Trump's offers to mediate the Gulf Crisis are not helping anyone

Trump's offers to mediate the Gulf Crisis are not helping anyone
Comment: The United States' foreign policy under President Trump has been utterly confusing - dragging the Gulf Crisis on unnecessarily, writes Stasa Salacanin.
6 min read
20 Sep, 2017
President Trump changed his mind after originally accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism [AFP]

On September 7th, at a joint White House news conference with the Kuwaiti Emir, the president of the United States talked of his appreciation for Kuwait's mediation efforts between Qatar and several other GCC members.

"If I can help mediate between Qatar and, in particular, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, I would be willing to do so, and I think you would have a deal worked out very quickly," Donald Trump said at a joint news conference with Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah.

Sheikh Sabah, for his part, said he remained hopeful a resolution to the crisis could be reached soon.

More than 100 days after the 'Gulf crisis' began, there are still no signs of any improvement. The very next day, on September 8th, the anti-Qatar quartet issued a statement saying "any dialogue on meeting their demands should not be preceded by any prior conditions," while also expressing "regret" about statements made by Kuwait's Sheikh Sabah.

Trump's ineffective role could be causing almost as much distress among senior American military officers as it has been among senior Qatari officials

Since the beginning of the crisis many key regional and global players have offered their support to the Kuwaiti mediation initiative - but with no significant success so far.

While greater European engagement in the Gulf crisis would be desirable, their true diplomatic potential remains questionable, as Europeans arguably have a rather poor success record in crisis management, partly due to troubles at home.

Thus, Gulf countries have looked towards Washington, the traditional power broker in the Middle East, despite the fact that its influence in the Middle East has declined in recent years. The US has been sending mixed messages of late however, as Trump's unpredictable personality has made its foreign policy highly volatile.

Although the White House and The Hill showed a notable difference of opinion on the Qatar crisis at the beginning, some experts believe this has settled down.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute for Public Policy said the standoff is a needless distraction from the real issues of concern in the Middle East, as well as a risk to US national security interests.

"The shift in the White House stance is a blow to the Anti-Qatar Quartet, which had hoped initially to count on its support for their action against Qatar," he told New Arab.

A Dove of Peace

Many still remain unconvinced though, due to Trump's offer to mediate in the first place - on top of his expressed opinion that a deal could be worked out quickly. Especially after his earlier statements and tweets, when he openly expressed support to the Saudi side.  

Read more: How Saudi Arabia miscalculated its war in Yemen

Daniel Wagner, the founder of Country Risk Solutions, a US risk advisory firm, said: "Mr. Trump is under the impression that literally any dispute he chooses to become engaged in will magically be resolved as if he were a magician waving a wand.

"Clearly, that is not the case," he added.

"The GCC/Qatar dispute is the result of simmering tensions over many years and did not simply 'erupt' - nor does it require an external knight in shining armour for it to be resolved."

Wayne White, a policy expert with Washington's Middle East Policy Council, noted that  

Trump was again bombastic in his offer, implying in advance with typical bravado that with his help "…you would have a deal worked out very quickly."  

"Disappointingly, there has been a pattern of Trump speaking confidently, on both domestic & foreign issues, about his willingness to intervene and his ability to solve problems, but then characteristically he lapses into relative inactivity concerning such problems.  

"Often such unreliable bravado on the part of Trump has, in the end, been more disruptive than helpful, producing declining—even cynical—views toward his various promises," White added.

Instead, it will clearly take a sustained and credible effort by all parties to arrive at a suitable resolution.

In Wagner's view, it is only the states which are direct parties to the dispute which may resolve it. For him, it does not make much of a difference who is sitting in the White House, but it seems clear that Trump's 'bull in a China shop' approach to foreign policy is exactly the opposite of what is required.

Compromised position

Despite the White House's initial clumsiness and incoherent approach in responding to the crisis, US policymakers have realized that Washington is in no position to pick sides, as Riyadh and Doha are both key allies of the US.

While the Saudis have been their strategic ally for decades, Qatar has cleverly forged close ties with Washington, hosting some vital strategic assets - including the largest US airbase in the Middle East.

From the beginning of the crisis, Coates Ulrichsen recalls, the State Department and the Pentagon, unlike Trump, have stated consistently that the US has valuable partnerships with all the parties to the dispute and has nothing to gain by taking sides. The White House has bought into this message, albeit a little late, but it seems that the damage has been done.

Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this year undoubtedly convinced Riyadh that he recognized the Kingdom as one of the few premier Arab regional players, White told The New Arab.

Read more: Uncertainty over Trump call before latest Saudi-Qatar spat

"This could have compromised his neutrality in the crisis, pitting Riyadh and its closest allies against Qatar. It could also have convinced the Saudi leadership he would not seriously intervene against the kingdom.

"In fact, since his declaration in Washington alongside the Kuwaiti Emir, a phone conversation between the Qatari Emir and the Saudi Crown Prince shortly after Trump's offer only led to renewed tensions."

It would be miraculous if any involvement by Mr. Trump resulted in a net positive

Coates Ulrichsen said this fallout only illustrates the chasm of mistrust between the two sides. It also highlights the necessity to route all communications through an impartial third-party to avoid miscommunication and misrepresentation in the future.

Could the US President play the role? According to Wagner, it would be miraculous if any involvement by Mr. Trump resulted in a net positive. More likely, it will simply muddy the waters and hinder a meaningful resolution to the crisis. An initiative led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the basis of mutual respect is a more sensible starting point instead.

Unless Mr. Trump breaks with his pattern of becoming quickly bored with any given subject and shifts toward a greater neutrality in the Qatar crisis, White does not expect him to play an especially active or positive role in the dispute either - perhaps even dragging the crisis on for a long time.

Given the US military's massive investment in and reliance on Qatar, Trump's ineffective role could be causing almost as much distress among senior American military officers as it has been among senior Qatari officials.

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, terrorism and defence.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.