President Trump’s support for the Saudi blockade of Qatar – and his insult to Iran after it suffered an ISIS attack – reveal a dangerously shallow thinker eager to pour gas on the Mideast fires, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.
By Paul R. Pillar
That “Arab NATO” didn’t last very long, did it? The break with Qatar by some of its Arab brethren, including its nearest neighbors, is impressively comprehensive, involving a breach of diplomatic relations and an economic and transportation embargo. It reflects sharp divisions not only within the Arab world but even among the half dozen monarchies that constitute the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The break is a resounding refutation of the notion, which was a leitmotif of President Trump’s recent trip to the region, that significant lines of conflict in the region can all be reduced to some simplistic grand division, such as of evil versus good, Shia versus Sunni, or Iran versus everyone else.
The ostensible complaint about Qatar’s financing of extremists is grounded in truth about that financing but is an unpersuasive instance of the pot calling the kettle black, given the Saudis’ own record in furnishing such support to radicals. The actual grievances that the Saudis and others have with the Qataris involve the sorts of parochial, ignoble concerns that the United States does not share and should not act as if it does.
Qatar’s sponsorship of Al Jazeera has long been a thorn in the side of the Saudi rulers, who dislike freewheeling journalism that addresses subjects of interest to the Saudis. Then there was the way in which, back in the 1990s, the father of the current Qatari emir deposed his father, an action that senior Saudi royals saw as a disturbing precedent for ruling families in the region and led to the Saudis reportedly attempting to foment their own coup in Qatar.
Policies toward the Muslim Brotherhood are an additional issue. Certainly it is misleading to throw the Brotherhood rhetorically into the same hopper as the much different violent extremists that are the object of counterterrorist efforts. The Brotherhood has represented in most places in the region the principal peaceful Islamist alternative to the violent extremism of jihadists such as ISIS.
The Saudi royals have been wary of the Brotherhood because it represents a popular way of incorporating Islam into politics that is quite different from the monarchical absolutism of the royals themselves; the Brotherhood thus constitutes a threat to the religiously based legitimacy of the house of Saud. Egyptian strongman Abdel Fatah al-Sisi opposes the Brotherhood because it represents a popular alternative to his increasingly harsh authoritarian rule; the democratically elected president whom al-Sisi deposed in a coup was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
For Qatar’s rulers — even though they, like the Saudis, lead a very undemocratic and Wahhabi-based monarchy — dealing with the Brotherhood is a matter of recognizing social and political reality. Persian Gulf specialist Gerd Nonneman, of the Doha campus of Georgetown University, observes that Qatar’s relationship with the Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations “was never driven by religious ideology but by a pragmatic calculation that these movements had considerable social traction and would likely become an important part of the post-Arab Spring era.”
Then there is Qatar’s mostly normal relationship with Iran. This is the aspect of the intra-GCC dust-up that raises the most serious questions about the Trump administration’s crudely simplistic way of defining lines of conflict in the region and in particular its automatic, nothing-but-confrontation-and-hostility posture toward Iran. Qatar has very practical reasons to conduct normal business with Iran. The two countries share the largest natural gas field in the world, a resource that is the key to Qatar’s wealth and its status as the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. The two countries peacefully exploit this resource, competing in terms of economics and technology and not in terms of bullets or subversion.
To those who habitually recite the mantra about Iran’s “nefarious” behavior in the region, isn’t its behavior vis-à-vis Qatar and the gas exactly the kind of peaceful, normal, behavior we want to encourage? And if it is to be encouraged, shouldn’t we all conduct ourselves the way the Qataris have in this respect?
Such conduct need not erase or overlook other differences or conflicts of interests. As Nonneman notes, Qatar’s posture toward Iran is as pragmatic as its posture toward the Muslim Brotherhood; Qatar is strongly opposed to Iranian policies in Syria, for example, but sees no good to be done by any attempt to isolate Iran totally.
Iran’s immediate response to the embargo of Qatar by its Arab brethren was to offer food exports to make up for commerce interrupted by Saudi Arabia closing its land border with Qatar. Would export of food be another example of that “nefarious,” “destabilizing” Iranian behavior we keep hearing about?
The Qatar experience raises another important point regarding conflict, stability and Iran. As has been mentioned by many observers while Trump has continued sword-dancing with the Saudis and been castigating the Qataris, Qatar hosts the largest U.S. military base in the Persian Gulf region. If having normal relations with Iran does not preclude a country from hosting even a large U.S. military installation — and one in the Persian Gulf, in Iran’s backyard, rather than, say, in the Gulf of Mexico — than why are we so afraid of anyone having normal relations with Iran, and are so vehement about trying to isolate Iran? Nothing could demonstrate more clearly the bankruptcy of a U.S. posture that assumes any dealings with, or activity of, Iran to be bad by definition.
