On Monday, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates launched a blockade of Qatar, on the grounds that Doha funds terrorist groups in the Middle East. In truth, the Saudi-organized blockade is rooted in a long-standing regional rivalry with Qatar, and resentment of Doha’s occasional openness to engaging with Iran. (The Saudis are, themselves, prolific exporters of Islamic extremism.)
The blockade was terrible news for the region, presenting the area with what may be its biggest diplomatic crisis since the 1991 Gulf War. And it was bad news for the United States, which runs its air operations over Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan from a giant military base outside Doha.
But it was very good news for Donald Trump. At least, in Donald Trump’s view.
The president had traveled to Saudi Arabia last month with the goals of securing a lucrative arms sale for America’s weapons manufacturers, and winning a commitment from the leaders of the Arab World to cease abetting Islamic extremism.
Or, more precisely: Trump went to Riyadh with the goal of appearing to do those things. The president’s disinterest in actually cracking down on state sponsors of terrorism was reflected in his silence about the Saudis’ role in financing the spread of Wahhabism. And his contentment to project the appearance of a diplomatic breakthrough over an actual one was confirmed by the ersatz nature of his $110 billion arms “deal.”
So, when Saudi Arabia took aggressive action — in the name of combating extremism — the president welcomed the opportunity to declare “mission accomplished.”
This represented a radical break with the administration’s initial line on the crisis. Shortly after the blockade was announced, the U.S. ambassador to Qatar rallied to Doha’s defense, highlighting America’s past praise for Qatar’s efforts in combatting terrorism.
One day before Trump’s tweets, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson encouraged “the parties to sit down and address these differences,” in a speech in Australia.
After Trump unilaterally abandoned America’s alliance with Qatar over Twitter, U.S. diplomats scrambled to set things right. Meanwhile, some White House sources whispered to the press that Trump had literally no clue what was at stake when he posted his tweets.
On Friday afternoon, Tillerson implored the Gulf states to “immediately take steps to de-escalate the situation and put forth a good faith effort to resolve the grievances they have with each other.” He argued that the blockade must be lifted, as it undermined American military efforts and human rights.
At a press conference one hour later, Trump declined to condemn the blockade, saving his fire for Qatar, instead.
“The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” the president said. “I’ve decided, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, our great generals, and military people, the time has come to call on Qatar to end its funding. They have to end that funding. And its extremist ideology in terms of funding.”
By all appearances, Trump did not decide this with Tillerson.