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Pompeo calls for the end of Saudi-Qatar rift, ignores U.S. role in the crisis

Let's forget how this mess started, shall we.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, arrive at the Sheraton Grand in the Qatari capital Doha to hold a joint press conference, on January 13, 2019. (PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, arrive at the Sheraton Grand in the Qatari capital Doha to hold a joint press conference, on January 13, 2019. (PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially signaled a serious shift on a key piece of U.S. Middle East policy on Sunday, saying the Gulf Crisis has “dragged on too long” and that the United States is hoping for a solution.

Pompeo made the claim while in Qatar, as part of his of trip to several countries in the Middle East that meant to reassure allies in the region that the United States remains committed to the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic States (ISIS) in Syria. He also said that “great things” were happening between Qatar and the United States, which might confuse anyone who has been paying attention to just how not-great U.S.-Qatari relations have been since President Donald Trump took office.

A quick recap: The Gulf Crisis kicked off in June 2017, after Saudi Arabia, emboldened by President Trump’s Riyadh visit in May, started a border blockade against neighboring Qatar. Saudi Arabia claimed the reason for this was Qatar’s close relationship with Iran, which, to anyone who knows anything about the Gulf, is almost laughable, as the only real shared interest between Iran and Qatar is the massive natural gas field they share.

A map of Persian Gulf countries, showing Qatar's reliance on Saudi Arabia land border and sea routes connecting it to Gulf Arab states. CREDIT: Wikipedia/Public Domain.
A map of Persian Gulf countries, showing Qatar's reliance on Saudi Arabia land border and sea routes connecting it to Gulf Arab states. CREDIT: Wikipedia/Public Domain.

Saudi Arabia — along with President Donald Trump — also accuses Qatar of supporting terrorism, a charge Qatar denies.

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This was not the first time Saudi has shut down its border, but with the support of the Trump Administration and the backing of other Arab states, this time, it was serious, and actually prompted Qatar to strengthen its relationship with Iran out of necessity (notably, the need to use Iranian airspace to fly in food and medical supplies it could no longer bring over the land border with Saudi Arabia or by sea from the United Arab Emirates).

The timing of Pompeo’s comments are interesting, given that retired General Anthony Zinni, the Persian Gulf envoy and the man tasked with solving this crisis, stepped down last week.

“When Gen. Zinni resigned, he probably had a conversation with the Secretary of State. Now, I don’t know that, but he probably had a frank conversation about the intransigence of the Saudis and the Emiratis,” said former Ambassador Richard LeBaron, currently a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Pompeo, LeBaron told ThinkProgress, probably sees the Gulf Crisis as a distraction from dealing with Iran and “a problem he just doesn’t need.”

LeBaron described the crisis as essentially a feud between the royal families in Qatar and Saudi Arabia — one in which the United States has no stake.

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To hear Pompeo lament how long this has been dragging on requires one to forget the role the United States played in starting and sustaining the crisis: pressuring Qatar on its support for the Muslim Brotherhood (a political Muslim organization), accusing Qatar of terrorism, siding with Saudi Arabia, and, of course, escalating the rift.

Shortly after Saudi Arabia started the blockade, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged Saudi Arabia to give Qatar an offramp — a way to ease tensions and go back to business as usual. But Saudi Arabia really hadn’t thought this through, as its response was to give Qatar a list of 13 demands to meet on a short timeline. Those demands were designed not to be met, and included things like shutting down Al Jazeera, Qatar’s international news network.

At the time, President Trump was said to have been involved in a diplomatic push to end the blockade, but White House sources told The Washington Post that he was still very much in Saudi’s corner. Two years later, he remains there, despite the country’s record of killing civilians in the war in Yemen and its assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Khahsoggi.

It has been reported that the United States had been pressuring Saudi Arabia to end the blockade, but it’s unclear what form that pressure is taking, because there’s no talk of sanctions against the Gulf Arab Kingdom, nor is the United States going to stop selling Saudi Arabia weapons or barring it from purchasing businesses in the United States.

Trump, indeed, sounded positively excited by blockade when it first came into effect, and even seemed to take some credit for it:

“I doubt he had a very sophisticated understanding of what was happening at the time,” said LeBaron of the president’s view.

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The rift has also eroded the Gulf Cooperation Council (or the GCC — an intergovernmental organization of Gulf Arab countries excluding Iraq), rendering it almost entirely useless as a security organization — let alone the “Arab NATO” the Pentagon would hope it could be.

Here’s what Secretary Pompeo said about that at a press conference in Doha on Sunday:

“As for the GCC, in my statement I made clear: We’re all more powerful when we’re working together, when disputes are limited. And when we have common challenges in region and around the world, disputes between countries that have a shared objective are never helpful.”

According to Reuters, Secretary Pompeo later said he had discussed the issue with officials in Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE, all countries siding with Saudi Arabia in the rift and that, “It’s … not at all clear that the rift is any closer to being resolved today than it was yesterday and I regret that.”

Pompeo’s trip to the region is “largely about the optics” of the United States remaining committed in the region after President Trump’s announcement of the (still impending) troop withdrawal from Syria, said Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for Middle East Policy.

“The continued focus in countering Iran is still the linchpin of the administration Middle East policy,” she told ThinkProgress. In other words, it’s “business as usual for the Trump administration…the optics and the body language really suggest doubling down.”

Kaye explained that while the administration would want to see the issue resolved, it can continue with bilateral relationships if need be. Like LeBaron, she believes that Zinni’s departure had something to do with the timing of Pompeo’s statement.

It’s not unusual for President Trump and his administration to try and rewrite history in the strangest of ways (See: The president’s comments on the history of the Soviet Union and Afghanistan). But so far, the re-writes are taking place without anything to back them up.

For instance, the United States still does not have an ambassador in place in Qatar. CNN reported that the nomination of Molly Phee, an experienced career diplomat, has been pulled for the post in favor of one-term Rep. Scott Taylor (R-VA), who, while lacking a background in diplomacy, has, well… visited Qatar at least once:

Taylor, it should be noted, had faced questions on a scheme that saw his staffers forging signatures in 2016 for an independent candidate in an attempt to slip his opposition’s votes. He also did not pay local local taxes because he was too “busy” to do so.