An Appalling Statement
And nothing demonstrates the extremes to which the Trump administration goes in pushing its all-hostility-all-the-time policy toward Iran than the White House’s appalling statement about the ISIS terrorist attacks in Tehran, which reads in its entirety, “We grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people, who are going through such challenging times. We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”
Shorten this by about a hundred characters and add some exclamation points, and this almost reads like one of those middle-of-the-night impulsive Trumpian tweets. It is all the more disturbing that this was instead an official White House statement, released by the press office — a reflection of how the extremes of current policy toward Iran are a function not just of Donald Trump’s urges but also of personal grudges found elsewhere at high levels of his administration, a party-wide impulse to do the opposite of whatever Barack Obama did, and other comparably bad bases for constructing foreign and national security policy.
The “evil they promote” language turns upside down, of course, the whole story of ISIS and of how Iran has been a major foe, not a supporter, of that group and similar brands of terrorism. But the heartlessness and ignorance of the White House statement have implications beyond policy toward Iran. Just imagine what our own reaction would be if a similar “they had it coming” statement were made by any other government, in response to a terrorist attack by any group made against any other country. The reaction quite properly would be that the government making the statement was irresponsibly condoning terrorism.
For the United States to make such a statement subjects it to a very unfavorable comparison with Iran, which responsibly reacted with compassion and support following the most serious terrorist attack against the United States. Donald Trump likes to pose, as he tried to do during his recent trip to the region, as a leader in the fight against terrorism. Anyone who declares that the target of an ISIS attack had it coming to them is not qualified to be such a leader.
Everyone except hardline trouble-makers has an interest in de-escalation, rather than escalation, of tension and conflict in the Persian Gulf. Everyone includes the United States, the GCC countries, and the global economy. It is not just the leaders of Qatar who recognize that. Oman has carefully maintained smooth relations with all of its neighbors, including Iran, and for the most part Kuwait has tried to do so as well. That’s half of the GCC. Even the Saudis, when they are not seized with shorter term preoccupations such as new leaders trying to make marks for themselves, have from time to time seen the value of rapprochement with Iran.
There has been an opportunity just within the past few months, based on a GCC proposal for dialogue that the Kuwaiti foreign minister carried to Tehran, for significant de-escalation of cross-Gulf tension. The proposal was well-received in Iran. President Rouhani, with a strengthened mandate after a landslide re-election victory, has expressed willingness to discuss without preconditions the full range of differences between Iran and the Gulf Arabs. Iran and Saudi Arabia already, earlier this year, held talks that reached a compromise to resolve some differences regarding Iranian pilgrims making the Hajj to Mecca.
Then along comes Donald Trump, preaching a message not of rapprochement and reconciliation, not of the need for countries that live in the same neighborhood and are not going anywhere to share that neighborhood, but instead a message of militancy, hostility, and isolation. He has been appealing to, and bolstering, all the worst, most parochial inclinations of the Saudis and others, and opposing inclinations based on their better judgment.
The Saudi-led move against Qatar was not initiated by Trump but was in effect encouraged by him (and not just because he has bragged of being responsible for it), with its mishmash of anti-Iran, anti-Muslim Brotherhood tones resembling the music that Trump had been singing. All the issues about the Brotherhood and other intra-GCC disputes had been around for a long time; it is no accident that the move against Doha was made when it was.
In the narrow perspective of Donald Trump, when his simply drawn lines of conflict — of good and evil, of winners and losers — cause him problems because reality is more complicated, his usual response is to draw the lines even more narrowly. Something of this has been happening with relations in the Persian Gulf.
As of the time of his trip, the projected image was of a grand coalition that could join in eternal hostility toward the forces of evil, with Iran at the center of those forces. When the more complex reality soon reasserted itself in the Qatar imbroglio, Trump’s immediate inclination was to narrow the lines of conflict some more while keeping them just as simple, and to side with the Saudis while dumping on the Qataris.
There is a parallel with how Trump responds to challenges domestically and within his own administration — always narrowing, and casting out those whom he may have lauded before but then no longer fit the simple vision. If Qatar, notwithstanding that U.S. military base, has to go the way of Chris Christie and Michael Flynn, then, in Trump’s view, so be it.
