The focus on James Comey’s Senate testimony last week overshadowed another alarming development connected to Donald Trump’s presidency: the breakup between Saudi Arabia and three Arab partners on one side and Qatar, a staunch U.S. ally, on the other.
The trouble was caused by Trump, who got played by the Saudis and then bragged about it on Twitter.
The challenge now is to figure out how to walk back the brewing diplomatic mini-disaster without a public reversal by Trump — a step he has shown no inclination to take.
To understand what’s happened — and how to fix it — you have to start with Qatar, which hosts a huge U.S. airbase for missions to Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.
Until now, Qatar has played the role of a modest regional counterbalance against Saudi domination of the Persian Gulf. Crucially, it hosts Al-Jazeera, the leading Arabic satellite news network.
The Saudis’ nominal excuse for breaking diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar was its sponsorship of terror. But the real reason was that Trump’s comments on his May visit to Saudi Arabia gave the kingdom an excuse to take steps against a rival whom it considers a thorn in its side and a dangerous source of critical news.
Trump didn’t mean to cause the break — at least not at first. Indeed, it’s clear from his comments on Twitter last week that he was outwitted by the Saudis:
June 6: “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!”
During his Middle East trip, Trump says he told Arab leaders that he wanted a stop to “funding of radical ideology.”
June 6: “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!”
In ordinary Trumpian discourse, that language presumably referred to the promotion of the rigid Saudi Wahhabi strain of Islam through mosques, preachers, schools and study fellowships. But the leaders present, Trump tweeted, immediately pointed to Qatar.
Trump wasn’t quick enough to realize that this was a way of deflecting attention from the Saudis while dangling the possibility of action against Qatar. So he took the bait.
That gave Saudi Arabia enough confidence in Trump’s backing to lash out at Qatar — something it had previously refrained from doing because of the close U.S. military alliance with that country.
The Saudi gamble paid off. Instead of expressing dismay at the rift between key regional allies, Trump immediately took credit for the Saudi step.
Proof that this wasn’t actually a Trump master plan comes from three places. First, there’s Trump’s description of Qatar in his Saudi Arabia speech as a “crucial strategic partner.”
Second, there’s the worry expressed by U.S. military brass after the Saudi move and Trump’s endorsement of it. One spokesman initially said he could not “reconcile” Trump’s tweet with U.S. policy. Subsequently, the Pentagon has continued to trumpet Qatar’s “enduring commitment to regional security.” Small wonder: More than 11,000 U.S. and allied forces are stationed at Qatar’s strategically essential Al Udeid airbase.
Third, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called on the Arab states to stop blockading Qatar as Trump continues to applaud the move, a contradiction noted acidly on Twitter by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut:
June 9: “Tillerson strongly opposes blockade. POTUS tweeted enthusiastic support. I don’t think this is how foreign policy is supposed to work.”
From this it follows that Trump didn’t even see the Qatar development coming. He apparently just didn’t understand, either while in Saudi Arabia or afterward, how important Qatar is to the U.S.
So how can the crisis be resolved?
The U.S. can’t actually cut Qatar loose, whatever Trump signaled in his tweet. It isn’t some rogue state. It’s a necessary regional ally.
Furthermore, if the U.S. pushes Qatar away, other regional actors would be happy to take its place.
The worst scenario would be closer ties between Qatar and Iran and Russia, which are trying to take advantage of Trump’s blunder. Turkey, itself a U.S. ally that is growing closer to Russia and Iran, has already tossed Qatar a lifeline in the form of goods to replace those that aren’t coming from the gulf.
The Saudis would like to weaken or even replace Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. That would also be a terrible result. Tamim has been a stable U.S. ally. Regime change at the Saudis’ behest would send the message to the region that Saudi Arabia, not Washington, is calling the shots.
It would be great if Trump would retract his comments. But based on past practice, that’s not going to happen.
The least bad outcome would therefore involve some mild concessions from Qatar that would satisfy the Saudis and provide Trump with a face-saving way to reassert U.S. support.
For example, Qatar could agree to rein in Hamas, which it supports alongside other offshoots of the international Muslim Brotherhood.
Qatar has already shown its productive influence on Hamas by urging the Palestinian group to announce that it would accept a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli impasse. Further restraint by Hamas could help with a U.S.-Saudi peace initiative, if one continues to develop.
Another option for the Qataris would be to cool their relations with Iran, though that could prove difficult because the two countries share a natural gas field.
Finally, there’s Al-Jazeera, which the Saudis hate and Qatar hosts and funds. The news network is allowed to criticize and report negative news about anyone it likes in the region - except Qatar. It would be a shame to see the network’s freedom further curtailed, but doing so could potentially reduce Saudi-Qatari tensions.
The key point here is that it’s a good thing that the Saudis couldn’t care less about Qatari funding reaching terrorists. They care about Qatar’s regional stance as a gulf counterweight to them - and as a public critic via Al-Jazeera.
The U.S. should now take steps to address the actual differences between its allies. Otherwise, Trump’s error could undermine its interests.
Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His seven books include “The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President” and “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition.”