Experts discuss the breakdown in diplomatic ties between Qatar and neighboring Arab states, consequences for relations across the Middle East, and implications for U.S. foreign policy in the region.
MCMAHON: Well, good morning, everyone, and welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations on-the-record conference call on the crisis in Qatar. I am Robert McMahon, managing editor of CFR.org, and I’m going to be presiding over this call.
It is being called the most serious crisis among Gulf States in decades. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and a number of other states are accusing Qatar of supporting terrorist forcers and cozying up to Iran, among other things. They have launched an air and sea blockade, expelled citizens from their countries. And longtime watchers of the region are concerned this could grow much more serious, with very major consequences for the United States as well as the region.
We’ve assembled a staff panel of CFR senior fellows to help examine what is happening and possible solutions.
First, Steven Cook is an expert on Arab and Turkish politics, as well as U.S. Middle East Policy. He’s also author of the just-published “False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the Middle East.”
Philip Gordon, who’s joining us from Israel today, was special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf region from 2013 to 2015.
And Ray Takeyh has specialized in Iran, political reform in the Middle East, and Islamist movements and parties. He’s also a former senior adviser on—(off mic).
Now, I’m going to ask each of them to provide a short opening statement on the crisis, and then we’ll follow up with—we’ll have a follow-up discussion of about 10 minutes or so before opening to your questions on the line. That’ll be at about the 10:20, 10:25 mark. This call will conclude at 11 sharp. And to kick it off, I also wanted to remind you this is on the record, and audio and transcript will be posted to CFR’s website after the call.
Steven, can you start off with a rundown of what triggered these events in the Gulf?
COOK: Well, thanks very much, Bob. It’s my pleasure.
And that, I think, is a question on everybody’s minds, which is, why now? I think that there are three or four important reasons that people should keep in mind.
The first is that this is an extension of a conflict or tension between the Qataris and its neighbors—and their neighbors going back a couple of years. And, in fact, there was an agreement in early 2014 that was supposed to settle the differences between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and other countries in the region. It has been the position of the Emiratis and the Saudis that Emir Tamim, the leader of Qatar, has never actually implemented this agreement. And what they mean is that the Qataris are still hosting members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the leadership of Hamas. They support Islamist elements within Libya. They’re accused of terror financing. Al-Jazeera continues its efforts to incite against the Saudi royal family and the Emiratis.
And then, of course, there is the difference between the Qataris and its neighbors over the issue of Iran. The Qataris believe that Iran is a problem that needs to be managed rather than a problem that can actually be rolled back. In other words, what the Saudis and the Emiratis are objecting to is—particularly when it comes to Iran, is that the Qataris are acting independently of them. This has been the prime directive of Qatari foreign policy for as long as anyone can remember; that is, to not become essentially a satellite of Saudi Arabia, much the way that Bahrain has become a satellite of Saudi Arabia.
The president’s visit to Saudi Arabia in late May, in which he spoke words that the Saudis, the Emiratis, and others have been very much wanting to hear, also emboldened the Saudis and the Emiratis, believing that the administration was 100 percent behind them. I think if you take a look at President Trump’s speech in Riyadh, they read that quite correctly. And they were emboldened by it, and decided that it was time to send the Qataris—as well as, by the way, the Omanis—a message that there was a new era in U.S.-Gulf relations, and that they’d better get onboard with the Saudi and Emirati view of things.
Clearly, the Emiratis and the Saudis—and I would emphasize the Emirati role in this—they have been looking for an opportunity to turn up the pressure on the Qataris. And I think that the change in the administration, the president’s visit to Riyadh, and the things that he said, along with these other things—along with the accusations against the Qataris, some of which are entirely accurate—precipitated this crisis.
I’ll stop there, and we can move on to Phil and Ray’s assessment. Thanks so much.
MCMAHON: Thanks, Steven.
So, Phil, picking up from there, the Trump administration, in response to this crisis, reacted somewhat awkwardly. It still seems to be divided in the messaging as it attempts to mediate. Could you talk a bit about the U.S. response and what’s at stake for the U.S., as well, in this crisis?
GORDON: Sure, but I have to say I’ll talk a bit about the U.S. response and maybe flesh out a little bit further Steven’s excellent explanation of how we got here, how the Qataris are thinking about this here, and that will help us understand why this is going to be so difficult a box to get out of.
I mean, the U.S. is struggling. I think that has been clear to everybody, the deep split between the secretary of state and the president when it comes to talking about or handling this crisis. The U.S. is obviously allied in many ways to both sides. We have a major military facility in Qatar, and have close, important relations with Qatar that we have used from time to time diplomatically to reach out to some of those groups that the United States doesn’t talk to or deal with itself, whether it’s Hamas when it comes to a ceasefire in Gaza or the Taliban and its kin trying to get negotiations going on in Afghanistan. And actually, President Trump—this, you know, somehow got lost in the shuffle as he came out so strongly in support of the Saudis and Emiratis—but he met with the emir of Qatar in Riyadh when he was announcing to the world the great unity vis-à-vis Iran of the U.S. and its Sunni allies, and he praised the U.S.-Qatari relationship, and he talked about how we want to sell them lots of beautiful weapons. So the United States has ties on that side of the ledger, as well as, obviously, towards the Saudi, Emirati, and other partners in the region.
