Trump, Qatar and the Danger of Total Confusion

Photo by Mike Maguire | CC BY 2.0

The isolation of Qatar appears to be a major step in the Saudi plan, directed by the newly pronounced crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (the 31-year-old in charge of the Saudi war in Yemen),  to provoke a general confrontation between the Sunni world (led by itself) and Shiite world (led by Iran). What has has Qatar done to offend the Saudis, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen? Its state-owned al-Jazeera network has been critical of their governments, especially during the “Arab Spring.” But its real sin is its diplomatic and considerable trade relationship with Iran, with which it shares an oil field.

After the announcement by the five Arab nations on June 5 that they would break ties with Qatar, Donald Trump praised the move.

“During my recent trip to the Middle East,” he tweeted on June 6. “I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!”

And later that day: “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding……extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”

In other words, his visit to Riyadh (with that sword dance and all) immediately paid off in everyone taking a harder line on terrorist funding from Qatar.

(By the way, Trump reportedly told Israeli leaders during his trip Israel that he was “just back from the Middle East.” What did Netanyahu think about that, but: Oh god this guy’s ignorant…how do we use this ignorance?)

“The nation of Qatar unfortunately has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” Trump told reporters at the White House June 9. “So we had a decision to make, do we take the easy road or do we finally take a hard but necessary action. We have to stop the funding of terrorism. I decided … the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding. They have to end that funding. And their terrorist ideology.” He appears to allude to conversations during his May 20-21 trip to Riyadh and taking responsibility for the decision.

But then on June 14 Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Roger Cabiness told CNN: “Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis met today with Qatari Minister of State for Defense Affairs Dr. Khalid al-Attiyah to discuss concluding steps in finalizing the Foreign Military Sales purchase of US-manufactured F-15 fighter aircraft by the State of Qatar. The $12 billion sale will give Qatar a state of the art capability and increase security cooperation and interoperability between the United States and Qatar.”

And on June 21 State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert declared that the more time passes, “the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE… At this point, we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism or were they about the long-simmering grievances between and among the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries?” ???

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Some people speculate that Trump in his sly wisdom is sending out contrasting messages to obtain his mysterious ends to make America great again. This gives the man too much credit. His problem is that he blabbers whatever—he thinks for the moment—makes him look tough. He projects confidence, without knowing what the hell he’s talking about. He’s a dangerous buffoon.

But he’s not responsible for the fact that George W. Bush’s war on Iraq in 2003 provoked a wave of massive catastrophes in the Middle East, and ignited a period of fierce contention among Iran, Sunni Arab countries in particular Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, while encouraging Kurdish nationalism from Iraq to Syria and Turkey. And that this conflict has acquired somewhat the character of a religious struggle of the Sunni world versus Iran-backed Shiites (the Alawite-led regime in Syria, Lebanon’s Hizbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, Shiite human rights activists in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia). Surely the most ardent foes of Iran want to depict all these forces as pawns of the mullahs in Tehran, and (therefore) “terrorists” as such. And the Saudi king is doing a good job convincing the president of his view that Iran is the source of all evil in the region.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington (1983-2005), once told  M16 head Sir Richard Dearlove: “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will literally be ‘God help the Shia.’ More than a billion Sunni have simply had enough of them.” This is the kind of specifically religious sectarianism Trump is embracing, no doubt having no idea what the difference is between Sunnis and Shiites. He just knows that “Radical Ideology” he oddly refers to is funded by Qatar at a very high level and Qatar also buys billions in arms from the U.S.

Or maybe he didn’t know about the arms deal. Maybe he left that to his fine generals, the detail guys.

George W. Bush by his invasion of Iraq (to better his dad) produced a mess that his successor in some respects exacerbated. While Obama withdrew from Iraq in accordance with Bush’s agreement, and limited the “mission” in Afghanistan, he (or Hillary) led in the destruction of Libya, and began the grotesque involvement in the Syrian conflict. Trump does not understand the causes and effects. He’s just proud that his generals dropped a GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb an ISIL camp in Afghanistan.

(Think of that. The U.S. drops the biggest non-nuclear bomb ever used in the history of the world, on militants who’ve just recently established a presence in the country who belong to a movement that started with al-Zarqawi in Afghanistan, relocated to Iraq, spread to Syria and elsewhere, and is now again in Afghanistan.  Maybe 3000 jihadis. The war against the Taliban is not going well; they gain territory year to year. The Afghan army after 16 years of training remains riddled with high desertion rates, unable to make headway against the resurgent Taliban. U.S. trains and their charges view one another with mutual contempt. Green on blue explosions occur so often all U.S. troops are on their guard against their allies. In this hopeless situation—as if to merely express the outrage of frustration—that bomb was dropped on a remote area with undetermined results, condemned strongly by former president Hamid Karzai: “I vehemently and in strongest words condemn the dropping of the latest weapon…” But Trump is proud of it.)

Or Trump glories (echoed by Brian Williams) in that April 7 missile strike on the Syrian airfield, when supposedly 56 Tomahawk missiles destroyed a material storage depot, a training facility, a canteen, six MiG-23 aircraft in repair hangars and a radar station. “Congratulations,” he tweeted,  “to our great military men and women for representing the United States, and the world, so well in the Syria attack.” Interviewed on TV he intimately associated the order to attack with the quality of this chocolate cake he was sharing with a very appreciative President Xi from China at the time.

There have been more Syria attacks since, including one that shot down a Syrian warplane over Syria, and the one that shot down an Iranian-made drone. Trump was likely not informed in advance. Not that it would have made any difference, maybe.

But once upon a time, Trump talked about cooperation with Russia against ISIL, and seemed to strongly oppose regime change as policy. He is, in the sense of destructive power, the most powerful person on earth. That he is unreadable and unpredictable, predicting “we’ll solve” this or that massively complex problem (North Korea), manifestly ignorant and not interested in history, inheriting the Bush/Cheney neocon-spawned mess and now taking advice from King Salman on matters like Qatar is frightening.

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Of course the main issue remains U.S. imperialism, rooted in capitalism. The global dynamics of that can be rationally analyzed, and the president’s role within the system assessed. Obama was fairly predicable. Hillary Clinton was predictable because she always articulated her hawkishness, like John McCain.  Their relationships to capital and their intellectual positions (neoconservatism, “realism”) were known. Trump is a new phenomenon, as someone combining Lyndon Johnson’s crudity, Nixon’s vindictiveness, Reagan’s vapid populism, and  Dubya’s ignorance (but he was surrounded by Cheney’s hand-picked neocons, virtually announcing plans for region-wide regime change). I’m not sure what he has in common with Bill Clinton other than promiscuity (but Clinton had no John Miller.) He’s new in that he’s at odds half the time with his own aides and puzzling world leaders.

I can just imagine Xi and Putin exchanging their analyses of his mind, perhaps chuckling occasionally as we do in this country when we analyze his mind. It’s necessary, after all.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after meeting Ronald Reagan told her foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, as she tapped the side of her skull, “Peter, there’s nothing there.” (She has also been quoted as saying, “Poor dear, there’s nothing between his ears.”) Lady Thatcher of course gave a well-received eulogy at Reagan’s funeral pretending to believe otherwise.  The point being that world leaders can like other world leaders, as the Saudi king likes Trump, even if they have nothing between their ears, especially if they think they can exploit the mental vacuum to get them to do something stupid.

Such as, join with people who “have had enough of the Shia” and are showing (in that vicious war in Yemen especially) how they want to get rid of them.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: