Foreign Policy

Team Trump just can’t get its story straight on Qatar

The Trump administration tried to defuse the deepening diplomatic rift over Qatar Friday — a situation that it appeared to take credit for earlier in the week.

But what they produced was more mixed signals as President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson contradicted each other in separate statements about the tiny Emirate, which happens to host the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East.

In a press conference called Friday, Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia and a group of Arab countries on Friday to immediately “ease their blockade” of Qatar and “put forth a good faith effort to resolve the grievances they have with each other.”

Less than an hour later, Trump singled out Qatar as a supporter of terrorism, an accusation the Gulf country has repeatedly denied.

“It is time to call on Qatar to end its funding of terrorism and extremist ideology… I want other countries to stop teaching people to kill other people,” said Trump at a press conference in the White House Rose Garden with the Romanian President.

The mixed messages are unlikely to diffuse the diplomatic crisis and point to a broader incoherency in the region, according to Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“It’s not just a difference in tone, it’s a difference in substance,” said Alterman. “There’s a large lack of coordination here.”

On Monday, a group of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE severed diplomatic ties with major U.S. partner Qatar, accusing the oil-rich country of sponsoring violent extremism and causing regional instability.

In a series of tweets on Monday morning, Trump not only appeared to be siding with Saudi Arabia, he also he seemed to be taking credit for triggering the row. “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!” he tweeted.

“So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” he wrote on the social media site.

Tillerson also said that the isolation of Qatar — forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command — did in fact hinder the U.S.’ mission against ISIS in the region despite the fact that Defense Secretary James Mattis said Monday he was “ confident there will be no implications” and Pentagon spokesman Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway said the tumultuous regional spat would have “no impact” on American military operations in the region, according to Voice of America.

The Trump administration has repeatedly said it would help the countries resolve their differences, however none of the Arab countries have expressed willingness to have the U.S. as the mediator. In fact, several have actively declined, according to Newsweek.

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