Let’s begin by setting our stage. On Tuesday, Trump tweeted:
“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!”
With these naïve and uninformed words, the president of the United States endorsed a Saudi-led initiative to (i) name Qatar the financier of ISIS and terrorism generally, (ii) to institute an embargo of the tiny nation, something that is an act of war and with U.S. blessing, and (iii) give Qatar a 24-hour ultimatum to do as told. All along Qatar has been an ally and host to a U.S. airbase with about 11,000 American personnel. But the American president’s reaction played into the hands of the Saudis in other ways too. Saudi Arabia’s agenda is not primarily to cut off the funding of terrorists because wealthy Saudis are probably the biggest financiers of ISIS and Wahhabis have been the teachers of ISIS leaders, but rather to isolate Iran. Qatar has had cordial relations with Iran, which is unacceptable to the Al-Sauds, who now see an uninformed and narcissistic President of the U.S. easy to manipulate to reign in Qatar and possibly Kuwait and Oman and to get support for the dressing down of Iran. Trump took the Saudi bait hook, line and sinker!
But after the fallout from the president’s outburst had sunk in, Trump was advised to quickly do damage control. So he called the Saudi King and the readout of the call indicates that he said:
“The President underscored that a united Gulf Cooperation Council is critical to defeating terrorism and promoting regional stability.”
But it is too little too late. What do we have as a result of Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his tweets? A divided GCC (with two members, Oman and Kuwait, on the sideline); a Saudi-initiated blockade (with implicit U.S. support), which, again, is an act of war; the betrayal of an ally (Qatar); and the increased likelihood of armed conflict! Iran will send ships with food to a blockaded Qatar. Iran will allow Qatar to use its airspace. Turkey may send more troops to bolster its small garrison in Qatar and to defend the small nation against outside aggression. And all the while there are 11,000 U.S. military personnel in Qatar. Not bad for the result of a little visit to Saudi Arabia and two tweets that an undergraduate would not have initiated.
The U.S. policy establishment appears not only aghast by the fallout with Qatar but also by the barrage of unfounded accusations against Iran from the U.S. President as well as by the emboldened Saudis who feel the wind of U.S. support behind their back. The ghost of April Glaspie (the U.S. diplomat who unknowingly may have given Saddam Hussein the green light to invade Kuwait) may be revisiting the Persian Gulf yet again!
While the U.S. feels free to classify as “terrorist” any entity that does not do as it demands, not everyone agrees with its designations. In the case of the region, the three prominent entities that the U.S. has so labeled are Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. To the majority of Muslims in the Middle East, none of them are terrorist. Hezbollah is a Muslim political, military and social party that has defended Lebanon and has fought for the right of the Shia in Lebanon. Hamas represents a significant segment of the Palestinian people in their struggle with Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood has disavowed violence and won the first and only free election in Egypt, to be driven out of office by a military dictatorship. Oppressive and illegitimate Arab rulers are threatened by such organizations and are happy to see them classified as terrorists and to then attack them with U.S. support. The U.S. in part designates these organizations as terrorist because of its alliance with Israel. Iran disagrees with the U.S. as does Qatar and a number of other Muslim countries. In the case of Qatar, it wants to talk and get along with all parties—members of the GCC, Iraq, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and, yes, Iran and the U.S. If any country could do this, we would say, “Wow, what diplomatic skills!” But in this case, to satisfy Israel and Saudi Arabia, we isolate Qatar and classify it as a supporter of terrorism. But all governments agree on the designation of ISIS as terrorist. Ironically, ISIS has learnt well from its Wahhabi teachers and considers Shia Iran and Iraq as worse than dogs. So at least the Saudis cannot accuse Iran to be a supporter of ISIS!
Why is Donald Trump, no lover of Muslims, giving the Al-Sauds what they want—to isolate Iran, pick a fight with the Mullahs in Tehran and thus hope for regime change—and risking the security of the U.S., the region and the world? Trump sees what he wants on the horizon, especially after his visit to lavish Saudi palaces financed by the people’s dwindling oil wealth—billions of dollars in future contracts and business for Trump Inc. If the world does not see the trail of dollars going to the Trump business empire now, just follow the money after his presidency ends. The Saudis are good at buying support—I well recall how a highly placed Saudi who branded the U.S. as a mercenary country after the liberation of Kuwait said, “We can always pay the U.S. and they will fight for us.”
For the sake of the Unites States, the world and humanity, President Trump must be reigned in. Influential Republican senators raved about his choice of Defense Secretary (General Mattis) and National Secretary Advisor (General McMaster), so do they still feel the same? Aren’t generals taught to never disagree but to obey their superior? If so, then they have no business being in positions that require giving frank advice to a president who has no foreign policy experience. Are there no patriotic Republican senators who will put party and politics aside to stop our nation going further down a black hole every day. These errors of presidential judgment are mounting and making the conduct of foreign policy ever more difficult, and possibly irreversible, in the future. Senator McCain talks much about U.S. values (support of human rights in the conduct of foreign policy) and patriotism. Surely, now must be a good time for him to show his moral courage and stand up.