Secretary of State Rex Tillerson walks in to a news conference to speak about Qatar at the State Department in Washington, June 9, 2017. (Photo: AP)
After a few days of shuttle diplomacy in the region, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described his chief accomplishment as having achieved "a changed sense of willingness to at least be open to talking to one another and that was not the case before I came." To be sure, that answer is the diplomatic equivalent to sporting a tourist shirt that reads, "I flew between multiple Gulf capitals and all I got was this lousy t-shirt."
The diplomatic storm threatens to rupture the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which has been a relative beacon of stability in a region where the turbulent waters are often tested and where several vital American interests intersect.
In May, a few weeks after Trump delivered his highly anticipated speech in Riyadh, the battle lines were drawn. Among the six GCC states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain are pitted against Qatar. Kuwait is attempting to mediate, while Oman is doing its best impression of former FBI Director James Comey trying to blend into the White House curtains to avoid detection.
Hassan Hassan, senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, further characterized the divide between the two camps as "one that seeks to advance its foreign interests through the support of Islamists and one whose foreign policy is guided by opposition to the rise of Islamists." Turkey and Iran have thrown in with the Islamist-supporting side, while most in the region, including Egypt, are backing the Saudi-led bloc.
Unfortunately, President Trump and Secretary Tillerson have been supporting different sides in the dispute. The president made the right choice by backing the Saudi-led bloc, while the secretary is buttressing Qatar. Obviously, that presents a host of problems, not the least of which is insubordination, as one outranks the other.
As President George W. Bush once said, "I'm the decider," in reference to the fate of his embattled defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. So too is President Trump the decider on the direction of foreign policy and the cabinet he keeps. Secretary Tillerson's approach not only represents a poor choice in policy but the mixed messaging that comes as a result creates several knock-on effects, none of which are helpful.
The first of which is that it could lead the negotiations to a state of paralysis because Qatar will believe it can expect a different or better American response. Or, it can lead to a place where the U.S. is negotiating against itself and complicating matters, while looking foolish in the process.
An even worse impact can be anticipated in that it encourages the type of regional adventurism that President Trump seeks to change. As Bret Stephens wrote in his book, America in Retreat, "Influence, like power, abhors a vacuum." The Obama years can be characterized by a retreat from the Middle East in favor of boosting Iran at the expense of America's traditional allies.
The absence of leadership and influence led friend and foe alike to freelance in foreign policy on matters critically important to U.S. national security. That seldom turns out well for the United States.
"The core purpose of Pax Americana isn't merely to deter our adversaries," wrote Stephens, "It is to make sure that our allies are not tempted to take matters into their own hands when they feel their security is at stake."
President Trump's speech in Riyadh was a reassertion of U.S. influence, a reaffirmation of American leadership and a call to collective action. The Tillerson approach, however, could sow the kind of doubt among allies that leads to more freelancing. That encourages the type of revisionist behavior that Qatar, Turkey and Iran are currently engaged in.
A senior White House official recently told me, "It's not an accident we have two Marines in the Cabinet from the same Marine Corps division. And that division's motto is, 'No better friend; No worse enemy.'" He paused thoughtfully before continuing. "That's a pretty good motto for the administration. If you want to be our friend then you can be our friend. If you're going to mess with us and undermine our interests, you will pay a price."
That seems to closely reflect the president's thinking. For the sake of U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond, one should hope the State Department quickly learns to reflect that as well.