Discourse in Washington, especially at its partisan and blame-shifting worst, has long found ways to attribute conflict and disorder in the Middle East to this or that U.S. president. Often, as is true as well of events in other regions, the attribution of events, for good or for ill, to the U.S. president gets overstated.
But it is not an overstatement that a posture of stoking tensions and division rather than of encouraging their de-escalation, of swearing eternal hostility to a major regional state, of screwing up opportunities for rapprochement within the region, and of forgoing the United States’ own opportunities by bad-mouthing the nuclear agreement with Iran and refusing to build on it in addressing other issues, is making the security situation in the Persian Gulf worse. That’s bad for the denizens of the Gulf and bad for the United States.
Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)
Numbers keep look worse. Above average slump, Trump is fanning home plate. The swinger keeps missing. Thank God for the John and the Miller Time and Hope at UIA!
And I have to stand down and take it babe,
All for lovin’ you
I drown myself in sorrow
As I look at what you’ve done
Nothin’ seems to change
Bad times stay the same
And I can’t run
Sometimes I feel
Sometimes I feel
Like I’ve been tied
To the whipping post
Tied to the whipping post
Tied to the whipping post
Good lord I feel like I’m dyin’
Hope’s never dyin’!
Its the program, a war farming operation in which conflict is perpetually sown. The fertilizer is young soldiers mixed with ten or a hundred times as many civilians, plowed into the fields of battle. The perpetual harvest is money and with it, power. The US administration is not trying to win anything, end anything, finish anything any more than a farmer is trying to harvest a final crop. This is an ongoing operation; it will not end if the system that perpetuates it remains in place. “Pouring gas on middle-eastern fires” is EXACTLY what is intended…. More weapons are sold, the military industries profit enormously, we arm both sides of the conflicts, and then move in to take the reconstruction contracts before destroying it all again…turning over the stubble of last years conflict and aggression and sowing the seeds of more war.
Thanks, Brian, just right!
If the US is supporting the Saudi blockade, perhaps they should ask the US to pack up and leave.
Be careful–the base in Qatar could become the next Guantanamo Bay.
Ex-CIA and pro-Iran? Give me a break. Meanwhile the much-admired nuclear wannabe has its sights set on a vehicle for delivering a death blow to the United States. Sorry I’m not impressed by this scathing critique of President Trump’s contempt for Iran.
Iran decided in 2004 to never make a nuclear weapon, hasn’t and never will.
Excuse me for the typo. It was 2003.
If one wants to be a real analyst, instead of only a hack or an opinionated babbler and intellectual self-massager, one needs to look at, and analyze, what is being done, and by whom, and in what contexts and circumstantial surroundings, immediate and objective (further along and down the road).
In the immediate case we see everyone qualifying their “analytical” visions with their own perceptions and perspectives, especially their of those toward Donald Trump, while mining piles of press-provided manure, apparently because they live with those and find them ready at hand to mine on every side.
In the case of Trump we should remember he is President Trump, the face and front for some aspect(s) of The United States, or we maybe should say, “The United States”, or in the Middle East Situation context, the Foreign Image Version, current (2017) of the United States.
Who is President Donald facing for? Who are his “Foreign Policies” advisors? Who advises and directs his presentations in regard to Middle East situations and policies? Whose Agenda is he fronting, or forwarding, or attempting to forward? What is that Agenda? How does what President Trump presents fit into, play into, the agenda that he represents, which, therefore, is the United States’ Agenda-by-adoption (since the United States has no real stake in anything in the Middle East (or are we in fingers-in-ears la-la-la- land, ignoring this point?)).
All the congressional and Media blathering about Trump, and all the anti-Trump blatherers (the pro-Trump are quiet, have you noticed? Or wondered why? Or what their attitudes and perceptions of all the noise-makers are?) are diversionary. Can you recognize this? They are all cover, curtain, smoke, mirrors and electro-magnetic bullshit.
Yes, Trump is doing dumb stuff. He is a 21st century American President. All of them have done dumb stuff. Equally dumb. not a wit (no pun intended) smarter or less incredibly stupid than ordering a blind broadside of Tomahawks more to “impress” one national leader how “tough” America is (demonstrating how stupid) than send any kind of message at all to the one shot at. All have mis-quoted themselves, mis-stated, mis-represented and made fools, liars and worse of themselves.
So who was advising U.S. President Trump in regard to his dealings with Saudi Arabia? Representing whose Agenda? How about Jared Kushner, and Israel’s.
So, what did President Trump do? He made a whizzy arms sale to the Saudis; An impressive-size arms sale (good price, too, if it had no ‘hidden’ costs…). Do I need to tell you there must have been strings? Determining that is analysis.