So I think the United States has a unique role to play, but it hasn’t yet decided how it’s going to play that role. Even though he met with the Qataris and praised the closeness of the relationship, Trump, quickly after the crisis broke out, started tweeting, almost taking credit for the crisis, for the blockade, for the efforts of our allies in the region to squeeze Qatar. But then Tillerson not long after that made a statement that the blockade should be eased and he’s looking for a diplomatic solution, which was then followed immediately by Trump again claiming credit for the blockade and almost egging them on, calling Qatar a very important sponsor of terrorism. So that really is a confused and chaotic U.S. response.
Trump, you know, always wants to take credit for toughness, especially when it’s along the lines of a policy that seems to reinforce what he’s trying to do—standing up to Iran, standing up to terror, as being different from Obama. That explains where he is coming from. Tillerson, on the—on the other hand, I think understands the consequence of this—the potential consequence for the United States. And, by the way, his own background in coming at this issue, I think, as the CEO of ExxonMobil, would have had close contacts with the leaders of both of these countries, Saudi Arabia—or all of these countries, Saudi Arabia, but also Qatar, where ExxonMobil was deeply involved. So he knows both sides, and I think his instinct is therefore—his coming-in instinct from what he did before and his instinct as secretary of state is try to broker a deal rather than to just jump in on one side and try to squeeze the other until it ultimately gives up.
That raises the question of whether the United States will be able to broker something. And I’ll just briefly say on that I am concerned that we could be in for a prolonged standoff with growing consequence, because if you think this through, it is hard to see how either side backs down quickly. Steven rightly recalled the 2014 precedent. We had something similar for similar reasons. The Saudis and Emiratis were fed up with everything Qatar was doing on this file, and they pulled the ambassadors and said: this has got to stop. Well, that went on for a few months, and the emir of Qatar went to Riyadh and he said he wasn’t going to do those things anymore, and they moved on. But, as Steven also said, the others don’t feel like Qatar has delivered on that promise, and this has come to a head again. And this response is much more severe than just pulling ambassadors. The blockade and the overflights and the pulling of nationals out of Qatar is much more serious, with much more serious consequences.
Emboldened by Trump, I think the Saudis and Emiratis are hoping for a quick Qatari cave. But that seems to me unlikely. Qatar has enormous financial resources. It is not inclined to just bow to the Saudis. They’re determined to remain independent and keep their links with some of these groups, and has the wherewithal, I think, to hold out for a while. And that’s why the U.S. role in brokering this is going to be so difficult, because both sides are pretty dug in. And therefore, I think—and I’ll just end with this—the U.S. is right to be concerned that if it does go on it could have very negative consequences, beyond the immediate ones that we’ve already seen—the inconveniences and the economic costs for both sides, which are not enormous but they are significant. But even worse, rather than pulling Qatar into the fold, if it pushes them out of the fold and they get closer to Turkey and Iran and to extremist groups, then we have an even greater sectarian geopolitical problem in the Middle East than we had before it started. I’ll stop with that.
MCMAHON: Thank you, Phil.
So, Ray, on the other side of the Gulf is Iran. It’s already stepped up to offer material and other support for Qatar. How is this playing in Tehran? How do you see its calculations so far?
TAKEYH: Thanks. I’ll be brief, given the previous additions already.
Since 2011, most poignantly, I think Iran has had a very sectarian-tinged foreign policy. So the discussion is mostly about Shia imperialism and trying to appeal most directly to Shia. I think there’s some static on my side. But at any rate, so this crisis doesn’t actually fit well into the Iranian foreign policy narrative. And there are very important factions in Iran who are suggesting that there should be limits to how much they approach the Qataris because of differences between the two and a variety of other issue are quite pronounced.
And as I mentioned, Iran has had a very Shia imperialistic foreign policy today, with kind of Shia chauvinistic rhetoric. And that kind of explains the opportunity that has been offered in the region given the rise of the Shia community in Iraq and elsewhere. And so in that sense, the Qatari issue doesn’t fit well into the Iranian narrative. And I think there’ll be very serious limitations to how far Iran will proceed. So this idea that sometimes is prevailing that there’ll be a natural realignment between Iran and Qatar is, to me, exaggerated.
