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Tillerson and Mattis Cleaning Up Kushner’s Middle East Mess

On March 25, 2011, a Qatar Air Force Mirage 2000-5, took off from Souda Air Base, in Crete, to help enforce a no-fly zone protecting rebels being attacked by Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. Qatar was the first Persian Gulf nation to help the U.S. in the conflict.

Qatari operations were more than symbolic. The Qatari military trained rebel units, shipped them weapons, accompanied their fighting units into battle, served as a link between rebel commanders and NATO, tutored their military commanders, integrated disparate rebel units into a unified force and led them in the final assault on Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli [1].“We never had to hold their hand,” a retired senior U.S. military officer says. “They knew what they were doing.” Put simply, while the U.S. was leading from behind in Libya, the Qataris were walking point.

The Qatar intervention has not been forgotten at the Pentagon and is one of the reasons why Defense Secretary James Mattis has worked so diligently to patch up the falling out between them and the coalition of Saudi-led countries (including the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt), that have isolated and blockaded the nation. In fact, Mattis was stunned by the Saudi move. “His first reaction was shock, but his second was disbelief,” a senior military officer says. “He thought the Saudis had picked an unnecessary fight, and just when the administration thought they’d gotten everyone in the Gulf on the same page in forming a common front against Iran.”

At the time of the Saudi announcement, Mattis was in Sydney with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to dampen concerns about the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accords. The two glad-handed Australian officials and issued a reassuring pronouncement on U.S. intentions during a June 5 press briefing [2] with that nation’s foreign and defense ministers. When the burgeoning split between the Saudis and Qataris was mentioned, Tillerson described it as no more than one of “a growing list or irritants in the region” that would not impair “the unified fight against terrorism …”


But while Tillerson’s answer was meant to soothe concerns over the crisis, behind the scenes he and Mattis were scrambling to undo the damage caused by Saudi action. The two huddled in Sydney and decided that Tillerson would take the lead in trying to resolve the falling out. Which is why, three days after the Sydney press conference, Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to ease their anti-Qatar blockade and announced that the U.S. supported a Kuwaiti-led mediation effort [3]. The problem for Tillerson was that his statement was contradicted by Donald Trump who, during a Rose Garden appearance on the same day, castigated Qatar, [4] saying the emirate “has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”

A close associate of the secretary of state says that Tillerson was not only “blind-sided by the Trump statement,” but “absolutely enraged that the White House and State Department weren’t on the same page.” Tillerson’s aides, I was told, were convinced that the true author of Trump’s statement was U.A.E. ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, a close friend of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. “Rex put two-and-two together,” his close associate says, “and concluded that this absolutely vacuous kid was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters. Otaiba weighed in with Jared and Jared weighed in with Trump. What a mess.” The Trump statement was nearly the last straw for Tillerson, this close associate explains: “Rex is just exhausted. He can’t get any of his appointments approved and is running around the world cleaning up after a president whose primary foreign policy adviser is a 36-year-old amateur.”

Worse yet, at least from Tillerson’s point of view, a White House official explained the difference between the two statements by telling the press to ignore the secretary of state. “Tillerson may initially have had a view,” a White House official told the Washington Post [5], “then the president has his view, and obviously the president’s view prevails.”

Or maybe not. While Trump’s June 9 statement signaled that the U.S. was tilting towards the Saudis and the UAE, Tillerson and Mattis have been tilting towards Qatar. And for good reason. “Every time we’ve asked the Qataris for something they’ve said ‘yes,’ which isn’t true for the Saudis,” the retired senior U.S. military officer with whom I spoke says. “It really started with the help the Qataris gave us in Libya, but it goes well beyond that. They’ve been absolutely first rate on ISIS. The Saudis, on the other hand, have been nothing but trouble – in Yemen, especially. Yemen has been a disaster, a stain. And now there’s this.”

That view has been reflected by both Mattis and Tillerson. Six days after Trump’s statement, Mattis met with Qatari Defense Minister Khalid al-Attiyah to sign an agreement shipping 36 F-15 fighters to the Gulf nation. The $12 billion sale [6]had been in the works for years, so Pentagon officials were able to claim that it had not been fast-tracked by Tillerson, whose department oversees arms transactions. But the Mattis announcement seemed suspiciously well-timed to signal Mattis’ and Tillerson’s views.  

