There’s a growing belief among anyone who follows U.S. politics even tangentially that Donald Trump is influenced the most by the person he spoke to last. This is recency bias taken to the extreme, but for such a changeable man, with such a short attention span, the theory become increasingly irrefutable. Which brings us to Qatar.
Yesterday, we published a primer on exactly why five nations, led by Saudi Arabia, recently severed ties with Qatar, and the Times’ Interpreter feature delved deeper into the history today. Essentially, it boils down to the fact that the small but very wealthy Persian Gulf country has spent the last two decades trying to increase their regional influence by opening (very limited) diplomatic channels to places like Israel and Iran (recently, Qatar’s emir called newly elected Iranian president Hasan Rouhani to offer his congratulations), supporting Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, and establishing media power by founding and funding the Al-Jazeera network. None of this sat well with Saudi Arabia (or Egypt, who watched the Muslim Brotherhood briefly seize power after the revolution), and there have been diplomatic embargoes in the past, but clearly something changed for the worse when Trump visited the Middle East last week.
Look at these tweets, which Trump fired off this morning:
This essentially verifies what we already suspected—the Saudis, knowing how easy it is to influence Trump by flattering him and treating him like royalty, clearly used the opportunity his visit presented to broach the idea of bringing the hammer down on Qatar. When he didn’t object, they saw it as cover to execute a strategy they’ve clearly had in mind for some time, using “terrorism” as a flimsy excuse to punish their presumptuous pseudo-allies. Whatever restraint they’d been forced to exercise by previous administrations is gone, and now Qatar finds itself isolated in an increasingly hostile environment.
But let’s talk about that bygone restraint. If the U.S. had been reluctant to set Saudi Arabia loose on its tiny neighbor, it was for good reason—Qatar was a useful ally. Yes, they were a little too friendly with Iran, but they traded with Israel, and, most importantly, they hosted a U.S. air base in a strategically important location.
So what the hell is Trump doing, and how is the military reacting? Well, as of now, per Al-Jazeera, they’re “lauding Qatar for its enduring commitment to regional security,” and emphasizing that nothing has changed at Al-Udeid airbase. Which is another way of saying, “hey, Donald? Please stop pissing these people off.”
As for Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, they’re asking the six countries to iron out their differences, and trotting out the same talking point about how none of this will affect the war on terror. They hope.
But deep down, the U.S. military and Trump’s cabinet have to be terrified that this will cost them a vital ally in the region. At worse, the kerfuffle could drive Qatar to an alliance with Iran. That’s still unlikely, but even a less disastrous outcome, resulting in strained relationships, could have a devastating effect on military operations in the Middle East. Once again, it appears that Trump’s unilateral actions—both in person and on Twitter—have compromised his own administration’s idea of American security.