The US state and defense departments have scrambled to limit the diplomatic damage done by US President Donald Trump’s morning tweets lambasting Qatar, the hub for US military air operations across the Middle East.
Trump started Tuesday by taking sides in a bitter row among the Gulf monarchies, in which Saudi Arabia and its allies have sought to isolate Qatar.
The US president visited the region last month and claimed to have helped bring unity to the Muslim world in the battle against extremism.
Illustration: Mountain People
While in Riyadh, Trump met regional leaders, including Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
He said the US and Qatar had been “friends for a long time” and that the two leaders discussed the Qatari purchase of “ lots of beautiful military equipment.”
However, just more than two weeks later, after Riyadh cut ties with Qatar, Trump tweeted support for the move, claiming that when it came to funding radical ideology, “leaders point to Qatar.”
US relations with Qatar have long been complicated by Doha’s promotion of a conservative and austere form of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, from which many extremist groups claim to draw inspiration, and its backing of extremist groups elsewhere in the region.
However, the same issues have clouded the US’ relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, the Al Udeid base outside Doha is the center for US air operations over Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. It is to be critical for the assault on the Islamic State group stronghold Raqqa, which was launched on Tuesday.
“It’s unlikely, to say the least, that Donald Trump realized we are running the entire air war out of Qatar prior to his tweet,” said Andrew Exum, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy in former US president Barack Obama’s administration.
In a cycle that has become a daily norm in Washington, government agencies on Tuesday sought to mitigate the effects of the president’s declarations, restating existing policy and playing down the significance of the tweets.
The US Department of Defense praised Qatar for hosting US forces and its “enduring commitment to regional security.”
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said he was not qualified to answer a question about whether Qatar supported terrorism.
“I’m not the right person to ask that. I consider them a host to our very important base at al-Udeid,” Davis said.
New US Department of State spokeswoman Heather Nauert was bombarded with similar questions. She echoed the Pentagon’s expressions of gratitude and conceded that Doha had made strides in cutting the flow of funds to terror groups.
“We recognize that Qatar continues to make efforts to stop the financing of terror groups, including prosecuting suspected financiers, freezing assets, introducing stringent controls on its banking system,” Nauert said. “They have made progress in this arena, but we recognize that more needs to be done.”
Her comments echoed signals from US Ambassador to Qatar Dana Shell Smith, who on Monday had retweeted earlier embassy statements about Doha’s “great partnership and real progress” to counter-terrorist financing.
When Nauert, a former host of the conservative morning television show Fox & Friends, was pressed on the conflict between the Department of State’s signaling and the president’s tweets, she said: “Guys — let’s move off this social media thing because there are a lot of other important regions around the world that we need to talk about.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer also sought to mitigate the effects of the president’s tweet-tirade against Qatar.
“The president had a very, very constructive conversation with the emir during his visit in Riyadh. At that time he was very heartened by the emir’s commitment to formally joining the terrorist financing targeting center and showing their commitment to this issue,” Spicer said.
Former officials expressed concern that, while Qatar benefits from being on the US military presence and the income that presence brings with it, the souring of relations with its ruling family could push the strategically important nation into closer alignment with Iran or other adversaries.
Hours after Trump’s tweets, Russian President Vladimr Putin telephoned the Qatari emir, stressing that “Russia’s principled position in favor of settling crises by political and diplomatic means, through dialogue.”
CNN reported on Tuesday that Russian hackers had planted a fake news story on the Qatari state agency attributing reconciliatory remarks on Iran and Israel to the emir. The news story helped precipitate the crisis with Riyadh.
“The Saudis, Emiratis and President Trump are certainly correct that Qatar has been playing both sides of the street ... but we’re probably underestimating the possibility of Qatar breaking with the Sunni states and aligning itself with Iran,” said Kori Schake, a former US Department of Defense senior official in the last administration of former US president George W. Bush. “[I] hope we have a back-up for operations at Al Udeid.”
Former US Department of State senior official Ilan Goldenberg, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said: “At the end of the day, we have a lot of leverage on the Qataris and they are not going to walk away, but the president has thrown fuel on the fire. If we are going to build a coalition to fight extremism, you have smooth over differences and this is going to inflame them.”
“He has pretty much undercut any diplomatic efforts by US officials to try to calm things down,” Goldenberg added.
Former Pentagon senior official Kelly Magsamen, now an adjunct lecturer at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said: “It’s interesting that Donald Trump is choosing to pile on pressure just as we are beginning Raqqa operations.”
Magsamen added that Al Udeid is not just a base for US air operations, but also for US allies taking part in the counter-Islamic State coalition.
“It’s not clear whether there was a deliberate American decision before the president leaned in, and whether the National Security Council ran any sort of process on the risks of encouraging the Saudis and Emiratis to put pressure on the Qataris,” Magsamen said.
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