The American Defense Department has announced it selling $12 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets to Qatar, the same Persian Gulf country President Donald Trump recently accused of sponsoring terrorists.
The timing is unlikely to be deliberate. Weapons deals usually take months or even years to negotiate. This one may have been in the works before Trump even became president.
But the Pentagon could surely have delayed the announcement if it worried about sending mixed signals?
Only two weeks ago, Trump claimed responsibility for the diplomatic isolation of Qatar after Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates broke off ties.
“The time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding” of extremists, he said.
Yet he is selling warplanes to the same country.
Qatar hosts the largest American military base in the Middle East, which plays a pivotal role in supporting combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
This American presence long shielded Qatar from the ire of its neighbors, who blame it for inciting unrest in the Middle East by supporting Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
After the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Qatar helped Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood take power. The group was ousted a year later in a Saudi-backed military coup.
Qatar also armed and financed the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, but Saudi Arabia has also eclipsed it there: its favorite rebel group, the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, is now one of the most powerful while Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood plays virtually no role anymore in the uprising against Bashar al-Assad.
Throwing caution to the wind
Under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, the United States avoided taking sides in intra-Gulf disputes.
The Democrat also pursued a détente with majority-Shia Iran to reduce America’s one-sided dependence on the Arab and Sunni states.
Trump is throwing caution to the wind. A sumptuous reception in Riyadh on his first foreign trip as president appears to have endeared him to the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia while the Republican won last year’s presidential election on a promise to unwind Obama’s diplomacy with Iran.
There are few professionals in Trump’s administration who can dissuade him from such a course.
Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, has given no indication that he resisting Trump’s gutting of the State Department, including a proposed one-third cut to its budget.
Trump has yet to name an assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, who could advise him on the intricacies of Middle East politics.
Indeed, he has yet to fill all assistant secretaryships in the State Department and named only one out of five undersecretaries so far.
Qatar is currently without an ambassador. Dana Shell Smith, who was stationed in the country by Obama in 2014, stepped down this month. Her tenure was due to end, yet the new administration had no replacement lined up.
Qatar is no exception. All but twelve countries are without a Trump-appointed envoy.