What strings? We could prognose that whatever the strings, they would have to serve Israel. They would also have to be acceptable, and perceived “do-able”, by the Saudis. We could have speculated, but better to wait and watch and get a real answer (and avoid posturing ourselves as ‘Pundits’, God forbid (or Allah forbear)).
We did not have long to wait in this case: Saudi Arabia slammed clamps on Qatar just days after President Trump’s departure. The indication is the quid pro quo was a very acceptable, to the Saudis, one: To come down hard on Qatar, to stop Qatar “supporting terrorists”. Qatar has been a pain in the arse to the Saudis for a long time. An OK to put a hammer-lock on them would be welcome to them. They would jump to do it.
But how does the Saudis clamping Qatar “help” in the Middle East? Who does it help? Who does it have to help?
Israel, of course. In Western Policy Israel is the Middle East. All around Israel are ‘spear-carriers’. When Israel comes front on stage, the ‘spear-carriers’ fall back, in U.S. (and Israeli) perception, Except for the Villains, the “scum” who defy Israel. Remember, Jared Kushner is White House Representative for Israel. When Israel is on stage, Jared Kushner is Edgar Bergan. his job is to make President Trump perform for Israel.
So what Edgar Bergan and President Trump do for Israel in giving the Saudis a whizzy arms deal with a kicker to stop Qatar dealing with “terrorists”?
Let’s ask who are “terrorists” in the situation? Da’esh? No. Al Nusra/Sham/etc.? No. Hint: Remember, they have to be “terrorists” to Israel.
Right! The Palestinians!! Well Done! Yes, Qatar has continued to support the Palestinians. The Saudis don’t. The Gulf State Coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, or, in Saudi Arabia’s perception, ruled by Saudi Arabia, does not, except for some recalcitrant elements, namely and to wit, Qatar…
There used to be a number of Middle East states who supported the Palestinians. Here is a list: Libya, Iraq, Syria, Qatar…
The United States has destroyed, for Israel, obviously, since the United States has no stake of its own in Middle East politics, Libya and Iraq, and has at least made enough of a mess of Syria it is hard put to support itself, and so can’t do much for the Palestinian “terrorists” who are Israel’s principle “”Terrorist” Threat”.
To further isolate its Palestinian “Terrorists”, and further its plans to extirpate the lot of them, Israel has nudged the U.S., not only Donald Trump, to squash or quash Palestinian “terrorist” supporters, one after another.
Donald Trump, acting as President of the United States, with Israel advising and guiding him, through its man-in-the-Whithouse Jared Kushner, just bribed the Saudis to quash Qatar, one of the few remaining of what Israel sees to be the Palestinian “terrorist” supporters.
When Donald Trump claimed credit for the Saudi action against Qatar he was claiming credit for the statecraft that initiated and effectuated the action to halt Qatari support for the only “terrorists” who are “terrorists” in the Gulf Coalition perspective. The only ones only Qatar, and not the Gulf Coalition as a whole are not supporting.
See what you miss when you are too busy mining in the Media-Supplied Mire and nursing and nurturing your own imaginations? Blindering yourselves defining and redefining how ‘awful’ you want to think Donald Trump is, you miss seeing what Donald Trump is doing.
You also miss the real United States blunders; the ones Trump is only peripherally involved in, like getting into ‘missile-pissing’ contests with a tiny impoverished nation that, if you used your rational minds you would have to wonder how could affort missile after missile to fire off and have fail in ridiculously rapid succession, until a bigger missile, one the little nation was not known to have, that could pose a real thereat, succeeds. Do you need an analyst to tell you that someone with an interest to know what the U.S. might be fielding against missiles from launch to thwart launches, and accurate guidance might have been sponsoring the little nation with missiles to piss away in such a contest, while it monitored to determine how, and then fronted an advanced missile to test the counter-measures it came up with?
Analysis is a lot of fun. It’s somewhat like figuring out how magicians do the sleights they do. To do it you have to ignore the flashes and flourishes that call the watcher to ‘look over here!’. You have to look where the actions are being done, where the flourishes come from and move away from to draw the non-analyticals’ attentions.
Nice job. Glad someone is addressing this. :)
Evangelista, you probably nailed it.
Two major festering cancers in the ME: Zionist Israel and Saudi Arabia. Period. Until those are brought under control by the world we are sliding slowly down a path of disaster………Both suck billions of dollars from the US taxpayers and have bought and paid for the majority of our government to back their insidious, evil policies: in the case of Israel the continuation of the theft of indigenous lands with violent policies to back the theft; SA with spreading it’s evil, extreme Wahhabi beliefs while backing terrorist murder all across the ME. Either this changes of we will peek into Hell soon.
