doha took so long to develop a thorough list of demands to end the crisis. The idea, as suggested by UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, that the current standoff could go on for “years” is unacceptable to Washington. The United States not only needs a united front against Iran and terrorism, it needs stability in the Gulf region. It cannot operate successfully as the guarantor of regional order and strategic stability with its core allies, in whose territories Washington maintains different components of its indispensable military apparatus in the region, unwilling to deal with each other. The Saudi and Emirati argument that the campaign against Qatar isn’t divisive, but is actually a search for unity worthy of the name because Doha’s conduct is the real source of division, might make sense in a GCC context. But it is starting to lose the audience in Washington.

It’s not that the Trump administration is suddenly enamored of Doha or convinced by its arguments. Washington has long been concerned about Qatar’s dalliances with extremists and radical ideologies, and feels Doha needs to do far better on countering terrorism financing. But as the dispute has dragged on, the costs to the United States, especially over the long run, have become increasingly clear, raising questions in Washington as to what can practically be secured from Qatar at a reasonable price. Hence the whiplash turn, with the State Department in effect lashing out at the Arab coalition and questioning the aims and motivations of the campaign against Qatar.

Washington clearly felt the need to communicate that its patience for both sides is limited, and that it still regards both parties to the confrontation as allies, even though it shares some concerns about Qatar’s behavior. Moreover, Washington confirmed that it isn’t about to abandon Doha as a partner by going forward with the long-planned sale of F-15 fighter jets to Qatar, conducting joint maneuvers between U.S. and Qatari naval forces, and indicating no interest in the idea of relocating U.S. military assets in Qatar, including the massive Al Udeid Air Base (the forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command).

The Trump administration has found itself with two core imperatives – unity among Gulf Arab allies and combating terrorism and extremism – that, in the context of the Qatar crisis, seem to be pulling it in opposite directions. Both sides in the intra-Arab dispute have now been on the receiving end of some stern U.S. admonitions. But only Qatar has been told that it must change its long-standing behavior, and “quickly” to boot. The Trump administration may therefore strike a balance between its competing priorities, and the two sides in the crisis among its Gulf Arab allies, by pushing the coalition confronting Qatar for a quick resolution to the crisis but not without demanding some specific commitments from Doha to mend its ways. If nothing else, over the past three weeks, Washington has amply demonstrated that it is perfectly willing to seriously pressure both sides.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.