Wednesday, June 07, 2017

President Trump Picks Sides, Not Diplomacy, in the Gulf

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CreditIllustration by Nicolas Ortega; Photograph by Al Drago/The New York Times
President Trump’s impetuousness and his simplistic view of American interests have again put national security at risk. He has taken sides with Saudi Arabia and four other Sunni states in their attempt to isolate and bully Qatar, the tiny gulf nation that is arguably America’s most important military outpost in the region.
Rather than position the United States to ease tensions in the Middle East, Mr. Trump has, essentially, picked one side in a small rivalry within a big rivalry. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen chose to cut ties to Qatar for a number of reasons, some of them petty, but principally because Qatar has a relatively close relationship with the Sunni states’ greatest rival, Shiite Iran.
Iran is a bad actor in many ways, but it also shares some interests with the United States, including in the fight against the Islamic State. On Wednesday, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for two attacks that killed 12 people in Tehran at the Iranian Parliament and the mausoleum of the Islamic republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Mr. Trump has made clear he seeks no opening to Iran and has no interest in building on the Obama administration’s success in reaching a nuclear deal with it. But even if his goal is to isolate Iran, allying with Saudi Arabia to punish Qatar is a self-defeating way to go about it: Qatar is home to the forward headquarters of the United States Central Command and is a major intelligence hub. It hosts Al Udeid Air Base, with more than 11,000 U.S. and coalition forces.
There is no sign that Mr. Trump has actually thought any of this through. Even as other American officials were saying they would try to calm the Saudis because Qatar was too important to the United States, the president leapt to Twitter to claim credit for persuading Saudi Arabia to act against Qatar.
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“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology,” he wrote, adding, “Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!” In two other tweets he reinforced this message, saying: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding … extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
It is true that Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, can be a troublesome partner, but Saudi Arabia’s complaint about Qatar and terrorism is hypocritical. Qatar has long been accused of funneling arms and money to radical groups in Syria, Libya and other Arab countries. But so has Saudi Arabia, a fact that Mr. Trump, seduced by royal flattery, chose to ignore. Instead, he made common cause with Saudi Arabia against its perceived adversaries — Iran, the main enemy, and Qatar, faulted for supporting terrorism and Iran’s regional ambitions. A far wiser course would have been to seek a balance between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. That he did not is one more in a string of bad decisions that have unnerved allies and partners.
This is also a bad time to alienate Qatar. With the United States allies beginning an assault on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s “capital” in Syria, America needs its bases.
Energy-rich Qatar has also played a unique role by mediating regional conflicts and pursuing an independent foreign policy, sometimes angering the Saudis and other gulf states. It supported the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that made the Saudis fearful, and it established the pan-Arab news network Al Jazeera as a vehicle for expanding its influence. Qatar has engaged Israeli officials, while at the same time hosting leaders of Hamas; maintained ties to Iranian leaders, while hosting U.S. forces; and allowed the Afghan Taliban to open an office in Doha, Qatar’s capital, that has facilitated talks between the militants and the United States.
The American ambassador to Qatar, Dana Shell Smith, this week retweeted one of her posts, saying that Qatar made “real progress” in curbing financial support for terrorists, reportedly including prosecuting people for funding terrorist groups, freezing assets and putting stringent controls on its banks. The State Department stressed that Qatar still has a ways to go, and there is continuing debate about Qatar’s support of groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Muslim group seen by Qatar as a constructive example of “political Islam” but by Saudi Arabia as a threat to hereditary rule and regional security.
On Iran, Qatar has generally adopted a middle ground by supporting efforts to limit Iran’s regional influence while maintaining a conversation with Iran’s senior officials. Qatar has a reason to work with Iran: They share a large natural gas field in the Persian Gulf. At the same time, Qatar is helping a Saudi-led coalition fight the Iranian-linked Houthi rebels in Yemen, and backing insurgents fighting an Iranian ally, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
One thing seems clear in all this complexity: Tiny Qatar is much more adept at diplomacy than is Mr. Trump. The man who sold himself as a shrewd deal maker seems to believe instead in green lights and blank checks, causing great damage to American interests. Even the $110 billion weapons package he signed in Riyadh turned out to be fantasy, a collection of letters of interest or intent, not contracts, all begun during the Obama administration, according to Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst who was a senior official in the Obama White House.
Legislation blocking this deal is working its way through Congress. At a minimum, lawmakers should refuse to resupply the Saudis with precision-guided munitions that are killing civilians in Yemen and implicating America in the process. Even better would be to hold up the package until the Saudis enter into serious negotiations on Yemen and resolve their differences with Qatar.

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