Mixed messages from US President Donald J. Trump’s administration and an apparent belief in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that they have the ear of the White House have exacerbated the crisis between the United States’ Arab Gulf partners, according to Richard LeBaron, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

The crisis has exposed a rift between Trump and his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. While Trump has been critical of Qatar—he initially appeared to take credit for the Saudi blockade against a country that houses a US military base—Tillerson has been actively seeking an end to the Saudi/Emirati-led blockade of Qatar.

“Certainly, it is not useful to be sending mixed messages, but it is equally not useful for the Saudis and the Emiratis to somehow convince themselves that they have the president’s support and, therefore, can ignore the whole foreign policy institutional apparatus in the United States, including the Defense Department, the State Department, and the intelligence agencies,” said LeBaron, a former US ambassador to Kuwait.

“Frankly, they need these agencies more than we need them. It would serve them well to avoid trying to exploit any perceived differences in Washington,” he said of the Saudis and Emiratis.

The Washington Post, citing US intelligence officials, reported on July 16 that senior Emirati government officials, at a meeting on May 23, plotted to hack Qatari government news and social media sites with the objective of posting fabricated quotes attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani. The hack, which took place on May 24, is further evidence of cyberattacks shaping global politics.

Quotes attributed to al-Thani included the emir reportedly complaining about “tensions” with the Trump administration, praising the militant group Hamas, and describing Iran as an “Islamic power.” Qatari officials, who back in May had been quick to say those reports were the work of hackers, sounded vindicated after the Post report. Emirati officials, however, denied any role.

“It is unseemly to be leaking intelligence,” said LeBaron, adding, “It is better, if these reports are indeed true, to use them for leverage in quiet negotiations with the Emiratis and Saudis than it is to make them public, which makes for a good story for a day or two.”

The reported hack sparked a crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In response to the quotes attributed to al-Thani, Saudi Arabia and the UAE took the unusual step of blocking Qatari websites, including Al Jazeera. On June 5, the crisis escalated further when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut off diplomatic and transport ties and imposed sanctions on Qatar, accusing it of financing terrorists and allying with Iran. Doha denies the accusations.

LeBaron described the situation as a “created crisis” that is the work of the Saudis and the Emiratis. “[I]t is a crisis that we don’t need as we are all faced with a lot bigger issues around the world,” he said, citing the war in Yemen as an example.

The Saudi-Emirati-led bloc had presented Qatar with a list of thirteen demands, which Doha rejected; it then pared them down to six principles.

Among these six principles is a demand for a commitment from Qatar to fight terrorism, prevent financing and provision of safe havens to militant groups, end all acts of incitement, and refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of states. On July 10, Tillerson signed an agreement with the Qatari government on combating the financing of terrorism.

LeBaron said the best-case scenario is that “the members of the GCC start to act like a cohesive organization and start to act like they have shared interests and, therefore, put their shared interests above their parochial interests and try to resolve the crisis on their own.”

“The worst-case scenario is that people miscalculate based on faulty information or a misperception of their own national interests and this moves toward some sort of low-intensity conflict,” he added.

Pointing out that cyberattacks are part of low-intensity conflict, LeBaron said: “We need to make sure this doesn’t escalate.”

Richard LeBaron spoke in a phone interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from our interview.

Q: What are the implications of the Post report on Emirati meddling for the resolution of this crisis? Does it strengthen Qatar’s hand?

LeBaron: It is unseemly to be leaking intelligence. It is better, if these reports are indeed true, to use them for leverage in quiet negotiations with the Emiratis and Saudis than it is to make them public, which makes for a good story for a day or two. It then becomes a cat-and-mouse game of who is to blame. That’s not the real issue here.

This is a crisis created by the Saudis and the Emiratis. It is a crisis that comes at a time when they have a lot of other things on their plate that are much more pressing, especially the dire and tragic situation in Yemen.

This is a created crisis that should be solved promptly and it is a crisis that we don’t need as we are all faced with a lot bigger issues around the world.

Q: The Trump administration has sent mixed messages on this crisis. To what extent does that complicate a quick resolution of this crisis?

LeBaron: It is true of a lot of our friends around the world that they will try to play off the State Department against the White House, or the White House against the Defense Department. They will try to look for advantage wherever they can in Washington. It is a game that is very rarely successful.

Certainly, it is not useful to be sending mixed messages, but it is equally not useful for the Saudis and the Emiratis to somehow convince themselves that they have the president’s support and therefore can ignore the whole foreign policy institutional apparatus in the United States, including the Defense Department, the State Department, and the intelligence agencies. Frankly, they need these agencies more than we need them. It would serve them well to avoid trying to exploit any perceived differences in Washington.

Q: What are the best and worst-case scenarios?

LeBaron: The best-case scenario is that the members of the GCC start to act like a cohesive organization and start to act like they have shared interests and, therefore, put their shared interests above their parochial interests and try to resolve the crisis on their own. 

The worst-case scenario is that people miscalculate based on faulty information or a misperception of their own national interests and this moves toward some sort of low-intensity conflict. Cyberattacks are also part of low-intensity conflict. We, and I place the primary burden on the Saudis, need to make sure this doesn’t escalate.

Q: What are the likely short-term and long-term impacts of this crisis for the GCC?

LeBaron: It really is a blow to the GCC. The GCC, from one perspective, is a group of independent states with shared interests, a shared heritage, a need to integrate their economies for the benefit of their people, and a need to share their defense responsibilities for that region in the face of threats from terrorism and Iranian hegemony.

From another point of view, it is a tool of the Saudis to project their power and they don’t appreciate it when the junior members of the GCC try to exert their independence, which is certainly the case in this scenario with Qatar.

I have never been a great optimist about the GCC. The United States has tried over and over again, in successive administrations, to urge the GCC toward unified positions on a variety of things, especially on defense matters. That has largely failed, which is disappointing, but it reflects some genuine wariness among the GCC members about enmeshing their future too closely, and this current situation has injected a degree of distrust that will be difficult to dispel in the short term.

Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.