Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

‘Starving the beast’

The Trump administration is upping pressure on Doha, hoping to satisfy Saudi Arabia and preserve deals worth over $350 billion, writes Khaled Dawoud

‘Starving the beast’
‘Starving the beast’

Despite efforts by Qatar to claim that “mixed signals” are coming out of Washington on its current unprecedented confrontation with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, there is little doubt that the US administration is increasing pressure on Doha to changes its policies and meet at least some of the demands of its oil-rich neighbours.

In his first meeting with all cabinet members Monday, US President Donald Trump reaffirmed his determination to “stop funding terrorism”, accepting Saudi charges that Qatar had a major a role in this field.

“I recently returned from a trip oversees that included deals for more than $350 billion worth of military and economic investment in the United States,” Trump said while referring to his visit to Saudi Arabia in late May, during which he signed numerous lucrative deals with Riyadh covering the next 10 years. 

“These deals will bring many thousands of jobs to our country… and help Saudi Arabia take a greater role in providing stability and security in that region. One of the big things that we did, and you are seeing it now with Qatar, we are stopping the funding of terrorism. They are going to stop the funding of terrorism,” Trump added, keeping the same hardline against Qatar that he expressed in earlier remarks and tweets, and contrary to statements made by his secretaries of state and defense, who sought to play a softer line and call for “common ground” and dialogue. 

“It’s not an easy fight, but that’s a fight we’re going to win. You have to starve the beast, and we are going to starve the beast, believe me,” Trump noted, reaffirming his determination to escalate the confrontation against terrorist organisations, particularly the so-called Islamic State (IS).

A few days before, and in a joint news conference with Romania’s president, 9 June, Trump praised Saudi King Salman, and described him as a “friend” while pointing out that, “the nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.” 

He added that during a summit meeting in Riyadh with leaders of 50 Arab and Muslim countries, “Nations came together and spoke to me about confronting Qatar over its behaviour. So, we had a decision to make: Do we take the easy road, or do we finally take a hard but necessary action? We have to stop the funding of terrorism. I decided, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, our great generals and military people, the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding” of terrorism.

He added: “For Qatar, we want you back among the unity of responsible nations. We ask Qatar, and other nations in the region, to do more and do it faster.”

Trump concluded his prepared remarks by saying: “I want to thank Saudi Arabia, and my friend, King Salman, and all of the countries who participated in that very historic summit… Hopefully, it will be the beginning of the end of funding terrorism. No more funding.”

While Trump maintained the same line Monday, during his meeting with his cabinet, and was keen to maintain the deals and warm relations he developed with the Saudi king, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was more relaxed while briefing members of the Armed Services Committee at the US House of Representatives on America’s military challenges.

Mattis described the diplomatic spat between Qatar and several other US allies in the Middle East as a “complex situation” that the United States needed to help solve.

“I believe that [Qatar’s] Prince [Tamim] Thani inherited a difficult, very tough situation, and he’s trying to turn the society in the right direction,” Mattis told lawmakers at a House hearing late Monday. “But we all agree that funding of any kind of terrorist group is inimical to all of our interests.”

Mattis said President Trump was focused on stopping all terrorist funding, including what he called “grey funding”.

He said he believed Qatar is “moving in the right direction” when it comes to curtailing its funding of terrorism and said the United States needed to find common ground with Qatar due to the two countries’ shared interests.

Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar is the largest US air base in the Middle East, serving as the forward operational headquarters of US Central Command and the host to about 10,000 American troops.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates have cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and stopped transportation to and from the tiny Gulf nation, accusing Qatar of funding terrorist groups including IS, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Trump and Tillerson also seemed to veer in opposite directions on the need for a mediated solution. While Trump in statements Friday blamed Qatar, Tillerson called for calm and for “no further escalation”, urging Arab nations to ease their blockade on Qatar.

The whiplash was jarring enough that both Trump’s team and Tillerson’s scrambled to try to smooth it over. The White House dispatched a senior administration official to tell reporters on Air Force One that the two men were “on the same page”. Meanwhile, the State Department compiled a side-by-side comparison of Tillerson and Trump’s remarks to try to show they’d referenced similar arguments.

R C Hammond, a senior adviser to Tillerson, downplayed suggestions of dissonance while acknowledging that the messages might not mirror each other.

“They each have different audiences that they are speaking to,” Hammond said. “The secretary was speaking to Gulf leaders on the need to de-escalate, and the president was saying in a news conference with the Romanian president that ending terrorism is what is important to him. Both were part of a concerted effort by us to calm things down.”

Hammond noted that within 24 hours both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain had taken steps to make humanitarian exceptions to the blockade.

Still, the discrepancies have been glaring enough that foreign policy experts have taken note. Jon Finer, who served as chief of staff to Tillerson’s predecessor, John Kerry, said the discrepancies weren’t just confusing US friends and foes, but were potentially counter-productive.

“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,” Finer said.

Brett Schaefer, a fellow at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, said that Trump and Tillerson might sometimes be creating ambiguity as a strategy. He pointed to the fact that the Trump administration has remained intentionally vague about what steps the US might take in response to North Korea’s nuclear provocations.

“There’s some deliberate lack of clarity in some policy areas, and it’s inadvertent in other areas,” Schaefer said.

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