Foreign policy torn from the pages of a comic book isn’t new to the US.
“President Trump’s support for the Saudi blockade of Qatar – and his insult to Iran after it suffered an ISIS attack – reveal a dangerously shallow thinker eager to pour gas on the Mideast fires, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.”
There is a problem with an ex-CIA analyst telling people the above conclusion.
Isn’t pouring gas on the Mideast (and everywhere else) fires is the CIA’s raison-d’etre?
Is there a country on earth where the CIA doesn’t have a destabilisation plan for?
The reason Paul Pillar and Robert Parry can write about the CIA is that they understand it inside and out, and have rejected its aims, the lies and dirty deeds done for the hegemonic USA. They are EX-Cia. They got out and can speak truthfully.
[BTW, Putin got out of the KGB, too, after being a mid-level analysis for five years, mostly spent in Dresden. He didn’t accept a big KGB promotion offer in Moscow. Have to throw that in once in a while to counteract the lies about Putin.]
If there is a land blockade of Qatar how do the Americans who have a huge base there get in their supplies? Of course, they can and probably do bring in their supplies by sea so I don’t see why Qatar can’t do the same. I understand the the American base in Qatar is huge so surely Qatar could use the existence of the base to do a bit of arm twisting. Its worth remembering that the base was set up there because the Saudi’s, where the Base was originally situated, wouldn’t let the Americans fly planes from there to bomb Iraq. This is almost certainly a prelude to regime change.
“We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”
I think we can safely assume that Trump didn’t write this because it’s actually a full sentence and, as you say, there are no exclamation marks!!!
Who was the idiot who wrote these words? Who did this, and who sanctioned it?
“…a party-wide impulse to do the opposite of whatever Barack Obama did.” What? You mean the upstanding guy who thought it was okay that Gaddafi was hunted down and murdered while being sodomized by a knife? You mean that stellar citizen who aided and abetted ISIS in his attempt to overthrow Assad?
“Then along comes Donald Trump, preaching a message not of rapprochement and reconciliation, not of the need for countries that live in the same neighborhood and are not going anywhere to share that neighborhood, but instead a message of militancy, hostility, and isolation. He has been appealing to, and bolstering, all the worst, most parochial inclinations of the Saudis and others, and opposing inclinations based on their better judgment.”
Yeah, everything was going along just swell, no wars, no millions killed until Trump came along? Mr. Pillar, Trump came in wanting to stop all wars, and what did the Deep State do to him? They vilified him, crushed him, talked about impeaching him. The simpleton actually wanted the wars to end, he wanted to trade, do business.
I highly doubt the simpleton wants war with Iran.
Yes, the apparent reversals of Trump certainly involve the Obama faction in DC and the dark state.
The strange “states that sponsor terrorism” sentence is ambiguous in whether it refers to Iran or the state that sponsored the attack there, but a speechwriter would be more cautious, and upon Iran’s indignation a speaker who meant otherwise would have clarified.
Trump: the epitome of the ugly American, lacking even the simplest understanding, due to overweening egotism.
We are all mostly ugly Americans now and with good reason. We WILL be respected again even if it’s only through fear. Find a safe space and you’ll be just fine.
Not surprisingly, Israel is part of the problem.
“Will the GCC crisis undermine the Palestinian cause? The Qatar-Gulf crisis has given Israel an opportunity to normalise its presence in the region, analysts say.”
Trump is not the only American with a blind spot regarding Iran. You’re picking on him, but I doubt there is a single member of Congress (unlike Trump, politicians for life) who could repeat any of what you’ve written in this article. Why don’t you apply for a job in the White House, or advising some influential Congress critter?
Certainly US foreign policy has been completely mismanaged since WWII, and most obviously in the Mideast. It is quite astounding that the USG has so long been so extremely dishonest as to secretly support ISIS and AlQaeda and their allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia, and yet accuse their opponents in Iran and Russia of “terrorism.”
We should remain above the fray, considering the grievances rather than the violence. Consideration of the real grievances introduces complexity and invites the false criticism that one supports terrorists, but it is the only path to peace, other than choosing sides randomly and fighting wars forever, which so far has led the US only to defeats.
But the US cannot soon be part of the solution to any foreign problem, because all three branches of the federal government and the mass media are corrupt to the maximum extent possible, completely bribed and owned by zionists/KSA/MIC/WallSt, and must be thoroughly purged and reconstructed even to restore democracy here.