State Department takes sudden hard line on Saudis over Qatar
iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) — It was just a week and a half ago that President Donald Trump contradicted his own secretary of state while standing in front of him in the Rose Garden, blasting Qatar for sponsoring terrorism and seeming to take credit for the Saudi-led blockade of the small Arab country. Just hours earlier, Secretary Rex Tillerson had called for restraint and an easing of the blockade.
On Tuesday, there was more whiplash.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert slammed Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others for the blockade, questioning its necessity and expressing doubt about the countries’ claims.
“Now that it’s been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar,” said Nauert.
“The more that time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. At this point, we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns about Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?” she asked, referring to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s six member nations.
The strong statement stood in sharp contrast to Trump, who seemed to say he agreed to the blockade and made the same charges against Qatar that Nauert on Tuesday called “alleged.”
“Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” Trump said on June 9, adding that Saudi Arabia and others “came together and spoke to me about confronting Qatar over its behavior. So we had a decision to make. … 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.”
When pressed on that discrepancy, Nauert pushed back, saying, “Our position has not changed on that.”
“The secretary likes results, and we believe these [disputes] are because of long, long-brewing tensions among the various parties, and so we want them to resolve it,” she added. “We’ve said to the parties involved, ‘Let’s finish this. Let’s get this going.’”
The new tune — and such a public shaming for traditional allies — may be meant to put stronger pressure on the Saudis and Emiratis to end the blockade. But for those in the region and allies watching around the world, it may also make for another confusing, if not inconsistent, moment of Trump foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and several other Arab countries have severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, with some closing their borders or restricting their airspace, too. The diplomatic crisis is a response to Qatar’s financial support for Islamic extremist terrorists, according to Saudi Arabia — something the U.S. has expressed concern about as well, but Qatar has denied.
Nauert said Tillerson remains engaged on the issue — having more than 20 phone calls and meetings since the diplomatic crisis began, including three phone calls and two in-person meetings with the Saudi foreign minister, three calls with the Qatari foreign minister and three calls with the Qatari emir. She reiterated that the U.S. wants all sides to constructively resolve the dispute and focus on fighting terrorism instead.
Despite that engagement, however, she also said that the U.S. believes the issue can be resolved peacefully without having to step in to mediate — even after the State Department said Friday that Tillerson canceled his attendance at the Organization of American States summit in Mexico this week in order to mediate.
When challenged on that, Nauert said Tillerson had one meeting in Washington Monday night on the issue, but wouldn’t say who it was with.
The UAE has said the blockade could last for years unless Qatar meets a list of demands to be revealed shortly. For its part, Qatar says it will not negotiate until the travel and trade boycotts are removed.
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