Now, I do understand that Iranian foreign policy is capable of pragmatic adjustments, and even in the midst of trying to appear to a broad swath of the Shia community, they have not stopped their association with various Sunni militant groups. Now, whether that’s the Taliban or aspects of al-Qaida or what have you, there has always that undertone of Iranian cooperation with radical Sunni regimes, while at the same time pursuing a very divisive Shia policy. But I think in terms of having a relationship with a nation-state like Qatar, with which they have significant disagreements on a variety of issues. So I expect there’ll be very pronounced limits to how far they go. And I under they’ve done some food shipments and so on, but I’m not anticipating this going much beyond that.
The second theme I would touch on is the prevailing theme in Washington today, which is we need to push back on Iran. And pushing back on Iran is a theme that’s obviously not always associated with much substance. Pushing back on Iran in contested places like Iraq and Syria is going to take quite a substantial effort, because these are contested regions, there’s civil wars, civil conflict. It will cost—it will necessitate rehabilitation of the Iraqi institutions, cleansing the security forces of Shia militia influences and all kinds of burdens that that imposes on American policy and allied policy in Syria.
But part of pushing back on Iran is to get the alliance in the region to have—lessen diplomatic and economic ties to Iran. Now, I know Qatar is not the only country that has those relationships. And I do understand that the antecedent of this crisis are more than just Qatari relationship with Iran. But if you’re kind of serious about pushing back on Iranian imperial frontiers, then part of that is to get individual member states of the Sunni alliance to lessen their diplomatic and economic ties with Iranians.
Now, as I said, Qatar is not the only country that has that. UAE itself has a close relationship. But to some extent, this might be thought of in that particular context. Everybody seems to agree that we should push back on Iran, but people seem to disagree about how to do it. And when somebody tries to do it, there’s all kinds of criticism about its implications and ramifications. And pushing back on Iran in the region does have ramifications. And if you aren’t prepared for those ramifications, then you should dispense with the slogan.
Finally, I would say, today actually just coming in I tried to look at the headline in Iranian newspapers to see what is being said. And actually, the preoccupation in Iranian newspapers is not what the Saudis are doing in Riyadh, but what John Kerry is doing in Oslo. John Kerry seems to have given a speech in Oslo. And he has suggested that throughout their nuclear negotiations the regional countries asked United States to bomb Iran, as opposed to settling the negotiations with this binding agreement, as cooler heads are trying to settle this issue, which is going to be very difficult to mediate. (I would suggest ?) this is, I would think, a rather unhelpful interjection by a former senior diplomat, former secretary of state.
But at any rate, I do think if you kind of think about this crisis in a long span of the Middle East crisis—I mean, in the ’50s, ’60s, ‘70s, ’80s, ’90s and so on—I suspect at some point there’ll be some effort toward mediation and some compromise by both sides. This is the way squabbles are usually settled. This to me seems to be a more pronounced crisis, and more acute in all its dimensions, but I’m not sure it’s really susceptible to that traditional Arab diplomacy. This is not the first time two Arab countries have had a spat. As Steven knows, in the past there have been mergers between countries, divorces between countries. So I suspect at some point you may see a great degree of mediation effort. And that mediation effort may not solve the crisis, but in some cases it may mitigate some aspects of it. And I’ll stop there.
MCMAHON: Thanks, Ray. And thanks all three of you. I’d like to follow up on that issue of mediation of how does this diplomatic crisis get solved diplomatically? And, Phil, you talked about the U.S. role and the problematic place it’s found itself in. Is the U.S. at this stage of this crucial to moving this—getting this resolved? Or should the U.S. get out of the way for a while? The Kuwaitis have been trying to do some mediation. There was a Saudi-U.S. meeting recently. How do you review the way the U.S. can be involved at this point in a way to move this toward resolution?
GORDON: Well, thanks, Rob.
No, I do think the U.S. has a critical role to play. You’re right, the Kuwaitis have tried. There are other countries in the Gulf and GCC that have reasonable—(inaudible)—it’s really the Emiratis and Saudis and the Bahrainis who are the driving force, with also Egypt as well from outside the GCC. But as I said before, the United States is the one country with the most leverage on both sides and the closest ties to both sides. And because I agree with Ray that this will probably require some kind of nuanced brokering mediation from an outside party, like has been done in the past, the United States is the best place to do that.
Now, with the obvious huge caveat that the Trump administration has not exactly shown itself capable yet of nuanced diplomacy. And arguable Trump’s actions have inflamed the crisis rather than helped to resolve them. And if the United States is just going to take a position—or at least the commander in chief of the United States is just going to take the position that is totally going with one side rather than the other, then there’s not a lot of place to produce that mediating outcome.
