President Trump’s Arab Alliance Is a Mirage

A billboard in Saudi Arabia featured President Donald J. Trump and Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the King of Saudi Arabia, during Mr. Trump’s visit to the country in May.

Tweeting first and asking questions later is not a good way to make policy. In a recent salvo, President Donald J. Trump took credit for a decision by one set of American partners — Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates — to sever relations with another, Qatar. It risks deepening a spat that could undermine the fight against the Islamic State. And it highlights the fragility of a proposed Middle Eastern alliance that Mr. Trump touted as the major achievement of his first foreign trip.

These countries have long been at odds over Qatar’s relationships with Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Qatar fancies itself a bridge to all three; however objectionable their conduct, they are not going away and need to be engaged. The Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians see Qatar as an enabler of extremists, providing them financial support, political backing or the region’s most powerful megaphone, the Al Jazeera television network. They also resent tiny Qatar — empowered by staggering natural gas resources — asserting itself in regional affairs and cheerleading the Arab Spring.

Until now, Washington has avoided taking sides, while quietly pressing Qatar to stop financing extremist groups. Qatar hosts one of the most important United States air bases in the Middle East: Al Udeid, home to about 11,000 service members in the anti-Islamic State coalition, most of them American. Coalition planes flying from that base lead the air campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Speaking in Saudi Arabia last month, Mr. Trump called Qatar “a crucial strategic partner.”

But Mr. Trump’s unconditional support for the Saudis during that same visit also seemed to embolden them to not just break relations with, but also impose an economic blockade on, Qatar. His tweets taking credit for the move left the Qataris reeling.

After Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson rushed to the White House to explain the stakes, Mr. Trump appeared to reverse gears. He pressed the Saudi and Qatari leaders to address their differences directly and emphasized the importance of a united front in fighting the Islamic State. American diplomacy seemed to be firing on all cylinders. Until, that is, Mr. Trump used a press conference with Romania’s president earlier this month to unleash another volley, accusing Qatar of financing terrorism “at a very high level” — and throwing a wrench into his own diplomatic works.

If all of this seems confusing, consider this: the Trump administration says it wants to create a military coalition of Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, to fight Islamist terrorism. It was as if Mr. Trump was trying to break his own alliance, described as an “Arab NATO,” before it had even formed.

If he was, perhaps it was for the best. The administration is right to want the Arabs to take more responsibility for the fight against the Islamic State and, more broadly, for their own security. But a series of contradictions at the heart of the proposed alliance almost guarantee it will be a mirage.

First, where Mr. Trump sees an alliance united against extremism, the Saudis see a Sunni coalition that will roll back Iran. This could potentially pull the United States into the sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia. Beyond that, Saudi-exported, ultra-conservative Wahhabism, which breeds intolerance around the world, is no less dangerous to Western interests than Iran’s support for radicalism, regional meddling and expansionism.

An anti-Shia coalition masquerading as a Middle Eastern security alliance will only fuel those sectarian fires and produce more, not less, terrorism. Instead of taking sides in that conflict, Washington should press Riyadh and Tehran to stop feeding it. Second, whereas our core alliances in Europe and Asia are defensive, our Arab partners could use the anti-Islamic State coalition to go on the offensive, dragging the United States into new misadventures in the Middle East. Exhibit A is Riyadh’s counterproductive campaign in Yemen against the Houthi rebels, whom they see as an Iranian proxy.

I was the first senior American official to meet with Riyadh’s dynamic Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the Saudi intervention in Yemen in 2015. I reiterated the United States’ commitment to defend Saudi Arabia against Houthi aggression and to help press the Houthis back to the bargaining table. Then I asked him Saudi Arabia’s objective in Yemen itself. “To remove every last vestige of Iranian influence,” he responded.

Two years and countless civilian casualties later, the Saudis are still at it, with Washington torn between backing our ally and being complicit in a fiasco that’s also leaving a power vacuum filled by the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Third, while Mr. Trump expects a Middle Eastern coalition to leverage the Arabs to do more, they will want to use it to deepen United States military engagement in the Middle East, while doing as little as possible themselves. Mr. Trump’s frustration with spendthrift NATO allies in Europe will pale in comparison to what awaits him in the Middle East. The members of the existing mutual-assistance structure — the Gulf Cooperation Council — are risk averse, fearful of reprisals and divided in their priorities. They will spend more on weapons but are unlikely to use them effectively against the Islamic State.

Finally, NATO itself is more than a coalition of common interests — it’s an alliance of shared values. Mr. Trump seems more at home with Middle Eastern autocrats than he does with European democrats. Interests change and diverge; values do not. In their absence, an “Arab NATO” will prove to be a hollow enterprise.

Antony J. Blinken (@ABlinken), a managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, was a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration and is a contributing opinion writer.

June 20, 2017 | 2 Comments »

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  1. It’s beyond me, how Blinken thinks it’s more in our interests to ally with tiny Qatar, than with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and most of the Arab world. As for his claim that the Saudis are drawing us into a “sectarian” struggle between Shia and Sunni, he might note that not only are the Qataris Sunni, but so are most of their supporters, notably the Turks and Moroccans. This is not about sectarianism. It is about choosind betweeen the Iranians, who are clearly our enemies, and the Saudis, who are potentially good friends.

    US relations with Saudi Arabia go back to the 1930s, and have always been with the ruling Saud dynasty. Our only good relations with Iran, were with the Shah — BEFORE the current theocracy took over in 1979. This is a no-brainer.