Tiller­son per­son­ally to me­di­ate Qatar dis­pute from Kuwait

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY KAREN DEYOUNG karen.deyoung@wash­post.com

Af­ter weeks of pub­lic state­ments and pri­vate phone calls with no ap­par­ent re­sult, Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son has de­cided to per­son­ally in­ter­vene in the on­go­ing Per­sian Gulf dis­pute that has threat­ened U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism op­er­a­tions in the Mid­dle East.

Tiller­son will travel late Mon­day to Kuwait, where its gov­ern­ment has un­suc­cess­fully tried to me­di­ate be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and three other Arab coun­tries that have block­aded and bro­ken re­la­tions with the tiny, en­ergy-rich na­tion of Qatar, home to the largest U.S. mil­i­tary base in the re­gion.

He plans to spend the week talk­ing to lead­ers of the war­ring gulf cap­i­tals, re­ceiv­ing them in Kuwait or shut­tling among re­gional cap­i­tals, ac­cord­ing to se­nior U.S. of­fi­cials, who cau­tioned that a firm sched­ule is not yet set.

Tiller­son’s first foray into high­stakes cri­sis ne­go­ti­a­tion comes as his stew­ard­ship of the State De­part­ment has been ques­tioned in Congress, the White House and within the de­part­ment it­self.

Se­nior White House of­fi­cials have com­plained that he has walled him­self off be­hind a hand­ful of se­nior aides and takes nei­ther their phone calls nor their rec­om­men­da­tions. Law­mak­ers have asked what he in­tends to do about Pres­i­dent Trump’s pro­posal to slash the State De­part­ment’s bud­get by nearly a third and made clear they will not per­mit it.

Scores of high-level jobs and am­bas­sador­ships re­main un­filled as the sec­re­tary has opted to re­view the struc­ture of the en­tire or­ga­ni­za­tion and pare back the over­all work­force be­fore mak­ing new ap­point­ments.

Ac­cord­ing to an out­side sur­vey com­mis­sioned by Tiller­son and com­pleted last month, many of his own staffers agree that the de­part­ment does not foster in­no­va­tion and is too big. Many of the 35,000 who par­tic­i­pated de­scribed a sys­tem ham­pered by lay­ers of bu­reau­cracy, in­clud­ing dozens of spe­cial-en­voy of­fices cre­ated to serve tem­po­ral needs and al­lowed to con­tinue in ex­is­tence long af­ter those needs have dis­ap­peared.

But the sur­vey re­sults, first re­ported last week by the Wall Street Jour­nal, also de­scribed State em­ploy­ees as de­mor­al­ized and un­sure of the di­rec­tion in which Tiller­son wants to take them. Many echoed con­gres­sional com­plaints about se­nior po­si­tions left un­filled while the sec­re­tary takes his time de­cid­ing which of­fices are im­por­tant and who should oc­cupy them.

Suc­cess in the gulf would help reestab­lish at least some of the good­will with which Tiller­son, con­sid­ered a man ex­pe­ri­enced in both in­sti­tu­tional man­age­ment and the ways of the world, be­gan his ten­ure. The for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of en­ergy gi­ant Exxon Mo­bil, who brought ex­ten­sive global con­tacts with him to the State De­part­ment, was seen on Capi­tol Hill, within the de­part­ment and abroad as a ma­ture coun­ter­bal­ance to an im­petu­ous, in­ex­pe­ri­enced pres­i­dent.

But even se­nior of­fi­cials who see Tiller­son as the per­fect man for the job of stop­ping the es­ca­lat­ing gulf cri­sis warn that it will not be easy. While the dis­pute, at least on its sur­face, is about ac­cu­sa­tions of sup­port for terrorism, all of the coun­tries in­volved are key mem­bers of the U.S.-led coali­tion against the Is­lamic State. Al­ready, their ac­tions have drawn in other re­gional friends and foes, from Iran and Turkey on Qatar’s side, to Jor­dan and a host of smaller Mus­lim coun­tries sup­port­ing Saudi Ara­bia.

In the face of deep-seated an­tag­o­nisms and dug-in po­si­tions, U.S. lever­age is lim­ited. All of the play­ers want to stay in Amer­ica’s good graces, and all see the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fo­cus on the re­gion and will­ing­ness to con­front shared en­e­mies as an im­prove­ment over what they viewed as Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s hes­i­tancy and dis­en­gage­ment. But there is lit­tle sense of how far the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, with equities to pre­serve through­out the re­gion, is will­ing to go in press­ing for res­o­lu­tion.

