The US state and defence departments have scrambled to limit the diplomatic damage done by Donald Trump’s morning tweets lambasting Qatar, which is the hub for US military air operations across the Middle East.
Trump started the day by taking sides in a bitter row among the Gulf monarchies, in which Saudi Arabia and its allies have sought to isolate Qatar.
The US president visited the region last month and claimed to have helped bring unity to the Islamic world in the battle against extremism.
While in Riyadh, Trump met regional leaders, including the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. He said the US and Qatar had been “friends for a long time” and that the two leaders discussed the Qatari purchase of “lots of beautiful military equipment”.
Just more than two weeks later, however, after Riyadh cut ties with Qatar, Trump tweeted support for the move, claiming that when it came to funding radical ideology, “leaders point to Qatar”.
US relations with Qatar have long been complicated by Doha’s promotion of a conservative and austere form of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, from which many extremist groups claim to draw inspiration, and its backing of extremist groups elsewhere in the region.
However, the same issues have clouded the relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Furthermore, the al-Udeid base outside Doha is the centre for US air operations over Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. It will be critical for the assault on the Isis stronghold Raqqa, which was launched on Tuesday.
“It’s unlikely (to say the least) that Donald Trump realised we are running the entire air war out of Qatar prior to his tweet,” said Andrew Exum, a deputy assistant secretary of defence for Middle East policy in the Obama administration.
In a cycle that has become a daily norm in Washington, government agencies on Tuesday sought to mitigate the impact of the president’s declarations, restating existing policy and playing down the significance of the tweets.
The defence department praised Qatar for hosting US forces and its “enduring commitment to regional security”. A Pentagon spokesman, Capt Jeff Davis, said he was not qualified to answer a question about whether Qatar supported terrorism.
“I’m not the right person to ask that. I consider them a host to our very important base at al-Udeid,” Davis said.
The new spokeswoman at the state department, Heather Nauert, was bombarded with similar questions. She echoed the Pentagon’s expressions of gratitude and conceded that Doha had made strides in cutting the flow of funds to terror groups.
“We recognise that Qatar continues to make efforts to stop the financing of terror groups, including prosecuting suspected financiers, freezing assets, introducing stringent controls on its banking system,” Nauert said. “They have made progress in this arena but we recognise that more needs to be done.”
Her comments echoed signals from the US ambassador in Doha, Dana Shell Smith, who on Monday had retweeted earlier embassy statements about Doha’s “great partnership and real progress” to counter terrorist financing.
When Nauert, a former host of a conservative morning television show, Fox & Friends, was pressed on the conflict between the state department’s signalling and the president’s tweets, she protested: “Guys – let’s move off this social media thing because there are a lot of other important regions around the world that we need to talk about.”
The White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, also sought to mitigate the impact of the president’s tweet-tirade against Qatar.
“The president had a very, very constructive conversation with the emir during his visit in Riyadh. At that time he was very heartened by the emir’s commitment to formally joining the terrorist financing targeting centre and showing their commitment to this issue,” Spicer said.
Former officials expressed concern that, while Qatar benefits from the US military presence and the income that presence brings with it, the souring of relations with its ruling family could push the strategically important country into closer alignment with Iran or other adversaries.
Hours after Trump’s tweets, Vladimr Putin telephoned the Qatari emir, stressing “Russia’s principled position in favour of settling crises by political and diplomatic means, through dialogue”. CNN reported on Tuesday that Russian hackers had planted a fake news story on the Qatari state agency attributing reconciliatory remarks on Iran and Israel to the emir. The news story helped precipitate the current crisis with Riyadh.
“The Saudis, Emiratis, and President Trump are certainly correct that Qatar has been playing both sides of the street … but we’re probably underestimating the possibility of Qatar breaking with the Sunni states and aligning itself with Iran,” said Kori Schake, a senior defence official in the last Bush administration. She added: “[I] hope we have a back up for operations at al-Udeid.”
Ilan Goldenberg, a former senior state department official now at the Center for a New American Security, said: “At the end of the day, we have a lot of leverage on the Qataris and they are not going to walk away. But the president has thrown fuel on the fire. If we are going to build a coalition to fight extremism, you have to smooth over differences, and this is going to inflame them.”
“He has pretty much undercut any diplomatic efforts by US officials to try to calm things down.”
Kelly Magsamen, a former senior Pentagon official who is now an adjunct lecturer at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said: “It’s interesting that Donald Trump is choosing to pile on pressure just as we are beginning Raqqa operations.”
Magsamen pointed out that al-Udeid is not just a base for US air operations but also for US allies taking part in the counter-Isis coalition.
“It’s not clear whether there was a deliberate American decision before the president leaned in, and whether the national security council ran any sort of process on the risks of encouraging the Saudis and Emiratis to put pressure on the Qataris,” she said.