But as I said also before, I think this is going to be harder than many of the previous disputes among these countries to broker a compromise because, you know, one, you have the precedent 2014, the sanctions were much less than they were now. And the demands were also less, in part because they were less clear and the emir was just able to make some vague promises that weren’t even, you know, put down on public paper about how Qatar would behave differently. And this time the Saudis and the Emirates are saying no. This time it has to be ironclad and clear. And some of what they’re asking for, they’re in the point of really expelling the members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and shutting down Al Jazeera, which they’ve blocked in the meantime. Those are pretty big asks. And distancing itself from Iran, you know, a country with which Qatar has important economic links and shares a gas field. So, as of now, the demands are very high and going to be hard to meet. But ultimately, there has to be some sort of—I think we decided—(inaudible)—completely, and the United States is really the only one who can work and has an interest in working to find a compromise that both sides can live with.
MCMAHON: Thank you.
Steven, there’s been an interesting response from Turkey as well, and this obviously has resonance—this crisis has resonance far beyond the Gulf region. Can you talk a bit about how Turkey has responded and how it could either be, you know, a spoiler or potentially a mediator itself?
COOK: Yeah, it’s been a very interesting development to see how President Erdogan and the Turks have responded to this challenge. The Turks have developed quite good ties with the Qataris for a number of years, but certainly since 2011. There is a Turkish military base in Qatar, there are growing economic and security ties between the two countries, and there’s been an ideological affinity. The Qataris support some of the same groups as the Turks do in Libya. There has been a rather robust set of relations between the Turkish government and Hamas, and quite obviously the Muslim Brotherhood in particular after the coup in Egypt in 2013.
So the Turks have taken up this challenge, though it has been somewhat awkward for them, after a number of years, particularly after the coup in Egypt in 2013, to essentially wreck Turkey’s relations with the rest of the region because Turkey was so outspoken against Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the leader in Egypt, and took in so many members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and helped the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood set up media platforms from which to delegitimize Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Turkey was—its entire position in the region had cratered around that time. They have worked hard to repair their relations with the Saudis and worked hard to repair their relations with their Emiratis to different levels of success. There’s still a lot of mistrust between them. So one would have thought that the Turks would tread carefully here.
However, President Erdogan has forcefully denounced this blockade of the Qataris and organized a Turkish—essentially an airlift of supplies into Qatar. And all over Turkish and Qatari social media have been photos of Turkish products filling up Qatari supermarkets and Turkish and Qatari flags together and Qataris welcoming the Ottomans to the Middle East. This would suggest that Turkey really doesn’t have a role to play in mediating the conflict and has clearly come down on the side of the Qataris. I think that the Emiratis and the Saudis don’t appreciate the role of the Turks in the region, have been somewhat dismissive of the Turks.
And in a way they’re right. A lot of what Erdogan had said and a lot of what the Turks had done is really for Turkey’s domestic political consumption. Remember that there was a referendum in Turkey in mid-April, proposed 18 constitutional changes that give President Erdogan new and enhanced powers. Although he officially won, he likely lost that referendum, and he is in a relatively weak position. So if President Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party can position themselves as Turkey is a great power, supporting a fellow Muslim country and is playing a role on the world stage and that President Erdogan is standing up for principles, this all accrues to his domestic political benefit.
So—(off mic)—is going to make it. To the extent that they can sustain an airbridge to Doha is another factor that is going to contribute to a longer-term crisis than some might have imagined at the outset, that this would be settled quite quickly.
MCMAHON: Thanks, Steven.
Final question before we open up the call for Ray, and it concerns the subtext that I think you referred to before, of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. Can you talk a little bit about their sort of proxy competition as well as areas where they are at loggerheads in the region and how this could get much more serious, or whether there’s a path to them resolving some of the difficult problems?
TAKEYH: Well, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry—(off mic)—is—I think will define to some extent the politics of the Middle East moving forward, and I’m not sure if there’s a way of resolving and mediating that particular dispute, irrespective what you think of resolving the Qatari portion of it, which I do think will happen at some point.
This is a conflict between the Iranians and the Saudis that is playing itself out in Syria, in Iraq, in Bahrain, in Lebanon, and it is essentially those parties are enabling and helping their own proxies, and it is fracturing the Middle East along deep sectarian lines. And some of that is starting to have a blowback to Iran itself, with the recent terrorist attack on the mausoleum and the Iranian parliament, and you’re beginning to see even some aspect of this sectarian tension coming in to Iran itself, which does have about 7, 8 percent sort of a Sunni-Arab population, mostly in southeast area—southwest, I’m sorry, or even Balochis over on the other side. I think that’s a manageable internal security problem for Iran.
And the Islamic Republic has dealt with internal security issues before, and particularly this type of an action before. It’s not uncommon. What you begin to see is essentially seeping into the politics of the Islamic Republic itself and some measure of disquiet that’s happened. As I said, I think the future—the immediate future the Middle East certainly is going to be defined by this particular conflict between the two blocs. And the question is, what does the United States do? In the past, when the region has been polarized in such manner as the ‘50s, ‘60s between the sort of radical republics and conservative monarchies, the United States eventually took sides, and it took the side of the conservative monarchies, obviously. So it may be that the United States will take sides in this particular conflict as well and that will, you know, have its own implications and maybe it will further buttress the resistance of the Sunni bloc against the—sort of the resurgent Iranian power.
