How the Trump Administration Undercuts Its Heavyweights
On Qatar, Rex Tillerson and James Mattis are giving allies one message—while the White House sends another.
Like a palace court, those closest to President Donald Trump’s ear have the power to sway him, overruling the advice he gets from the political outsiders-turned-Cabinet-members he hired to for their expertise.
The continuing saga over Qatar is a case in point, where White House advisers like Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt—who believe Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt are stronger counterterrorist allies than Doha. Their view is competing with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Pentagon chief Jim Mattis, who see taking sides against Qatar could backfire, driving it closer to Tehran.
At stake: the Arab and Muslim coalition against the so-called Islamic State that Trump aimed to shore up with his May visit to Saudi Arabia, and with it, Trump’s campaign promise to destroy ISIS.
In a land where leaders cut their teeth on inter-family intrigue in the day-to-day running of their countries, the divided American front gives them plenty of opportunities to pit competing Trump factions against each other. Other Mideast nations are watching, learning that no matter what Tillerson or Mattis might tell them, they’ll only know where the president really stands when he tweets about it—and sometimes, not even then.
The Gulf nations are choosing to believe the officials who tell them what they want to hear, resulting in an unwillingness to either drop or meet demands, each side digging its heels in because of what they’ve been told by their favorite American interlocutor.
Qatari officials say Tillerson has assured them he’ll end a weeks-long diplomatic, air and sea blockade of the Gulf state by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt over Qatar’s alleged support of terrorism. His Sunday statement on Qatar’s receipt of the Gulf country demands is reminiscent of a principal walking in to break up the fight among squabbling kids in a schoolyard.
“A productive next step would be for each of the countries to sit together and continue this conversation,” Tillerson said in the latest of his measured statements on the dispute, putting his views in writing so no one inside the White House or the Gulf can misinterpret his intent, ahead of a week of meetings with Qatar’s foreign minister and other senior Gulf officials.
But anti-Qatar Gulf officials put their trust in assurances from White House advisers like Trump son-in-law Kushner and Mideast adviser Greenblatt, who tell them that they will compel Iran-friendly Qatar to change its ways. Doha will be forced to drop its alleged support to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, they promise; and its sometimes-incendiary news networks, Al Jazeera, will be reined in, according to three people informed by U.S. and Gulf diplomats.
Some members of the Trump administration have made no secret of their animus toward Qatar. White House official Sebastian Gorka attended a Foundation for Defense of Democracies conference in Washington, D.C., that specifically examined Qatar’s alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Gorka regularly interjects his concern over Qatar’s alleged misdeeds at low-level meetings of National Security Council staff, according to two people familiar with the matter.
“When the intel rep says they’ve found no evidence of Qatar funding the Muslim Brotherhood, Seb raises his hand and points out news stories that say otherwise,” one of the sources said. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
One senior administration official defended the he-said, he-said confusion as a calculated strategy of good cop, bad cop. The president names and shames Qatar, then Tillerson quietly provides them a pathway out that gooses Qatar into a swifter crackdown on terrorist financiers in its midst.
“We are basically on the Saudi side but do not want to force Qatar deep into a corner from which it cannot get out,” a second senior administration official explained, backing up the notion that Qatar’s behavior needs to be checked. “That opens the door to mischief from the outside,” namely Iran, with which Qatar shares a gas field.
Both senior administration officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe Team Trump’s Mideast maneuvering.
The leading Republican in Congress is coming down on Tillerson’s side. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker tweeted a letter he sent, barring weapons sales to the Gulf Cooperation Council until the Qatar matter is resolved.
“Recent disputes among the GCC countries only serve to hurt efforts to fight ISIS and counter Iran,” Corker wrote in a letter Monday to Secretary Tillerson. “Before we provide any further clearances… on sales of lethal military equipment to the GCC states, we need a better understanding of the path to resolve the current dispute.”
“Senator Corker’s letter certainly strengthens Tillerson’s negotiating hand and puts pressure on the GCC to find a resolution instead of continuing to hedge, hoping that either Qatar will capitulate or the U.S. will ultimately back their position,” said Andrew Bowen, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “As much as Doha needs to take more steps to address terrorism financing, the continuing crisis only empowers Iran.”
