When President Trump chose a Rose Garden press conference to blast away at Qatar as the guilty party in the Gulf Arab states’ sudden falling-out last week, it was a fresh example of the shoot-from-the-hip and mixed-messaging diplomacy that Americans – and the world – may have to accept as the new normal.
There may have been nothing unique about Mr. Trump taking a decidedly tougher and less diplomatic approach to Qatar than his top diplomat, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Administrations use ambiguity and contradictions – carrots and sticks, good cop–bad cop – all the time to address complex crises and advance US goals.
Nor would it have been the first time a president used a foreign-policy matter to distract the public from the domestic news of the day, experts say, noting that the big news at home as the president skewered Qatar over terrorism financing was the congressional testimony of former FBI Director James Comey.
What stands out about Trump’s foreign-policy commentaries – whether of the Rose Garden variety or like the recent presidential tweets on missiles and trade that upended relations with South Korea – is how public, off-the-cuff, and seemingly disconnected from the consensus of the administration’s foreign-policy team those pronouncements are.
And while some degree of dissonance – some may call it “disruption,” others disarray – can serve a purpose, most foreign-policy experts say it can also cause unnecessary confusion and setbacks for US interests.
“What’s especially different here is how President Trump uses social media, in his case Twitter, to change the subject,” says Peter Feaver, an international relations expert specializing in civilian-military affairs at Duke University in Durham, N.C.
“The problem when you do that as president and in the foreign-policy arena [is that] it has real-world consequences that have to be dealt with. If you’re doing it merely for short-term news impact, without contemplation of the secondary and tertiary foreign-policy effects,” he adds, “you can get into trouble.”
For others, the principal drawback of the “unique” pattern Trump is setting on foreign-policy making is how the president’s – the boss’s – stark and unvarnished pronouncements supersede the more nuanced and diplomatic approach of the administration’s foreign-policy team.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, where three or four different people, and one of them the president, say different things about the same issue,” says Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert at the Wilson Center in Washington who has worked in both Republican and Democratic administrations. “It can’t be just that it’s a new administration. I’ve witnessed six or seven administrations,” he adds. “This is unique in the way the foreign-policy apparatus and messaging are structured.”
A short diplomatic bench
Another factor some see undermining the administration’s foreign-policy clarity is the fact that the “apparatus” Dr. Miller speaks of is still bare-bones more than four months into the Trump presidency.
“What’s unusual here is that the Trump team is facing this significant diplomatic challenge before they’ve got their roster on board,” Dr. Feaver says. “It’s like attempting to do a difficult synchronized swimming maneuver, with half the team not yet in their bathing suits and others not even named to the team yet.”
The impact a short bench can have on keeping the diplomatic cogs turning was particularly salient to some analysts who noted that Mr. Tillerson was experiencing the effects of an incomplete “team roster” even as he was testifying to Congress this week (a House committee Tuesday, a Senate committee Wednesday) on his plans to reorganize the State Department – and eliminate as many as 2,300 positions.
But in a cacophony of voices, of course it’s the president’s that will be most heeded. The problem Miller sees is that in the case of the Gulf-Qatar rupture, it’s the president’s unnuanced position that is the least helpful to resolving a rift among key US allies.
Trump’s comments on the crisis “reflect a far too black-and-white vision of the region,” he says, “and there are real risks to American credibility and policy in going down that road.”
Qatar has been an outlier among the Gulf Arab states for decades. In response to Saudi Arabia, which treats it as little more than a Saudi province, its foreign policy seeks to get along with most everyone in the region. That includes the Iranians, but also the US, which has about 10,000 troops in Qatar – the US Central Command's forward operating base is at the huge al-Udeid Air Base, which is critical to both the fight against ISIS and the US effort in Afghanistan.
But Qatar has also served as a base for extremist Islamist political groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, while wealthy Qataris have funded Islamist opposition groups in Syria, including some thought to maintain ties to Al Qaeda. Qatar is also home to the Al Jazeera news network, a particular bête noire for the Saudi regime.
On June 5, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt broke off diplomatic ties with Qatar, citing its support of “extremists” and Iran. The group imposed a de facto blockade on the tiny desert nation, which depends heavily on imports.
The 'MMT' team
Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, quickly made it known that the United States would press for a rapid diplomatic resolution of the rupture – with State Department officials in particular noting that the US wished to avoid a scenario that pushed Qatar closer to Iran.
But that approach appeared to be contradicted by Trump, who accused Qatar of “high level” sponsorship of terrorism and also suggested that his recent trip to Saudi Arabia had prompted the get-tough move against Qatar.
So, says the Wilson Center’s Miller, while Trump’s team was developing a nuanced approach to the crisis that would serve America’s varied interests in the region, the president was drowning out those efforts with a single-minded strategy based on Saudi Arabia. Not coincidentally, he adds, the Saudis had just given Trump the warmest reception of his recent five-country overseas trip.
“What we’re seeing is that whatever the ‘MMT’ team may be recommending and promoting,” says Miller, referring to General McMaster, Mr. Mattis, and Tillerson, “the fact is that so far it’s the president’s view that has prevailed.”
Wednesday, Secretary Mattis signed a previously approved sale of F-15 fighter jets to Qatar for $12 billion. Qatar said the deal was for 36 warplanes.
What the Qatar crisis demonstrates is how US Middle East policy is becoming linked ever closer to Saudi Arabia. “Policy is now driven by the president’s need to hang the American hat on the Saudi hook,” Miller says. “But there are numerous reasons why that would an ill-advised regional strategy.”
And while the Qatar crisis may be the stand-out of the day, experts say it’s not alone in illustrating Trump’s impulsive foreign-policy approach.
Advice versus intuition
Another example, Duke’s Feaver says, is how a Trump tweet threw off the careful diplomacy the administration was beginning to fashion with South Korea for dealing with the North Korea crisis.
“The administration did have a first-order strategy on North Korea that involved reassurance and compellence across the region and included the deployment of THAAD in South Korea,” he says, referring to the anti-missile batteries the US has committed to deploying.
“But then the president sets off a dispute with the South Koreans by way of a tweet that mixed together who would pay what part of the THAAD deployment … and the unrelated question of renegotiation of the Korean Free Trade Agreement,” Feaver says. “The result was that the president dominated the news cycle that day – but everyone else [on the foreign-policy team] is still dealing with the fallout from that one Twitter blast.”
What’s new, Feaver says, is not that when the president speaks, people listen. Rather, it’s that Trump seems to disregard the counsel of his top foreign policy aides in favor of his own intuition.
“Every president has always had a huge megaphone, of one form or another,” he says. “What’s striking here is the degree to which Trump appears to be his own communications director – and how quickly an idea that occurs to him turns into a tweet, without the normal collaboration across the team to ascertain that it’s really what the administration wants to say.”
[Editor's note: This article has been updated to correctly characterize the US military's presence in Qatar.]