MCMAHON: Great. Thanks, Ray.
We’re now ready to open this call up to those on the line. I understand there’s quite a few of you. This is a reminder, this is an on-the-record CFR call on the Qatar crisis.
And, Operator, if you have any questions, please go ahead.
OPERATOR: Thank you very much.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question will come from Patrick Theros, former ambassador to Qatar.
Q: Hi. Good morning, y’all. I’m really happy that you’re holding this conversation.
I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to bear with me a little bit on the question, because I’d like to make a couple of statements that perhaps contradict some of my friends on the panel. I do not believe that the dispute dates back to 2014. I was ambassador in 1996 when the same parties—Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE—sponsored and facilitated a coup d’état against the government of Qatar. It almost succeeded. Things got really ugly. Qataris rolled up something like 600 armed men. And in the end, I thought we were on the verge of war until the U.S. government stepped in very forcefully and told everybody to lay down, take a deep breath, and then grow up. I believe that this crisis has one basis only, which is Saudi attempts to reduce Qatar to the same vassal status that it had prior to 1990. We rescued them from that status by proving that the Saudis were unable to defend anybody, including themselves.
So I would—and there is a very old hatred between the Nahayan and the Al Thani and the Al Kalifa and the Al Thani. I won’t bore you with the problem, with the story. So what has happened now, the long and the short of it, is that the demands that are being circulated are essentially demands for regime change. The Qataris—or the Saudis are circulating the name of a relatively unknown Al Thani living in London named Saud Bin Nasser. They at one point floated the idea of Al Khalifa’s older brother Abdulaziz.
But I also do not believe that this crisis has, absent a very strong American intervention, has any chance of a rapid mediation. The demands on the Saudi side are existential for Qatar. And I'm very much afraid that this is going to create a new problem for Mohammed bin Salman in the sense that having mucked up Yemen, having caused internal problems with a I think rather a good program to try and reform Saudi Arabia, he is now in a situation of being faced down by this pipsqueak. And I think this is very damaging to his—to his stature inside Saudi Arabia. Iran—
MCMAHON: Ambassador Theros, thank you. I mean, it’s great to have you on this call. So could you please then just add in a question now? I want to make sure we get the others on the call, but thank you.
Q: OK, yes, yes. The question is—the question is, why should the U.S. government come down on one side or another of a sectarian—of an ancient sectarian split in the Arab world, in the Muslim world?
MCMAHON: OK. Phil, why don’t you start off with that? And then other can add as well.
GORDON: Sure. I mean, I also appreciate the ambassador’s historical perspective. I don’t think any of us suggested that this dates to 2014. Indeed, it had been long simmering; 2014 was the last time it sort of blew up. And as I think we noted, it didn’t blow up—(inaudible). But I don’t think it’s only about the theoretical concept of leadership and kowtowing to Saudi.
The Saudis and the Emiratis—I think it’s important to emphasize they’re as much behind this drive as anyone, and if you look at who is sort of articulating positions, it is much more Emiratis even than Saudis—genuinely feel strongly. Now, you can debate their concerns, but they have genuine concerns that these Islamist groups that Qatar ultimately supports—I mean, this is not an allegation; Qatar alone takes responsibility for its relationships with some of these groups and gives them a platform on Al-Jazeera—have been extremely critical of the leaderships of these other countries. And there is a struggle for power across the region between these Islamist-oriented groups and their enemies. So I don't think it’s just—and I’m not suggesting the ambassador was saying this explicitly—just a competition for power or for leadership for leadership’s sake. These are serious issues, and the leaderships in these other countries genuinely feel that their security is threatened by what Qatar is doing, which I think reinforces why this is going to be so hard to resolve.
And I agree with the point and made it myself there is not going to be a rapid mediation or resolution of this crisis because the Qataris feel strongly about their position as the Saudis, Emiratis and others do about theirs and are not, for reasons that we have explained, so weak as to feel obliged to cave to the very strong demands of the others. We’ve seen in the international system even weak states cave easily. I mean, North Korea is a lot more isolated and poor than not just Qatar but just about everyone else in the world, and they’re not caving. Cuba hasn’t caved under pressure. States don’t easily succumb to sanctions and blockades and give up things that are very—that they perceive to be important to their own national security. And Qatar isn’t just some isolated little country. It’s a massively wealthy country that can turn—and this is what was evoked earlier—to allies or potential allies or supporters, at least, like in Iran.