In an attempt to tamp down tensions and act as honest broker, Tillerson’s team had been weighing key U.S. demands to put to Qatar.
According to two sources briefed on the matter, Tillerson’s list of potential demands to Qatar includes: embedding U.S. Treasury officials in its central bank as technical advisers to help step up Qatar’s arrests and convictions of terrorist financiers; strengthening the existing agreement of sharing information on suspected terrorists; and requesting that Qatar “restructure” Doha-based Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel, which has proved a constant annoyance to the boycotting Gulf nations, giving their critics a platform though never criticizing the country that hosts them.
The Al Jazeera reforms could include electing a board to oversee and professionalize the Arabic channel’s news standards, which are seen as lagging behind those of the English version of the channel, the sources said.
A Qatari official said Treasury officials already visit the central bank with regularity and counterterrorism intelligence sharing with the United States is already robust. He said any outside attempt to change Al Jazeera amounted to an outside power trying to quell free speech in his country, which he dismissed as a Saudi demand.
According to two of the people familiar with Tillerson’s thinking, Tillerson’s list was temporarily shelved when Gulf nations presented their own demands, which State Department officials widely consider too sweeping—the Gulf powers called for shutting down Al Jazeera and several other news stations, as well as reducing diplomatic contact with Iran.
The State Department declined to respond to requests for comment on the American draft list but did not dispute it.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir told reporters Tuesday on a visit to Washington that the demands Gulf nations have put to Qatar are “not negotiable,” adding that “it’s up to the Qataris to amend their behavior. If they don't, they will remain isolated.”
The cacophony of Trump administration positions started with the president’s May summit with Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh. When Trump met Qatar’s emir, Qatari officials say he made no mention of impatience with Qatar’s role in the terrorism fight. But when several Gulf nations and Egypt suddenly announced just two weeks later that they were cutting ties until Qatar stopped supporting terrorism, Trump tweeted his support.
In one, he said, “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar—look!”
At the same time, Tillerson was calling on Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt “to ease the blockade against Qatar.”
And Pentagon chief Jim Mattis sealed a $12 billion deal with Qatar’s visiting defense minister Dr. Khalid al-Attiyah to purchase U.S.-manufactured F-15 fighter aircraft.
After the sale was announced, a senior Qatari official told a small group of American journalists that the sale showed all was well between Washington and Doha.
The official said he’d reached out through an intermediary to plead with Trump directly that his tough tweets on Qatar were being perceived as a green light for the Gulf nations continue their blockade of Qatar. He was told that Qatar should “ignore the tweets,” and that Trump had put Tillerson in charge of smoothing out the diplomatic conflagration. The official spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the ongoing diplomatic furor.
But a senior Gulf official from the anti-Qatar coalition countered that the Trump administration had given them advance warning of the aircraft sale, and assured them Washington was going to stay tough on Qatar.
One of the senior administration officials confirmed that point of view: “Qatar is a real problem, but we also need to offer them a ladder,” he said. “This should be resolved internally to the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) but with a better Qatar on the other side and severed ties to (Syrian-based) Nusrah and other al Qaeda-linked extremist groups.”
That point of view was shared by one of Qatar’s harshest critics under the Obama administration, who says Doha left itself open to the Gulf nation ambush by not moving fast enough to cut off terrorist financing.
“Designated UN and U.S. terrorist financiers are operating openly in Qatar,” former Obama Treasury official Daniel Glaser told The Daily Beast. “Progress has been incremental and too slow.”
But Riyadh saw the Obama administration as too eager to seal a nuclear deal with Iran to apply tough pressure, so is hoping for a do-over with Team Trump.
The Saudi embassy declined to comment. But Ali Shihabi, of the Washington, D.C.-based Arabia Foundation, said that, “from a UAE and Saudi perspective, they’ve tried the route of quiet diplomacy. There was a window of opportunity with Trump.”
“If we are going to have a cohesive alliance, this undisciplined member has to be brought to heel,” Shihabi added. “Either you go to war, or you apply psychological pressure.”
This story was updated with comments from the Saudi foreign minister on Tuesday.