On the same day that Mattis was announcing the Qatar arms agreement, Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that it would be a mistake to classify the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, one of the primary reasons that the anti-Qatar coalition gave for isolating their Gulf neighbor. “There are elements of the Muslim Brotherhood that have become parts of government,” Tillerson said, naming Turkey and Bahrain as having brotherhood members in their parliaments. Those “elements,” Tillerson added, have renounced violence and terrorism. “So, in designating the Brotherhood in its totality as a terrorist organization . . . I think you can appreciate the complexities this enters into our relations with [governments in the region].”

But the single most important reason for the Qatar tilt is obvious to anyone who knows how to read a map. The U.S. leases the al-Udeid Air Base, southwest of Doha, which is home to the Air Force’s 379th Air Expeditionary Wing. The U.S. (and the Qataris), not only mount fighter-bombers from al-Udeid against ISIS units in Iraq and Syria, the base serves as the first line of defense against Iranian encroachments in the region. Even more crucially, al-Udeid not only protects America’s Persian Gulf allies, it protects Israel – and would be a launching point for U.S. aircraft against Iran were Israel to be attacked by the Islamic Republic.

More crucially, particularly from Mattis’s point-of-view, the Saudi-Qatar feud not only shattered the anti-Iran coalition the administration cobbled together during the president’s trip to Riyadh, it redrew the geopolitical map of the Middle East. In the wake of the Saudi-Qatar falling out, Turkey pledged its support for Qatar (and deployed troops to a Qatari military base to guard Qatar’s sovereignty), while Iran took steps to help ease the Saudi-imposed blockade.

“The Saudis and Emiratis have told us repeatedly that they want to weaken Iran, but they’ve actually empowered them,” a senior Pentagon consultant who works on the Middle East told me. The Saudi actions, this official went on to explain, have backfired. Instead of intimidating the Qataris, the Saudis have “thrown them into the arms of the Iranians.” The result is an uneasy, but emerging Turkish-Qatari-Iranian alliance backed by Russia. “This isn’t just some kind of Gulfie dust-up, where we can go out and hold everyone’s hands,” this Pentagon consultant says. “The Saudis have handed the Iranians a gift and we’re on the outside looking in.”

The official then shook his head. “Listen, I can certainly understand where Mattis and Tillerson are coming from. I mean, with friends like these, who needs enemies.”

Mark Perry is a foreign policy analyst and the author of  The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur. His next book, The Pentagon’s Wars, will be released in October. He tweets @markperrydc [7]




62 Comments (Open | Close)

62 Comments To "Tillerson and Mattis Cleaning Up Kushner’s Middle East Mess"

#1 Comment By CT Surety On June 28, 2017 @ 5:25 pm

@Max Minor … ” Israel does NOT need American protection because they have already INVENTED some of the best weapons EVER created (such as drones), they have a superbly well-trained force and they have nuclear weapons and would likely only use them against the Muslim countries who attack them first. “

Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard it before: “the fearsome crack Israeli military” … Except that when push came to shove for America in the Middle East, Israel proved to be worthless. The Israelis never roused themselves to do anything more dangerous or demanding than cashing the huge annual welfare checks that Congress squeezed out of the American taxpayer.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 29, 2017 @ 4:39 am

Gen Mattis and Gen. Flynn are te dogs of war. Their desire to go after anyone they think was or is involved harming the US is exactly what they are tasked with doing.

It is the civilian’s responsibility to ensure that go after the right dogs, at the right time.

I have some fond resentments about Iran. I don’t think they are as mild tame and peace-loving as others contend. There are plenty of sound reasons to distrust them. And I think it it is short sighted to think the Islamic revolution is alive and well as part of Iran’s ambitions.

But minus any hardline evidence that they have done anything to us, regardless (almost) what they do in the region.

I need a case that clears several hurdles before an invasion of Iran.

“You didn’t mention Hussein…which doesn’t obviate my point…he will make things worse…”

I am unclear what your comment means.

Despite the disruptions, there’s evidence of mass genocide. We now know that Pres Hussein wasn’t genocidal either. He did not single out the Kurds because they were Kurds. We don’t have anything that resembles even the threshold of Bosnia-Kosovo.