And that’s the risk of this crisis, and that’s why the United States I think doesn't have an interest in simply siding with the preferred partners and piling on in the hope that somehow Qatar comes back and meets all of their demands because the more likely result of that will be driving Qatar to do potentially even more of the things that they are concerned about, including this relationship with Iran, which may not be as hardline as its GCC partners, but Qatar hasn’t exactly been—I think Ray made this point—hasn’t exactly been been entirely aligned with Iran. Sure, the emir, you know, made a call to congratulate Rouhani on his re-election. But they’ve been supporting entities in Syria that are fighting the Iranian-backed entities. They joined the Saudi coalition in Yemen. So we could get a lot, quote/unquote, “worse.” And that’s the concern about this action, that it—and I’ll end with this—doesn’t lead to the quick and complete caving of Qatar to the positions that they want, but actually has perverse and counterproductive effects, and drive Qatar to do even more of what got them into this fix in the first place.
Before I move on, Steven or Ray, anything to add on the perils of the U.S. weighing in on this?
COOK: Well, I—sorry, Ray, I stepped on you. You want to go ahead?
TAKEYH: No, go ahead. No, that’s—go ahead.
COOK: I just think that—there are perils associated with it, but I don’t think that the United States is going to be so quick to do much about it, if only because the major actors aren’t on the same page on this issue. You have the differences, obviously, between the White House and the secretary of state but also between the White House and the Pentagon, which—whose spokesman made a statement thanking the Qataris for their support for all of these years. So I think that to the extent that the United States is somewhat paralyzed by its competing interests and lack of a—of a—of a strategy in the region thus far, I think the United States cannot be an effective player in this crisis.
And we have started to see outside actors play a role that’s going to deepen the crisis. It’s not only the Turks, but this is a huge win for Abdel-Fattah Sisi in Egypt. The Egyptians have been fulminating against the Qataris since 2013, have been identifying the Qataris and the Turks as the source of regional instability and the source of extremism. It is true, as Ray says, that the Qataris and the Iranians have relations, but it’s not as deep as maybe perhaps has been said. But I don’t think—and I defer to Ray on this, but I don’t—I don’t see any reason why the Iranians would not seek to exploit this opportunity to their—to their own advantage. So as long as the United States is somewhat disorganized here, I think that this crisis is likely to deepen.
Ray, did you want to add?
TAKEYH: No, go ahead.
MCMAHON: OK. Thank you, Ambassador Theros, for that question.
Operator, do we have another question, please?
OPERATOR: Thank you, yes. And that question will come from Trudy Rubin, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Q: (Off mic)—very much for doing this.
I just want to follow up on something Steven was just talking about. Can any of you say something about—further about what this says about the way U.S. policy in the region is being made, with the president coming out on the White House—wherever he was—sorry, with the Romanian prime minister and basically totally contradicted Tillerson almost immediately after, and that back-and-forth went on for days. So who—how do you see the White House pushing what Trump said? Is it Kushner? Is it Kushner and his new princely buddy in Saudi Arabia?
And just one step further, the whole policy effort that was made in Saudi Arabia to cast the anti-terrorist part as Sunni alliance versus Shiite, is that an effective way to approach the fight against terrorism given Sunni roles in—and responsibility for the rise of terrorism in the region?
MCMAHON: Thanks, Trudy.
Steven, you want to take that first?
COOK: Yeah, let me just briefly—I do not know about the quality of the relationship between Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia. What I do know, however, is that here in Washington, the relationship between the Saudis and Emiratis on the one hand and the Qataris on the other has been framed rather effectively by an extraordinarily skilled Emirati diplomatic mission here in Washington and a relatively weak Qatari one, and that I think that that is—part of the way in which the administration is pursuing is that the conflict has been framed for them in a certain way, or at least it has been for President Trump in a certain way.
Also, let’s remember that he had just been in Saudi Arabia and had launched an effort to counter violent extremism, to counter terrorism financing, and this was going to be a—this is to be a signature issue of this administration, and here were these very serious allegations about one of those alleged partners in the fight against terrorism. So I think that it may very well be that there’s a relationship between Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman, but I think there is a broader context in a way in which this issue has been framed that puts the Qataris at a significant disadvantage. And that may be one of the reasons why the president made those statements contradicting the secretary of state. I just—I don’t know for sure, however.
But when it comes to the fight against extremism, it was—and I think a number of people noted that it was odd that the president gave the kind of full-throated support for the Saudis and others in this united alliance of Sunni groups against extremism, when many of them have much to answer for on this issue. But I think, overall—and again, the Iranians also have much to answer for—I think we have gotten caught in the framing that the Saudis and the Iranians prefer, which is a sectarian one. And we reproduce that conflict over and over and over again.
All that being said, I think it’s better that the Saudis and the Emiratis and the Bahrainis and the Egyptians and others are all aligned in this fight against extremism rather than dithering, rather than looking—saying one thing and doing another. That may very well happen down the road. But at least I think it’s important that all of these governments, who I think Phil can attest to were somewhat lackluster in the fight against the Islamic State after June 2014, seem to be mobilized in that fight at the very least.
