Qatar-Saudi Crisis Shows Trump Administration’s Discord, Dysfunction - usnews

Qatar-Saudi Crisis Shows Trump Administration’s Discord, Dysfunction - usnews
Tue Jul 18, 2017 08:46:30

President Donald Trump and his top officials have been unable to solve a bubbling conflict isolated to the Middle East or even agree publicly on how to proceed, a sign of dysfunction that experts believe shows the administration isn't ready to handle the kind of international crisis that would pose a true threat to the U.S.

Officials at the Defense Department on Monday downplayed President Donald Trump's comments to the Christian Broadcasting Network last week that the U.S. could easily find a substitute for the airbase it currently maintains in Qatar, America's largest in the Middle East and home to more than 10,000 troops. The oil-rich [Persian] Gulf state remains at odds with a bloc of countries led by Saudi Arabia that have severed diplomatic and economic ties with their neighbor over unsubstantiated claims it is a state sponsor of terror and too closely aligned with Iran.

The crisis among the countries – all close allies of the U.S. and recipients of billions of dollars in military aid among other forms of support – heightened on Sunday following a Washington Post report claiming the United Arab Emirates, aligned with Saudi Arabia, was responsible for a hack on the Qatari state news service that precipitated the ongoing crisis last month. The UAE has denied the claims.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a spokesman for the Pentagon, declined to comment Monday on the Post report, saying he would not discuss intelligence matters. The U.S. continues to have access to the Al Udeid air base in Qatar, he added, and that operations based there, including against the ISIS group, continue unhindered.

As for Trump's claim that the base is easily replaceable, Davis said, "any time you're doing military operations you're always thinking ahead with Plan Bs and Plan Cs, and branches and sequels to potential scenarios. And we would be remiss if we didn't do that."

"In this case," he added, "we have confidence our base in Qatar is still able to be used and certainly to date has had no operational impact."

Trump's apparently casual rhetoric about the American reliance on Qatar matches his prior statements since returning from a trip throughout the region earlier this year when he spent multiple days meeting with Saudi officials, including King Salman. Shortly after Riyadh began the embargo – alongside Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE – Trump tweeted his support and indicated he, too, believes Qatar is a state sponsor of terror.

Most recently on Wednesday, Trump told CBN he would maintain good relations with Qatar but added, "If we ever needed another military base, you have other countries that would gladly build it." Trump said there are "10 countries willing to build us another one, believe me, and they will pay for it."

Both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis have in recent weeks taken a much more impartial and hands-on approach.

On Friday, Mattis told a group of reporters at the Pentagon, "There's no need to look at alternatives," to Al Udeid because "there has been no impact" on operations there.

Tillerson travelled throughout the region last week to try to broker some sort of plan to return the countries to cooperation. His trip included stops in Kuwait, which has taken on the role of principal broker between the two sides. He returned to the U.S. on Thursday with no evidence of having made substantial progress.

Those with experience in the region, and handling crises like these, say unity among top U.S. leaders is critically important, not only for the bureaucrats who actually create solutions to do their jobs, but to signal a clear message to foreign powers and avoid potential miscalculations.

"Qatar is using the American base to deter any foreign intervention inside Qatar, whether from Iran or from Saudi Arabia," says Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who spent his Foreign Service career throughout much of the region. "When the American position isn't clear on something like Al Udeid, it can lead the Qataris to overplay their hand, or the Saudis to overplay their hand."

Normally, a Cabinet secretary like Tillerson or Mattis would visit the region to draw attention to U.S. efforts to find a solution, Ford says. That official would then pass on the real work to an under secretary or assistant secretary that specializes in the region or the source of the problem, whose staff would work toward a solution.

Almost all of the under- and assistant-secretary positions remain vacant, however, leaving these top officials with no close staff to which to delegate this important work.

Finding a solution to a regional problem like this is difficult enough, Ford adds. The broader question is what will happen when the U.S. faces a big, international crisis, on the scale of a North Korean nuclear threat, for example.

"The lack of having the full team is going to limit the speed and bandwidth that the U.S. can use to respond," says Ford, now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

"Imagine if we have two crises at once," he says.

by Paul D. Shinkman, usnews