Tillerson and Mattis struggle to clean up Trump and Kushner’s Middle East mess

Mark Perry writes: On March 25, 2011, a Qatar Air Force Mirage 2000-5, took off from Souda Air Base, in Crete, to help enforce a no-fly zone protecting rebels being attacked by Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi. Qatar was the first Persian Gulf nation to help the U.S. in the conflict.

Qatari operations were more than symbolic. The Qatari military trained rebel units, shipped them weapons, accompanied their fighting units into battle, served as a link between rebel commanders and NATO, tutored their military commanders, integrated disparate rebel units into a unified force and led them in the final assault on Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.“We never had to hold their hand,” a retired senior U.S. military officer says. “They knew what they were doing.” Put simply, while the U.S. was leading from behind in Libya, the Qataris were walking point.

The Qatar intervention has not been forgotten at the Pentagon and is one of the reasons why Defense Secretary James Mattis has worked so diligently to patch up the falling out between them and the coalition of Saudi-led countries (including the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt), that have isolated and blockaded the nation. In fact, Mattis was stunned by the Saudi move. “His first reaction was shock, but his second was disbelief,” a senior military officer says. “He thought the Saudis had picked an unnecessary fight, and just when the administration thought they’d gotten everyone in the Gulf on the same page in forming a common front against Iran.”

At the time of the Saudi announcement, Mattis was in Sydney with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to dampen concerns about the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accords. The two glad-handed Australian officials and issued a reassuring pronouncement on U.S. intentions during a June 5 press briefing with that nation’s foreign and defense ministers. When the burgeoning split between the Saudis and Qataris was mentioned, Tillerson described it as no more than one of “a growing list or irritants in the region” that would not impair “the unified fight against terrorism …”

But while Tillerson’s answer was meant to soothe concerns over the crisis, behind the scenes he and Mattis were scrambling to undo the damage caused by Saudi action. The two huddled in Sydney and decided that Tillerson would take the lead in trying to resolve the falling out. Which is why, three days after the Sydney press conference, Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to ease their anti-Qatar blockade and announced that the U.S. supported a Kuwaiti-led mediation effort. The problem for Tillerson was that his statement was contradicted by Donald Trump who, during a Rose Garden appearance on the same day, castigated Qatar, saying the emirate “has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”

A close associate of the secretary of state says that Tillerson was not only “blind-sided by the Trump statement,” but “absolutely enraged that the White House and State Department weren’t on the same page.” Tillerson’s aides, I was told, were convinced that the true author of Trump’s statement was U.A.E. ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, a close friend of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. “Rex put two-and-two together,” his close associate says, “and concluded that this absolutely vacuous kid was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters. Otaiba weighed in with Jared and Jared weighed in with Trump. What a mess.” The Trump statement was nearly the last straw for Tillerson, this close associate explains: “Rex is just exhausted. He can’t get any of his appointments approved and is running around the world cleaning up after a president whose primary foreign policy adviser is a 31-year-old amateur.”

Worse yet, at least from Tillerson’s point of view, a White House official explained the difference between the two statements by telling the press to ignore the secretary of state. “Tillerson may initially have had a view,” a White House official told the Washington Post, “then the president has his view, and obviously the president’s view prevails.”

Or maybe not. While Trump’s June 9 statement signaled that the U.S. was tilting towards the Saudis and the UAE, Tillerson and Mattis have been tilting towards Qatar. And for good reason. [Continue reading…]

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