Amid conflicting signals, Trump shows ‘who’s the boss’

As a result of this lack of predictability, all eyes turn to Donald Trump because he has the last word.

The one in the middle decides. US President Donald Trump (C), US Defence Secretary James Mattis (R) and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a meeting in Brussels, in May. (AP)

2017/06/18 Issue: 111 Page: 5

The Arab Weekly
Thomas Seibert

Washington- A month after US President Donald Trump embarked on his first trip to the Middle East to reassure allies there about Amer­ica’s reliability, the government in Washington is leaving everybody in the region guessing about its posi­tion on the Qatar crisis.

Trump overrode conciliatory statements by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by putting the United States firmly on the side of Saudi Arabia in the spat with Qatar in a statement delivered June 9. As Till­erson and other officials have taken a much more nuanced position in face of the crisis, there is confusion about what the United States is try­ing to achieve.

US Defence Secretary James Mat­tis told a congressional committee on June 12 that Qatar, branded a re­gional terror sponsor by Trump, was moving in the right direction. Mattis and his Qatari counterpart Khalid bin Mohammad al-Attiyah finalised the sale of up to 36 F-15 jets from the United States to Qatar for about $12 billion. Tillerson had been trying to get top officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qa­tar to travel to Washington for talks about ways to end the rift.

These actions by Mattis and Till­erson stood in stark contrast to Trump’s stated position. He said he was involved in the decision by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others to isolate Qatar, which he described as a move to bring pressure on the government in Doha to stop funding radical groups. In a sign of tension within the US government, US Am­bassador to Qatar Dana Shell Smith resigned from her post. The ambas­sador was among US officials who previously commended Qatar for making process in curbing the flow of money to radical groups.

Observers said the disarray is a consequence of the inner dynamics in the administration under Trump. Owen Daniels, a Middle East analyst at the Atlantic Council in Washing­ton, said Trump undermined Tiller­son, Mattis and others by highlight­ing his own position as president. “He is reminding them who’s boss,” Daniel said. Actions by other players in the government could be swept away “like a house of cards,” he said.

Some observers said the fact that Trump’s foreign policy is highly per­sonalised gives outside players a po­tentially big influence on Washing­ton’s stance. Speaking on condition of anonymity during a visit to Wash­ington after the start of the Qatar cri­sis, a high-ranking Western official speculated that Saudi Arabia had steered Trump towards taking a po­sition that was in line with Riyadh’s wishes. Trump was “erratic ,” the of­ficial added. “You really can’t talk about a reliable US foreign policy.”

Considering this lack of predicta­bility, all eyes turn to Trump because he has the last word. “If people are taking different public positions on big issues, then the world will begin to tune out everyone but the presi­dent, who ultimately makes the de­cisions,” Jonathan Finer, a chief of staff of former US Secretary of State John Kerry, told the Washington Post.

“This is not normal,” said David Mack, a former US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates who now works for the Middle East Institute in Washington. The US president was supposed to be supportive of members of his own cabinet, he said, but that was not the case with Trump.

With Tillerson’s mediation ini­tiative showing no progress, Daniels said the solution to the Qatar crisis must come from the Gulf coun­tries themselves. The United States would probably be able to play a role in bringing the adversaries’ po­sitions closer by persuading them to tone down their demands, he said, adding: “It will be a facilitating role.”

Mack said the “institutional rela­tionship” between the United States and Gulf countries based on com­mon long-term economic and mili­tary interests was unaffected by the political disagreements and would ultimately help to resolve the cri­sis. “But it might take a year to get things back on track,” he said.

As the Trump administration tries to find its footing, Qatar’s op­ponents are increasing their lobby­ing efforts in Washington. Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States, said Washington should abandon the Al Udeid base south of Doha. The base, the United States’ largest in the Middle East, is home to a forward headquarters of the US Central Command. It is an ul­tra-modern command centre with 10,000 US troops and conducts op­erations in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, includ­ing air strikes in Syria and other places.

Otaiba said the United States should pull its soldiers and equipment out of Qatar. “Maybe someone in Congress should have a hearing and just say, you know, ‘Should we consid­er moving it?’” he was quoted in news reports as saying.

Analysts said the UAE would be happy to provide a new home for the US base. Ed Royce, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of Representa­tives, said in May that Con­gress was ready to consider moving the base to another site in the Middle East if Doha did not change its ways.

Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.

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