The Qatar Crisis and the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy Dysfunction
Mark Perry reports on the internal rifts inside the Trump administration over the Qatar crisis:
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.” [bold mine-DL] 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 31-year-old amateur.”
This is consistent with other reports, and it matches up with my view of the split between the State Department and the White House during this crisis. The rift between Tillerson and Trump on this issue has been impossible to miss, and it has been the latest in a series of episodes in which Trump publicly undermines or contradicts his own Cabinet officials about what the U.S. position on a given issue is. That dysfunction has been on display for months, but it finally seems to be exhausting the patience of Trump’s top Cabinet members. Under these circumstances, it is hard to see how Tillerson can effectively do his job when he is being repeatedly sabotaged and overridden and everyone in foreign governments knows that he has little or no clout with the president. The role of Kushner in all this helps explain why Trump has so credulously accepted the Saudi-Emirati line, since Kushner has close ties with both Mohammed bin Salman and the UAE’s crown prince.
The striking thing in Perry’s report is how surprised Mattis reportedly was by the move to blockade and punish Qatar:
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.”
I don’t doubt the report that Mattis was shocked, but that shock seems to be a product of believing the administration’s own hype about the supposed success of the Riyadh summit. It was a Trump administration talking point that they had everyone “on the same page,” but that wasn’t the reality and Mattis should have known that. The Saudis and their allies received a very different message from Trump’s visit: they took his gushing praise as proof that they could do no wrong and would be permitted to do as they liked in their region without having to worry about backlash from Washington. In this case, that meant settling scores with Qatar, and they assumed (correctly) that they had Trump’s full personal backing. Trump has now publicly confirmed that they have his backing on several occasions, and they know that complaints from State don’t mean anything. If forming a common front against Iran is what Mattis was most concerned about, he ought to have guessed that Qatar would be targeted because of its relatively good relationship with Iran. At the very least, he should have known better than to think that the show of unity made at the summit actually reflected deeper agreement on policy.
After the last two years of Saudi recklessness in Yemen, I’m not sure why Mattis was so stunned by more of the same. The Saudis and their allies picked an unnecessary, much more costly, far more destructive fight in Yemen, and the result has been disaster and the worst humanitarian crisis on earth. Given that track record, what would make Mattis expect good foreign policy decisions from the Saudi government? Why would foolish and dangerous decisions leave him stunned?
There was another quote in the report that jumped out at me:
“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.”
I agree that the Saudis have been nothing but trouble, and the war on Yemen is proof of that, but the U.S. has consistently rewarded and encouraged that troublesome behavior for years and has specifically aided and abetted the disastrous campaign in Yemen that the retired officer rightly calls a “stain.” My point here is that the “trouble” caused by the Saudis has been backed to the hilt by the U.S. under both the Obama and Trump administrations, and until the U.S. starts taking a consistent position of refusing to enable their reckless behavior our support for them contributes significantly to the region’s wars and crises. As long as the Saudis and their allies know that they have Trump in their corner, that isn’t going to change.