Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump brought carrots and sticks, respectively, to the dispute between Qatar and several other Arab nations on Friday. Soon after Tillerson called for an end to the diplomatic crisis, Trump said at a news conference that Qatar “unfortunately has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”
Qatar’s Al-Jazeera network (and many American media outlets) decried the “mixed signals” coming from Tillerson and Trump, although it should be noted that Trump prefaced his remarks with the same call for unity as Tillerson. Indeed, their messages to Qatar were substantively identical, with the difference that Trump’s criticism was more blunt, and he did not include the appeal to other Gulf states for an immediate end to the boycott that Tillerson made.
Expanding on brief comments he made this week – so brief they were contained in tweets – Trump said he “recently returned from a historic trip to Europe and the Middle East where I worked to strengthen our alliances, forge new friendships, and unite all civilized peoples in the fight against terrorism.”
“No civilized nation can tolerate this violence, or allow this wicked ideology to spread on its shores,” he declared.
At his meeting in the Middle East, Trump said it was agreed that all “financial, military, or even moral support” for terrorism must be terminated. This is where he found Qatar coming up short.
“In the wake of that conference, nations came together and spoke to me about confronting Qatar over its behavior,” said the president. “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 – along with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, our great generals, and military people – the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding. They have to end that funding, and its extremist ideology in terms of funding.”
“I want to call on all other nations to stop, immediately, funding terrorism. Stop teaching people to kill other people. Stop filling their minds with hate and intolerance,” Trump urged.
“I won’t name other countries, but we are not done solving the problem. But we will solve that problem. We have no choice,” he added, positioning the Qatar boycott as a shot across the bow of other offenders.
“This is my great priority, because it is my first duty as president to keep our people safe. Defeating ISIS and other terrorist organizations is something I have emphasized all during my campaign, and right up until the present. To do that, stop funding, stop teaching hate, and stop the killing,” he said.
“For Qatar, we want you back among the unity of responsible nations. We ask Qatar and other nations in the region to do more and do it faster,” said Trump.
Trump thanked Saudi Arabia and its King Salman for hosting the unique conference he attended. “Hopefully it will be the beginning of the end of funding terrorism. It will therefore be the beginning of the end to terrorism. No more funding,” he said, hammering his central point home one last time.
In his statement, Secretary of State Tillerson also referred to President Trump’s meeting with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council “in a strong show of partnership, repudiation of extremism, and a plan to defeat terrorism of all kinds in the region and around the world.”
“Now, the situation in the Arabian Gulf over the last few days is troubling to the United States, the region, and to many people who are directly affected,” said Tillerson.
While making the same point as Trump about working to “defeat the military, financial, and ideological support of terrorists,” he also stressed the importance of moving the Arab world toward “greater political expression,” draining the venom of “Islamic extremism” by allowing “marginalized voices opportunities for political expression.”
The key paragraph from Tillerson’s statement, contrary to the media framing of Trump undermining his Secretary of State, makes the same point as President Trump did. Tillerson’s assessment of Qatar’s behavior is not much softer than Trump’s. The big difference is that he begins by asking the other Gulf states to de-escalate the situation, and later explicitly asks them to end their blockade immediately.
“We ask that there be no further escalation by the parties in the region. We call on Qatar to be responsive to the concerns of its neighbors. Qatar has a history of supporting groups that have spanned the spectrum of political expression, from activism to violence. The emir of Qatar has made progress in halting financial support and expelling terrorist elements from his country, but he must do more and he must do it more quickly,” said Tillerson.
“Others must also continue to eliminate factions of support for violent organizations within their own borders,” he continued. “Again, that was a commitment made by all at the summit.”
“We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt to ease the blockade against Qatar. There are humanitarian consequences to this blockade. We are seeing shortages of food, families are being forcibly separated, and children pulled out of school. We believe these are unintended consequences, especially during this Holy Month of Ramadan, but they can be addressed immediately,” Tillerson said.
“The blockade is also impairing U.S. and other international business activities in the region and has created a hardship on the people of Qatar and the people whose livelihoods depend on commerce with Qatar. The blockade is hindering U.S. military actions in the region and the campaign against ISIS,” he added.
Tillerson praised the mediating efforts of the Emir of Kuwait and pledged U.S. support for Kuwait’s efforts.
“The GCC must emerge united and stronger to show the world the GCC’s resolve in its fight against violence and terrorism, and its commitment to countering the threat from extremism,” he concluded. “Our expectation is that these countries will immediately take steps to de-escalate the situation and put forth a good-faith effort to resolve their grievances they have with each other.”