Topsy-turvy world of US diplomacy in age of Trump

US President Donald Trump stands outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, DC on June 9, 2017.
US President Donald Trump stands outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, DC on June 9, 2017. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

WASHINGTON • President Donald Trump has scrambled US diplomacy on two fronts, delivering a rebuke of Qatar at the very moment his secretary of state was trying to mend fences in the Persian Gulf, while at the same time reaffirming support for Nato two weeks after he had declined to do so.

Unpredictable as always, Mr Trump's comments cut two ways: He seemed to undermine Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has thrown himself into an effort to mediate a resolution to the bitter row between Qatar and several of its neighbours, chiefly Saudi Arabia.

But he also soothed Nato allies by explicitly reaffirming Article 5, the clause that commits members to defend any ally under attack. He had conspicuously avoided making that pledge at a meeting at Nato headquarters in Brussels two weeks ago.

Yet the pattern of sudden reversals in the Trump administration's diplomacy was most pronounced in the Middle East.

Last Friday, Mr Tillerson called for a "calm and thoughtful dialogue" to resolve the deepening dispute among Sunni Muslim states in the Gulf. Barely an hour later, Mr Trump accused Qatar of being a "funder of terror at a very high level" and demanded that the tiny, oil-rich nation cut off that money flow to rejoin the circle of responsible nations. "We had a decision to make," Mr Trump declared at a Rose Garden news conference with Romania's President Klaus Iohannis.

"Do we take the easy road or do we take a hard but necessary action?" he said. "We have to stop the funding of terrorism."

... the pattern of sudden reversals in the Trump administration's diplomacy was most pronounced in the Middle East. Last Friday, Mr Tillerson called for a "calm and thoughtful dialogue" to resolve the deepening dispute among Sunni Muslim states in the Gulf.

Barely an hour later, Mr Trump accused Qatar of being a "funder of terror at a very high level" and demanded that the tiny, oil-rich nation cut off that money flow to rejoin the circle of responsible nations.

The mixed messages extended to the Pentagon, which issued a statement reaffirming Qatar's critical role as a military partner to the US and expressing concern that the deepening instability would hurt the US-led campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Mr Trump and Mr Tillerson spoke just hours after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates listed 59 people and a dozen groups linked to Doha, including prominent Qatari businessmen, politicians and royalty, as aiding terrorism. The blacklisting deepened a five-day standoff that has included a cut-off of all diplomatic ties, travel and trade with Qatar.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and its allies yesterday welcomed Mr Trump's comment that Qatar was bankrolling extremism but ignored Mr Tillerson's call for them to ease their economic blockade. The UAE welcomed "President Trump's leadership in challenging Qatar's troubling support for extremism".

"The next step is for Qatar to acknowledge these concerns and commit to reexamine its regional policies," its ambassador to the United States Yousef al-Otaiba told the official WAM news agency.

Saudi Arabia said an immediate change of policy by Qatar was essential. "Fighting terrorism and extremism is no longer a choice, rather... a commitment requiring decisive and swift action to cut off all funding sources for terrorism regardless of its financier," the Saudi Press Agency cited an official source as saying.

Bahrain "stressed the necessity of Qatar's commitment to correct its policies and to engage in a transparent manner in counter-terrorism efforts", its official BNA news agency said.

NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 11, 2017, with the headline 'Topsy-turvy world of US diplomacy in age of Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe