WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s the geopolitical crisis the Trump administration just can’t quit.
Even as the White House declares Qatar’s rift with its Arab neighbors “a family issue” they should resolve themselves, top diplomats from the feuding countries are converging on Washington this week, all vying for time with President Donald Trump’s secretary of state. A reluctant mediator, Rex Tillerson has been shuttling between meetings with the rival parties, dragged further into the conflict as each side tries to enlist U.S. support.
Now in its third week and with no signs of ebbing, the Persian Gulf dispute has emerged as a major trial of President Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine, in which the U.S. is no longer supposed to own problems far from its shores. For Saudi Arabia and others elated by Trump’s tough talk about fighting terrorism and opposing Iranian influence, the crisis is an opportunity to test just how far Trump’s administration will go.
“You cannot — it’s the first rule of diplomacy — rely on your partners who are closer to the scene to take charge of things,” said Ambassador James Jeffrey, the former U.S. envoy to Iraq and Turkey. “This is bigger than the chemical weapons in Syria. It’s bigger than the Mosul fight in Iraq. Because if the Qataris are threatened enough, they’re going to turn to Russia and Iran.”
On its face, the crisis appears far-removed from the United States. But America’s role as the indispensable global power has traditionally made things more complicated. Indeed, the U.S. strategy for defeating the Islamic State group and resolving Syria’s civil war relies heavily on unity among a coalition of partners in which Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others are key players.
America’s ambiguous position has also complicated matters. Public comments by Trump and Tillerson have seemed to oscillate between support for Qatar and support for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the other Arab nations that have cut ties to the gas-rich monarchy.
Jeffrey said that Trump, by embracing Saudi Arabia with an early visit to Riyadh, left the Saudis with the impression that the U.S. would unquestioningly support their actions in the region. That emboldened the Saudis to move aggressively against Qatar over longstanding disputes, confident Trump would take their side.
At first, Trump did, echoing on Twitter the Saudi assertion that Qatar was funding terrorism. Tillerson struck a more diplomatic tone, calling on Saudi Arabia and the others to ease their blockade of Qatar while urging everyone to do more to stop funding for extremism.
Yet as the demands by Qatar’s neighbors grew in scope — far surpassing the original focus on terror financing — the White House sought to distance itself from the crisis. And the State Department began openly speculating that false pretenses were behind a regional tit-for-tat that was about much more than the shared goal of fighting terrorism.
“We believe it’s a family issue,” White House spokesman Sean Spicer said last week. “This is something that they want to and should work out for themselves.”
At least some of the belligerents agree, including the UAE, whose U.S. ambassador said in an interview that it was “an Arab issue that requires an Arab solution.” Tillerson, for his part, said he was ready to help but that the Kuwaitis, another Qatari neighbor that offered to mediate, was taking the lead.
Nevertheless, Washington is now the center of resolution efforts. Tillerson this week hosted a top Qatari government official and held a separate meeting with the Kuwaiti foreign minister, who is also visiting the U.S. capital. So is Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, who has been in frequent contact with Tillerson.
“This is the capital of the world,” al-Jubeir told reporters Tuesday at his country’s embassy, a few blocks from the State Department. He added: “Washington is lovely in the spring.”
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain cut ties to Qatar this month and restricted its access to land, sea and air routes before issuing a steep list of demands. They include halting support for terrorist groups, shuttering Al-Jazeera and curbing diplomatic ties to Iran. Qatar denies supporting extremism and considers the demands an attempt to undermine its sovereignty.
The foreign diplomats have plenty of company. The dispute also has lobbyists, influence-peddlers and message-pushers of all stripes busy in Washington, where reporters have ferried from one Gulf embassy to another as nations present their public cases. Since the crisis started, Qatar has hired the firm run by Bush-era Attorney General John Ashcroft to lobby on its behalf. Journalists have been quietly approached with offers of work penning essays supporting the Qatari point of view.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is in the capital for talks focused partly on the crisis. He attended a dinner at the Kuwait Embassy and met al-Jubeir on Tuesday, before joining Tillerson on Wednesday. He was also expected to meet Qatar’s foreign minister while both men are in Washington, Guterres’ spokesman said.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.