More than any spe­cific charge or coun­ter­charge the par­ties have lev­eled at each other, the ma­jor U.S. con­cern is that the dis­pute it­self is un­der­min­ing goals in the Mid­dle East. Although of­fi­cials in­sist it has not yet di­rectly af­fected op­er­a­tions at the mas­sive U.S. air base in Qatar, the ma­jor U.S. naval base in Bahrain or the other co­op­er­a­tive ven­tures that play a cen­tral role in the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, it risks di­vert­ing at­ten­tion from those mis­sions.

Part of the prob­lem is Pres­i­dent Trump him­self, who has pub­licly taken Saudi Ara­bia’s side in a se­ries of tweets and state­ments. The Saudis, along with the United Arab Emi­rates, Bahrain and Egypt, have ac­cused Qatar of fi­nanc­ing and sup­port­ing ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions, a charge they ham­mered home with Trump when Riyadh hosted him for a lav­ish, three-day visit on his first trip abroad in May.

Tiller­son, along with De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis, has called for the par­ties to re­solve their dif­fer­ences sooner rather than later. While both agree that Qatar could do more to stem terrorism fi­nanc­ing from within its bor­ders, they be­lieve the same, in vary­ing de­grees, of all the gulf coun­tries.

Tiller­son has point­edly sug­gested that the Saudis are us­ing the head­line-grab­bing terrorism is­sue as a cover to al­ter other Qatari poli­cies they have long found dis­pleas­ing. Af­ter con­sul­ta­tion with the sec­re­tary, Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) last month vowed that Congress would not ap­prove arms deals with states in the re­gion, in­clud­ing most of the $110 bil­lion in pro­posed U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Ara­bia touted by Trump dur­ing his visit, un­til the dis­pute was re­solved.

Mat­tis has gone out of his way to lock arms with Qatar as a se­cu­rity part­ner. He hosted its de­fense min­is­ter last month in Wash­ing­ton. On Thurs­day, the Pen­tagon an­nounced an­other Mat­tis call to the min­is­ter, Khalid al-At­tiya, in which it said the two “af­firmed their com­mit­ment to con­tin­ued U.S. co­op­er­a­tion and deep­en­ing their strate­gic part­ner­ship.”

Af­ter Qatar re­fused their de­mands last week, the Saudis and their part­ners vowed to im­pose un­spec­i­fied harsher ac­tions. Arab diplo­mats have said they could in­clude freez­ing Qatari bank ac­counts as well as other sanc­tions, a ma­jor step in a re­gion where economies and fi­nance often span bor­ders. As the sit­u­a­tion now stands, there ap­pears to be no way out that does not in­volve a hu­mil­i­at­ing stand-down by one side or the other.

“We’ve be­come in­creas­ingly con­cerned that the dis­pute is at an im­passe at this point,” State De­part­ment spokes­woman Heather Nauert said Thurs­day as Tiller­son be­gan to plan his shut­tle diplomacy. “We be­lieve that this could po­ten­tially drag on for weeks. It could drag on for months. It could pos­si­bly even in­ten­sify.”

The terrorism-fi­nanc­ing charge that gained Trump’s at­ten­tion may be the eas­i­est to re­solve with in­creased U.S. mon­i­tor­ing, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said.

But most of the de­mands Saudi Ara­bia and its part­ners have made, and Qatar has re­jected, re­volve around years-long dis­putes about the role of po­lit­i­cal Is­lam and in­ter­nal con­trol by the re­gion’s au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments. They in­clude a de­mand to ban the Mus­lim Brother­hood, the Pan-Arab Is­lamist move­ment that op­er­ates in dif­fer­ent guises in dif­fer­ent coun­tries.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials agree that Qatar’s po­si­tion in host­ing Brother­hood of­fi­cials and sup­port­ing them in other coun­tries is trou­ble­some. But they be­lieve a com­pro­mise could be worked out, per­haps by Qatar stop­ping its sup­port for Brother­hood or­ga­ni­za­tions in Egypt and Libya. Sim­i­larly, they hope the de­mand to shut down the Qatar-funded me­dia op­er­a­tion Al Jazeera can be ad­dressed with changes in pro­gram­ming.

Un­til now, how­ever, Saudi Ara­bia has said that its de­mands are “non­nego­tiable.”


Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son walks from the Rose Gar­den of the White House fol­low­ing a joint state­ment by Pres­i­dent Trump and South Korean Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in last month. He is set to travel to Kuwait on Mon­day and launch a shut­tle-diplomacy ef­fort.

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