President Donald Trump said he backed a Saudi Arabia-led movement to isolate Qatar over its funding of extremist groups, once again sending conflicting signals about the U.S. stance in a dispute between American allies in the Gulf region.
Qatar has historically “been a funder of terrorism at a very high level” and that has to stop, Trump said Friday at a White House news conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis. Trump said the nations that imposed the blockade — including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — came to him in the wake of his conference in the region to discuss “confronting Qatar over its behavior.”
“So we had a decision to make: Do we take the easy road or do we finally take a hard but necessary action?” Trump said. “We had to stop the funding of terrorism.”
Trump spoke little more than an hour after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered a more conciliatory statement urging the Saudi-led coalition to ease its “blockade” of Qatar. He said that the cutoff is hindering the fight against Islamic State and provoking food shortages.
“The elements of a solution are available,” Tillerson said at the State Department.
Tillerson struck a careful tone. Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has made progress in halting financial support and expelling terrorists, the top U.S. diplomat said, “but he must do more and he must do it quickly.”
Good Cop, Bad Cop
The conflicting signals suggested Tillerson was playing “good cop” to Trump’s tougher-talking “bad cop.” The combined message was that Qatar should end its links to extremist groups while also urging all parties to work toward a solution.
In an effort to show the president and the top U.S. diplomat are literally on the same page despite the different tone they took throughout the week, the White House gave reporters a sheet juxtaposing quotes from Trump on the Qatar situation with similar comments from Tillerson.
A U.S. official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, declined to say whether the U.S. backs removing the emir of Qatar. But the official added that Trump has a good relationship with the emir and would like to leverage it to resolve the situation.
The crisis has thrust the U.S. into a delicate position because of its alliances with all sides — and because Qatar hosts the nerve center for U.S. air operations in the Middle East, including the fight against Islamic State.
The approach has risks because it’s a bet that Qatar will ease off its funding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other groups rather than writing off the U.S. as a reliable ally, said Ayham Kamel, director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Eurasia Group.
“It could force Qatar to abandon its foreign policy objectives — or it could convince Qatar that it’s surrounded by bullies and the U.S. won’t protect it and a closer alliance with Turkey and Iran could guarantee its long-term viability,” Kamel said. “It’s not clear which direction they’re heading.”
A group of Gulf nations led by Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties as well as land, sea and air travel with Qatar on June 5, accusing the country of supporting Sunni extremist groups and Iranian-backed Shiite militants to destabilize the region. Qatar has denied it backs terrorists and accuses the Saudis of seeking to dominate their smaller neighbors.
Earlier this week, Trump invited the emir of Qatar to the White House, telling the leader he would help resolve the dispute. He also called King Salman of Saudi Arabia, saying that cooperation among Gulf nations was “critical to defeating terrorism and promoting regional stability,” according to a White House statement.
Tillerson said Friday that the emir has made progress in halting financial support and expelling terrorists, “but he must do more and he must do it quickly.” He said other countries, which he didn’t name, must also continue to eliminate support for violent organizations.
Saudi Arabia has been criticized in the past for exporting a militant interpretation of Islam and because 15 of the 19 hijackers in the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. were Saudi citizens.
“We call for calm and thoughtful dialogue with clear expectations and accountability among the parties in order to strengthen relationships,” Tillerson said.
Trump’s account that he was consulted before the Saudi-led move against Qatar contradicted the narrative offered by the State Department earlier in the week. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that U.A.E. notified the U.S. about the plan shortly before it went into effect.
Trump said the demand for Qatar to change its ways was made with Tillerson, who was at the White House for the president’s news conference.
“I decided along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, our great generals and military people the time had come for Qatar to end its funding,” Trump said.