U.S. dragged deeper into Qatar’s ‘family issue’ with Persian Gulf neighbors
It’s the geopolitical crisis the Trump administration just can’t quit.
Even as the White House declares Qatar’s rift with its Arab neighbors “a family issue” they should resolve themselves, top diplomats from the feuding countries are converging on Washington this week, all vying for time with President Trump’s secretary of state. A reluctant mediator, Rex Tillerson has been shuttling between meetings with the rival parties, dragged further into the conflict as each side tries to enlist U.S. support.
Now in its third week and with no signs of ebbing, the Persian Gulf dispute has emerged as a major trial of Mr. Trump’s “America First” doctrine, in which the U.S. is no longer supposed to own problems far from its shores. For Saudi Arabia and others emboldened by Mr. Trump’s tough talk about fighting terrorism and opposing Iranian influence, the crisis is an opportunity to test just how far Trump’s administration will go.
“You cannot — it’s the first rule of diplomacy — rely on your partners who are closer to the scene to take charge of things,” said Ambassador James Jeffrey, the former U.S. envoy to Iraq and Turkey. “This is bigger than the chemical weapons in Syria. It’s bigger than the Mosul fight in Iraq. Because if the Qataris are threatened enough, they’re going to turn to Russia and Iran.”
On its face, the crisis appears far removed from the United States. But America’s role as the indispensable global power has traditionally made things more complicated. Indeed, the U.S. strategy for defeating the Islamic State group and resolving Syria’s civil war relies heavily on unity among a coalition of partners in which Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others are key players.
America’s ambiguous position has also complicated matters. Public comments by Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson have seemed to oscillate between support for Qatar and support for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the other Arab nations that have cut ties to the gas-rich monarchy.
Mr. Jeffrey said that Mr. Trump, by embracing Saudi Arabia with an early visit to Riyadh, left the Saudis with the impression that the U.S. would unquestioningly support their actions in the region. That emboldened the Saudis to move aggressively against Qatar over longstanding disputes, confident Mr. Trump would take their side.
Yet as the demands by Qatar’s neighbors grew in scope — far surpassing the original focus on terror financing — the White House sought to distance itself from the crisis. And the State Department began openly speculating that false pretenses were behind a regional tit-for-tat that was about much more than the shared goal of fighting terrorism.