Trump’s message during Riyadh summit
The Qataris are learning that the Trump administration is not interested in nuanced foreign policy positions. When US President Donald Trump visited Riyadh to meet with Sunni Arab leaders he made very clear his opinion that the regional bad guys are terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and the government of Iran.
The Saudis got the message and interpreted it as a sign that Trump would not oppose a diplomatic and economic offensive on Qatar, a country that has been supporting Sunni extremism and cosying up to Shia Iran. It is highly unlikely that Riyadh shared its intentions with Trump — the Saudis are far too savvy to have revealed their plans to a man who cannot keep secrets — but they correctly assessed that Trump would support their actions.
Qatar, which hosts an important US military base, must have assumed that this would continue to give it immunity from US criticism, as it had in the past. Moreover, Trump had recently indicated that he would abide by the nuclear deal with Iran, so Qatar may have thought that its friendly relations with Tehran were not a problem with Washington.
One can imagine the surprise in Doha when the Saudis and their allies acted so swiftly and so harshly and when Trump — after initial silence — tweeted his support (and, as he is wont to do, took credit for something that he most likely knew absolutely nothing about until it happened).
While Trump was tweeting his support for Riyadh and claiming credit, the Pentagon was expressing its appreciation for Qatar’s support in the fight against ISIS and the importance of the military base in Qatar.
Talk about mixed signals.
Trump has offered to play a mediating role to resolve the crisis but this is not a New York real estate transaction. It is a long-running feud that pits a Qatari government that has sought for years to have influence with all sides against a Saudi leadership that is saying “it’s time to choose sides.” Riyadh will not accept promises or cosmetic changes.
Trump’s role — intentional or not — was to make it clear during his trip to Riyadh who the bad guys are. He cannot back down now, especially after taking credit for the whole thing. Even if he does end up mediating a solution, it will be on the Saudis’ terms.
In short, Riyadh played Trump like a fiddle.