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The Qatar Crisis and the Incoherent U.S. Response

Trump's enthusiastic embrace of the Saudis and their allies allows our reckless clients to ignore criticism from the State Department.

The State Department criticized the Saudi-Emirati campaign against Qatar in another very public disagreement with the White House:

The State Department on Tuesday issued a blistering critique of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries for enforcing a two-week embargo against Qatar without giving the tiny country any specific ways to resolve a crisis over accusations of Qatar’s funding of terrorism.

The statement seemed to put President Trump and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson further at odds about who is to blame for the dispute, which threatens a host of American diplomatic and security priorities in the gulf.

The State Department statement faulted the Saudis and their allies for failing to provide evidence to back up their charges against Qatar:

“Now that it has been more than two weeks since the embargo has started, we are mystified that the gulf states have not released to the public nor to the Qataris the details about the claims they are making toward Qatar,” Heather Nauert, the department’s spokeswoman, said in a news briefing.

This would be a fair criticism if we seriously thought those claims were the reason for the standoff. Since they weren’t the real reason, it is strange to think that these governments would bother with providing “details” when it was obvious that the attempt to coerce Qatar had little or nothing to do with matters of terrorism and everything to do with Qatar’s rivalries and disputes with its neighbors on other issues. The Saudis and their allies understood that they had a green light from the president to do what they wanted to Qatar, and he confirmed that again earlier this month when he publicly contradicted Tillerson on this question. While Trump may have been gullible enough to accept the Saudi-Emirati cover story for their actions at face value, few others were fooled. The State Department official acknowledged that at least one part of our government has finally caught on:

“The more time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.,” she said, referring to the United Arab Emirates, which joined the Saudi embargo along with Egypt and Bahrain.

“At this point,” she 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” among countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, who share both common interests and rivalries.

Recognizing that the U.S. is being conned about the real motivations for the Saudi-Emirati campaign is a welcome change from State, but it probably comes too late to do much good. That is particularly true when we remember that the punitive measures against Qatar continue to have the full backing of the White House. That allows our reckless clients to dismiss criticisms from the State Department as meaningless, and that is exactly what is happening:

“When was there a crisis when the State Department did not say we need to de-escalate?” he said. In his own communications with the White House, [UAE Ambassador to the U.S.] Otaiba said, he had gotten no pushback.

The State Department deserves a little credit for finally taking the Saudis and their allies to task for something, but other governments know by now that they don’t really speak for the Trump administration. Whatever value their criticism might have had was already negated by the president’s willingness to indulge our despotic clients in whatever they want to do.



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