MCMAHON: Thanks, Steven.
Phil Gordon, really quickly, in someone who’s been in this interim administration position where you’re trying to, you know, gather together policy and crisis management on occasion, could you talk a little bit about what should be happening to make the messaging smoother in a crisis of this nature?
GORDON: Sure. Let me add two things on the Trump piece and then I’ll answer your question on what we might do.
GORDON: I mean, I think this episode shows the perils of diplomacy, when the president, who actually was the point person in this case, because he was the one going and he’s speaking about it, is not really prepared or briefed and shoots from the hip and has an ego that leaves him susceptible to be played by whichever side he has been talking to. So that’s what seems to have played out here.
I mean, you have this president who, for a year, sort of campaigned an anti-Muslim position, that particularly Saudi-bashing and hugely critical of the Saudis, but then, you know, got invited, was given a nice welcome, spent some time, and listened to a certain narrative, and left him susceptible to this buying into a one-side view of a very complicated issue, and then without, I believe, really thinking through the issue or studying it, just came out with a position based on that.
And when he did that, had the president thought through the implications for our friends in the region, for our base in Qatar, which the Pentagon feels very strongly about, or the potential consequences in terms of Qatar’s relationship with Iran or Turkey? It doesn’t appear to be so.
And I think it’s just going to be very dangerous going forward if we’re making policy on that basis. Now, presumably the secretary of state is doing that and secretary of defense is doing that. They may get a chance to weigh in. But if that’s going to be the way that we go about doing these things in such a volatile, explosive part of the world, I think we’re going to have big trouble.
A contrast—and this, I think, you know, is the answer to your question—the contrast from which you would normally expect from the United States is to think these things through in advance and have some sort of game plan, because we can talk to both sides, because we have leverage over both sides, including Qatar, by the way. And I think, you know, the silver lining in this is to try to get something out of it that serves U.S. interests as well as—(inaudible). And that probably has to result in some steps by the Qataris on the fronts that have been brought up here, the attack by Al-Jazeera about the leadership in the region, the support for extremist groups in Libya or Gaza or Egypt. I think a more nuanced, sophisticated, briefed U.S. diplomacy would take a lead role, which seems to be what Tillerson is trying to do, in bringing the parties together, understanding it’s not going to be a complete shave, and going for a complete shave is going to lead to an ongoing crisis and consequences even for us—(off mic)—some of these moves.
One last sort of analogy that has been brought up before. In 2014, the Saudis also went into Yemen in a similar sort of way. We’re going to settle this once and for all. We’re not going to tolerate these actions by one of our neighbors, in this case Iran, that are intolerable. We’re going to deal with it. And the United States, under the Obama administration at the time, had questions about that; ultimately went largely supporting it.
But here we are, two years later, and it hasn’t exactly produced the quick cave by the adversaries, but, on the contrary, led to a war which seems to have no end in sight; and obviously a lot of differences, but this crisis could be analogous in the sense that if the demands are impossible to meet, then we could find ourselves two years down the road still dealing with the consequences of an action that was meant to bring about a quick and clean conclusion, but instead produced the opposite.
MCMAHON: Thank you.
TAKEYH: Can I just—
MCMAHON: Yeah. Please go ahead.
TAKEYH: (Inaudible)—think about this. And I’ll be brief, because I find Trudy Rubin’s question interesting and somewhat unusual. The State Department and Pentagon are not sovereign countries. They serve at the—at the direction of the president. And the president seems to have probably the most intellectually supple national security adviser since Henry Kissinger, and the president seems to have some very sensible objections to Qatari behavior.
And I think Steven said that Trump, President Trump, contradicted Secretary Tillerson. That’s quite a remarkable statement. I think Phil would say that he would find it very unusual if somebody made a comment saying why did President Obama contradict John Kerry, or George Herbert Walker Bush contradict Jim Baker, and so on.
The president is the president. He has a capable national security adviser and he will lead the direction. And too often, I think, actually, the president has confidence—too much diversity of views being publicly contradicting his positions. And I think that’s just a very unusual bureaucratic suggestion to imply that State Department and Pentagon have a right to behave as sovereign nations, which they are not.
MCMAHON: All right.
GORDON: Ray’s point is that—Bob, just 30 seconds on this—
MCMAHON: Yeah, sure. Go ahead.
