While Donald Trump backs the Saudi-led ultimatum, the state and defense departments are openly critical – a mixed message that could worsen the crisis
The crisis created by the ultimatum delivered to Qatar by the Saudi-led Gulf coalition has been deepened by mixed messages from Washington.
While Donald Trump has declared himself wholeheartedly behind the blockade on Qatar, the state and defense departments have been sharply critical of the move, in private and in public.
The defence secretary, James Mattis, rushed to assure Doha of continuing support, mindful that US air operations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan fly out of the al-Udeid base, just outside the Qatari capital. Six days after Trump joined Riyadh in denouncing Qatar as a “funder of terrorism at a very high level”, Mattis signed a $12bn arms deal with the Qataris.
The state department issued a stinging rebuke of the behaviour of the Saudis and their Egyptian, Emirati and Bahraini allies, with the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, warning them to make their demands on Qatar “reasonable and actionable”.
Now that the list of 13 demands has been presented and Qatar has been given 10 days to comply, much will depend on what is seen as being reasonable and actionable.
On Thursday, state spokeswoman Heather Nauert would not be drawn on the question. “I think that they [the Gulf protagonists] will know exactly what things are reasonable and what things are actionable,” she said.
In reality, both sides in the dispute are accustomed to looking to the US for guidance. However, guidance from Washington has seldom been less clear.
Different parts of the US executive have often had very different approaches to foreign policy problems. During the Obama administration, for example, the White House was far more risk-averse and non-interventionist than the Pentagon and the state department over Syria. But rarely, if ever, have the disagreements been so open, and the signalling so chaotic. The result has been to increase the risk of miscalculation in an already dangerous row.
The immediate crisis can be traced back directly to Trump’s first trip abroad as president, to Riyadh on 20 May, when he was feted and showered with flattery. Trump vaunted Saudi leadership and decisively sided with the Sunni Gulf states against Iran. Less publicly, Trump appears tacitly or explicitly to have given the green light to the Saudi royals to go on the offensive against its truculent neighbour.
When the Qatar blockade was declared, Trump cheered it on in tweets, triggering alarm and countervailing moves from the Pentagon and state department.
There doesn’t appear to a rational policy process, or if there is, it seems to exclude the president
Daniel Drezner, Tufts University
“The general ambience in the White House is that they are in line with Saudi, the UAE and the others,” a source in the Trump camp familiar with foreign and security policy said. “They don’t want to be leading this – this is an Arab Gulf matter – but they are backing it.
“Then came the signing of that deal with Qatar with DoD [Department of Defense]. That was the first sign that things were different from what we thought.
“The difference seems to be very wide between the position of the White House and the statement made out of Foggy Bottom. It makes it look like there is a foreign policy, but there is an opposition to that foreign policy. That is really peculiar. It’s unexpected.”
The dissonance on policy toward Russia and Ukraine is equally striking, and was illustrated by the visit to Washington this week by the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko. He had been led to believe that he would have a White House meeting with Trump, which would solidify his standing in the continuing conflict with eastern Ukraine separatists and their Moscow backers.
By the time Poroshenko left Kiev, the meeting had still not been confirmed. The White House was insisting that Poroshenko would only be meeting Vice-President Mike Pence, which would be a significant snub. It was only after persistent pressure from the national security adviser, HR McMaster, that a compromise was found. Pence and Poroshenko would “drop in” briefly on Trump and McMaster.
Even then, the president, who is reported to be personally under investigation over ties to Moscow, did not offer words of support or criticism of Russia’s aggression, describing Ukraine noncommittally as “a place that we’ve all been very much involved in. And you’ve been seeing it, and everybody’s been reading about it”.
It was only when Poroshenko arrived at the Pentagon that he received a clear gesture of US support, delivered by Mattis, who told him: “We support you in the face of threats to sovereignty, to international law or to the international order.”
Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to Nato and now head of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said it was “not unheard of for the Pentagon and/or the state department to be out of synch with the White House on foreign policy.
“What is new is a president who is so highly expressive of his stance. Statements used to be coordinated and agreed by the inter-agency process and that is not happening here. That’s what’s new.”
Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said it was not uncommon for different parts of a US administration to play “good cop, bad cop” with foreign partners or rivals
“In this case,” he added, “there doesn’t appear to a rational policy process, or if there is, it seems to exclude the president.”
For the time being, Tillerson has been given the lead in brokering the Qatar stand-off, and Trump has not sent off inflammatory tweets or statements about it for two weeks.
However – unlike Mattis, to whom Trump has delegated unprecedented authority for deployments of US troops across the world and for framing strategy – Tillerson is a relatively weak figure in the administration, who shocked and alienated his own staff by backing cuts of nearly a third to the departmental budget.
“It’s a recipe for real problems if the actors in the region conclude that the state department has no voice in this and to look just to the White House for policy,” Drezner said. “The president still has overwhelming foreign policy authority.”