#3 Comment By acm On June 29, 2017 @ 12:12 pm

Mr. Perry,
Although you seem to make convoluted points about a dysfunctional Administration you may want to consider a few facts.
Iran and Qatar are huge supporters of terrorism.

Your suggestion that the Ambassador from the UAE effectively penned Trump’s statements via Kushner is laughable.

Your sources were most likely being paid directly or indirectly by Qatar and are cowards that remain nameless.

And since you clearly believe you are an expert in the mechanics of foreign policy you have missed the fact that views that are often disseminated as contrarian are often done in concert for reasons that are far beyond your pay grade.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 29, 2017 @ 12:17 pm


Despite the disruptions, there’s no evidence of mass genocide. We now know that Pres Hussein wasn’t genocidal either. He did not single out the Kurds because they were Kurds. We don’t have anything that resembles even the threshold of Bosnia-Kosovo.

#5 Comment By Upstate LEO On June 29, 2017 @ 6:54 pm

@acm “Iran and Qatar are huge supporters of terrorism.”

Maybe, but not the terrorism we’re worried about. We’re worried about Al Qaeda and ISIS. We don’t give a s*** about Iranian or Qatari supported groups. They’re somebody else’s problem, and if somebody else wants them to be dealt with, let somebody else do the fighting, dying, and paying for it.

#6 Comment By Horrocks On June 29, 2017 @ 9:14 pm

Somebody needs to let Trump know that we didn’t vote for his “lifelong Democrat” son-in-law.

#7 Comment By Gary Roadhouse On June 29, 2017 @ 9:28 pm

Perhaps Mr Tillerson needs to learn to check upline before flapping his gums!!

#8 Comment By Ken T On June 30, 2017 @ 1:22 pm

Iran and Qatar are huge supporters of terrorism.

But neither of them holds a candle to Saudi Arabia. So what’s your point?

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 1, 2017 @ 11:51 am

“But neither of them holds a candle to Saudi Arabia. So what’s your point?”

This needs clarification. I would be interested to know the details. Becuase if what you mean are agents of proxy wars, that hardly qualifies, if at all.

If you mean actors against civilian targets of states with that are not at war, that is something else entirely.

#10 Comment By WJ On July 2, 2017 @ 1:06 pm

The Qataris helped us in the insane Libyan intervention and that was a point in their favor?

I detest the Ivanka and Jared show as much as anyone but if the un-intended consequences of their actions makes the anti Iran coalition weaker, then I am all for them.

#11 Comment By Iyad On July 4, 2017 @ 2:53 pm

Qatar isn’t any better than Saudi. I believe the writer is paid by Qatar to make it look better. Iran is different. the only problem with Iran is they are willing to back any Islamic State just because they call themselves Muslims. Although Muslim Brotherhoods (turkey and in Egypt before) hate Iran because they are infidels. Hamas stabbed Iran in every possible way although it was the only country that gave them Ammo!!! Did any one hear about Iranian terrorists before? I met so many Iranian out side Iran who only call themselves Persians, and each one of them is either a liberal or became Christian. How many Saudis or even Arabs seen with such mentality? It shows that Iran teaches its people differently. they didn’t kill their own Persian civilization. May be made it Islamic but didn’t kill it like Arab did every where they took over like in Syria and Egypt. people don’t remember their thousands of year civilizations.
You hear about them from KSA: The Origin of Terrorism, and Israel: The terrorist supporter in Syria. So both of them lie. Qatar backs MB who are nothing but terrorists. The difference between them and Saudi is MB believe in Presidency and want to take over power from the Royalty in KSA. KSA supports Royalty (obviously!!). At the end non of them should be our friends. they need to be bombed heavily that non of them exist at all.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 27, 2017 @ 6:33 am

Note: None of the organizations mentioned as terrorist groups are any real hazard to the US. Their primary concerns pertain to their regions.

One the most problematic factors in calling for a war against terrorism is that it provide and endless stream of make shift, make believe enemies. The Al Qaeda of 1995/1996 or even 1993 is not the Al Qaeda of today. ISIS, is a threat to certain states in the region. As a general rule, those are sovereign internal issues to be dealt with by those states. And I believe that most states in the region are capable of dealing with them.

My position has never earned me any cookie, but 9/11 were criminal act(s) not a traditional act of war. Despite the magnitude, they should have been addressed as such.