GORDON: —hugely important point. Ray is absolutely right that this is unusual, but we have an unusual administration. And I think if one felt that the president and his very capable national security adviser had, one, a national-security process, heard from the intelligence community, the military, the State Department, congressional experts, public-opinion experts, thought it all through, and came up with a strategy, it’s obviously and absolutely the president’s prerogative to impose the policy direction on the rest of his Cabinet. But we don’t have that. We don’t have that process. The president seems to be acting on his own, distant from that process, and therefore the others in the Cabinet—you see it not just on this issue, but across the board, on Syria, China, and other things—they sort of feel empowered to take their own position. So it is an absolutely unusual situation. I would even say unprecedented, and problematic that, you know, we—Ray was—(inaudible)—talk about it—how much of this is normal that there are these different factions, and the president did not—(inaudible)—of a coherent process that is designed to feed him with the best information, but almost, you know, rogue actor with his own views that are just spontaneously coming out, sometimes in tweets, divorced from any coherent process.
MCMAHON: All right—(inaudible).
TAKEYH: I’m really not in the White House every day—(inaudible)—so I don’t know if there’s no promise, as Phil’s suggesting. And I don’t know if he’s in a position to know that. But this is a different dispute. So go ahead, Bob.
MCMAHON: No, but it’s an important backdrop, because obviously everybody’s sort of watching in real time as the administration responds to a crisis, one of the biggest ones on his watch so far. And it’s going to be very important how this plays out.
I’d like to try to squeeze in a couple more questions. We have five minutes left. Again, the reminder, this is a CFR on-the-record conference call on the Qatar crisis.
Operator, do we have another question, please?
OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question will come from William vanden Heuvel, Allen and Company.
Q: (Off mic)—what the position of Israel is to this present confrontation? What in the long run would be Israel’s interest?
MCMAHON: Thanks for that question.
Well, Phil, you’re in Israel now. Do you want to—do you want to kick off, respond to that?
GORDON: Yeah, sure. I mean, the Israelis are, obviously, following this very closely. Anything that affects this region affects them. I think they realize that they don’t have a role to play, but they are also much more aligned with the views on the regional strategic question of the Saudis, Egyptians, and Emiratis than the Qataris, who, as we’ve been saying, are closer to Turkish and Iranian positions that Israelis are deeply uncomfortable with.
So, in terms of the sort of core issues here, curbing anybody that might be coming closer to Iran or expressing sympathy for extremist groups, whether it’s the Muslim Brotherhood or—they say it as an extremist group here, I should say—or Hamas, or some of these factions in Libya, the Israelis would like to see an outcome that comes out much more along the lines that the Saudis and Emiratis are pushing for than the Qataris. And I think that part of it is clear.
They worry, though, as I think we all do, that this way of going about it may not produce that outcome. I think their preference would be to see—you know, they are sort of applauding getting tough on Qatar over issues of support for extremists and support for Iran. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are all in with the tactics that have been preferred because they’re concerned about consolidating a Qatar alignment with the Iranians rather than forcing Qatar to abandon those relationships.
MCMAHON: Thanks for that question.
Operator, do we have another question, please?
OPERATOR: So, at this time, we have no further questions in the queue.
MCMAHON: All right. We have a couple minutes to wrap up. Maybe a quick summation question for Steven.
You know, so it’s a crisis—as I mentioned before, probably one of the first big ones—of this administration. North Korea’s obviously another big one to watch. What should we be looking for in terms of next steps on crisis management? And what do you see as sort of the next big step that should happen to show sort of where the trajectory of this crisis is going to go?
COOK: Well, I’m going to—I’m going to stay away from talking about what the United States is going to do or should do. A point well-taken by Ray that, you know, we actually don’t have as clear an idea of what’s going on in the White House as we might, though I do believe that the secretary of state did contradict the president. (Chuckles.)
That being said, I think there are a couple things to look for. One, how sustainable is the Turkish relief effort, how far are the Iranians willing to go to exploit this problem on the other side of the Gulf, I think are two main issues. And to what extent the Qataris can kind of break through the way in which this conflict has been presented here in the United States. You know, there is a—there is a full-court press underway on the part of the Qatari government. I think they’re a bit behind the curve here. But can they—can they effectively communicate their methods?
And then, of course, there’s obviously the question of whether the Qataris will perform. I think Ambassador Theros’ point about this being an existential issue for the Qataris is spot on. The question is, can the Qataris find a way to demonstrate their independence from Saudi Arabia in particular while accounting for some of the demands that the Saudis and Emiratis are making? Can they really, truly expel members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas? Will that be enough? There’s going to be some effort at negotiation here. The question is, what can this—what can the Qataris do, and what are the Saudis and Emiratis willing to accept? We’re still in the kind of opening bids here.
So I think this is going to go on. This is going to occupy us for the better part of the summer and well beyond, actually.
MCMAHON: Thank you. Thank you, Steven, for that wrap up. And, Steven Cook, Philip Gordon, Ray Takeyh, thanks so much for your insights into this crisis. Obviously, many layers of complexity.
This is the conclusion of a Council on Foreign Relations on-the-record conference call. The audio and transcript will be posted today on this call. And thanks to everyone for taking part.