In a shocking performance by his own standards, US President Donald Trump tore into Qatar in highly inflammatory language accusing it as a state sponsoring terrorism and casting it as an adversary of the United States.
Make no mistake, this was no early-morning Twitter, no ‘Trumpspeak’ at the golf course in Florida in the weekend. Actually, believe it or not, it happened while reading out from a prepared text drafted by the White House aides in advance for a joint press conference with the visiting Romanian President Iohannis on June 9 in Washington—and it was entirely out of context—as if Trump was making a policy statement:
“I addressed a summit of more than 50 Arab and Muslim leaders—a unique meeting in the history of nations—where key players in the region agreed to stop supporting terrorism, whether it be financial, military or even moral support.
“The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level, and in the wake of that conference, nations came together and spoke to me about confronting Qatar over its behaviour. So we had a decision to make: Do we take the easy road, or do we finally take a hard but necessary action? We have to stop the funding of terrorism. I decided, along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, our great Generals and military people, the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding — they have to end that funding — and its extremist ideology in terms of funding.
“I want to call on all other nations to stop immediately supporting terrorism. Stop teaching people to kill other people. Stop filling their minds with hate and intolerance. I won’t name other countries, but we are not done solving the problem, but we will solve that problem. Have no choice.
“This is my great priority because it is my first duty as President to keep our people safe. Defeating ISIS and other terror organisations is something I have emphasised all during my campaign and right up until the present. To do that, stop funding, stop teaching hate, and stop the killing.
“For Qatar, we want you back among the comity of responsible nations. We ask Qatar, and other nations in the region to do more and do it faster.
“I want to thank Saudi Arabia, and my friend, King Salman, and all of the countries who participated in that very historic summit. It was truly historic. There has never been anything like it before and perhaps there never will be again. Hopefully, it will be the beginning of the end of funding terrorism. It will, therefore, be the beginning of the end to terrorism. No more funding.” (The video of the press conference is here.)
Prima facie, Trump has given a blunt warning to Qatar—‘Capitulate or else…’ It comes the very next day after the defiant statement by Qatar’s FM Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani to the effect that his country is “not ready to surrender, and will never be ready to surrender, the independence of our foreign policy”.
So, make no mistake, it is eye-ball-to-eyeball now. Either POTUS blinks — or the Emir of Qatar has to blink. The international community will be holding breath.
Second, Trump has not only underscored his support for the Saudi and UAE move against Qatar, he has virtually admitted that he is concurring with King Salman’s confrontationist path. In effect, Trump retracts from his own earlier offer on Tuesday to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Qatar (which Riyadh openly rejected.) In fact, Trump disclosed that the Saudi move against Qatar emanated out of discussions during his visit to Riyadh three weeks ago.
Thirdly, Trump may have put Turkey on notice that it could be President Recep Erdogan’s turn next. Trump said, “I won’t name other countries, but we are not done solving the problem, but we will solve that problem. Have no choice.” Now, Erdogan has plainly stated that the Saudi blockade on Qatar must be lifted.
The point is, Trump spoke up hot on the heels of Erdogan’s decision on Thursday to deploy Turkish troops in Qatar and, more importantly, his rejection of Trump’s earlier characterisation (during the visit to Riyadh) of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. Erdogan insists that the Brothers represent an ideological movement. The growing tensions between the US and Turkey, two NATO allies, now acquire an added dimension.
The bottom line is that Erdogan’s ruling party AKP has strong ideological affinities with the Muslim Brotherhood and has been vehemently supporting the organization as the fountain head of the “Arab Spring” in the recent years. Erdogan even jeopardised Turkey’s relations with Egypt following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government under Mohamed Morsi in a military coup in 2013. (Read an insightful resume in the Hurriyet newspaper on Turkey’s nexus with the Brothers—‘The Brotherhood that splits the Muslim world’.)
Finally, most important, Trump hinted at strategic interests. He flagged in particular that he consulted both state secretary Rex Tillerson and “our great generals and military people” while deciding that “the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding — they have to end that funding — and its extremist ideology in terms of funding”. He implied that the US will enforce compliance by Qatar through coercive means, if necessary.
Without doubt, the US Central Command, which is headquartered in Qatar, is directly affected by the Qatar crisis. Did Trump hint at US military intervention in Qatar? This is the big question.
The only charitable explanation could be that the Trump administration, on the advice of the Pentagon, could be inclined to accept the lavish financial offer received from the Emirati sheikhs to host the US Central Command Hqs on the UAE territory.
On June 7 Trump had a phone conver-sation with the UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, during which, according to the White House readout, they “agreed on the importance of implementing agreements reached in Riyadh to counter extremism and to combat the funding of terrorist groups. Additionally, the President emphasised the importance of maintaining a united Gulf Cooperation Council to promote regional stability, but never at the expense of eliminating funding for radical extremism or defeating terrorism.” Clearly, the topic was about the ways and means of muzzling Qatar. The very next day, Saudi Arabia and Qatar announced a list of five dozen Qatar-based personalities and a dozen Qatari entities branding them as linked to terrorist activities.
To be sure, the tectonic plates of the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf are shifting. If push comes to shove and the US intervenes in Qatar militarily on the pretext of fighting terrorism— or, alternatively, lead from the rear a Saudi-Emirati invasion of Qatar—it will be a cata-clysmic event and will throw the Middle East region into a big turmoil. Of course, instability in Qatar has implications for the world oil market.
But a direct US intervention will need Con-gressional approval and that is unlikely to be forthcoming. The US public opinion militates against more entanglements with the Muslim Middle East. On the other hand, if the US Central Command shifts its Hqs out of Qatar, major realignments become inevitable in the Persian Gulf region. Nature abhors a geopolitical vacuum — and, Russia, Turkey and Iran will be watching Trump’s next moves very very closely.
Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).