State Department Scrambles to Catch Up with Trump Tweets on Saudi Arabia

President Trump tweeted enthusiastic support of Saudi Arabia’s king and crown prince on Tuesday morning, while most of the Washington foreign policy establishment was still mulling over its response to the dramatic events in Riyadh.

Bloomberg Politics hammers Trump for “undercutting his advisers” and setting U.S. foreign policy with 140-character tweets, saying, “It effectively gave the crown prince the full weight of the U.S. backing despite serious questions remaining about Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the rule of law and its ability to guarantee financial transactions.”

“Trump’s tweeting once again threatens to roil a complex international situation and one of the U.S.’s most critical relationships, and may embolden the crown prince at a time when some administration officials fear he is moving too far too fast,” the Bloomberg piece asserts, citing Trump’s snap reaction to the diplomatic crisis regarding Qatar as another example of the president moving too fast.

There might well be State Department officials who feel that way—it is common knowledge that the Trump White House has some sharp differences of opinion with the State Department bureaucracy—but the only Trump critic directly quoted by Bloomberg is an associate lecturer at the Center for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra named Raihan Ismail. Normally, one looks a bit closer than Canberra to take the pulse of the U.S. State Department.

Ismail’s criticism is that the Saudi anti-corruption crackdown and/or consolidation of power is “seen as quite controversial” and could be “problematic for the region.”

“Regional instability will continue to spook foreign investors. The Trump administration is seen as erratic,” he asserts.

President Trump may be outspoken and mighty quick to draw his Twitter six-shooters from their well-oiled holsters, but he has been no more “erratic” on foreign policy than any of his predecessors, and arguably far more consistent than most. The usual knock against him is that he refuses to back away from positions the cognoscenti do not like—in other words, that he is too consistent. His rhetoric runs hot and slightly less hot when it comes to the likes of North Korea and Iran, but there is not much “erratic” about his position on them.

As for Saudi Arabia, his Tuesday tweets on the Saudi crackdown are quite consistent with his statements on Qatar, and what he said during his trip to Saudi Arabia earlier in his presidency. He constantly states that he wants to end financial and ideological support for extremism.

Right or wrong, that’s the opposite of “erratic.” Trump is all-in for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his plan to modernize and liberalize Saudi Arabia, and he’s not shy about saying so, while the State Department carefully cultivates nuanced statements of qualified support with unspecified reservations in its rhetorical bonsai garden.

Trump is either prodding the State Department with his public statements or running a good-cop/bad-cop operation with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who the media assured us was hopping mad and ready to bolt the Trump administration a few weeks ago. (Remember that? It was a huge story at the time.) Bloomberg Politics claims Tillerson talked Trump into softening his position on Qatar a bit, which would suggest a reasoned conversation, not erratic behavior or a loose-cannon president undermining his aides.

The Bloomberg piece notes that “the U.S. is largely pleased with much of what the young crown prince has pushed for, such as his desire to move away from radical Islam, the move to allow women to drive and his Vision 2030 reform plan,” but is also “disquieted by other policies, such as the continued military campaign in Yemen, capped by the decision Nov. 6 to close Yemeni land, sea and air crossings to all but aid and rescue teams.”

That makes it sound like the distance between Trump and the foreign policy establishment on Saudi Arabia is not so great after all. The question is, now and always, how to balance pleasure with disquiet, and how best to go about convincing or pushing allied governments into easing up on the disquieting stuff. What must seem truly “erratic” to them is the U.S. tendency to treat its allies worse than its enemies, which was essentially the Obama administration’s motto. Wholehearted expressions of support from the U.S. president, coupled with a clear statement of what must be done to remain on America’s good side, will be a refreshing change if the Trump administration follows through.

The end goal of the Saudi reformation is to increase stability, not scare investors away. Some turbulence was inevitable along the way. That is not a blank check for the king and crown prince to do whatever they want without a peep of U.S. protest, but under President Obama, the U.S. quietly tolerated all sorts of appalling behavior from vicious enemies like Iran in the naive hope they would suddenly stop hating us. In Saudi Arabia, the end game is clearly favorable to U.S. interests and the welfare of the region—and Islam, for those professed Islamophiles who actually care about the religion.

CNBC believes the process culminating in this weekend’s Saudi crackdown “seems to have been kick-started by the new Saudi crown prince’s meeting with President Trump in March.” That is some awfully powerful foreign-policy influence from a president that was supposed to be a clumsy dunce with no idea how the world works. It compares very favorably with Barack Obama’s disastrous attempts to interfere in Israeli politics.

CNBC worries that Trump might be nudging Saudi Arabia and Iran closer to a confrontation, but concedes that confrontation was in the wind all along.

It’s important to avoid the naive thought that had President Trump and this new crown prince not come along, relative peace would have been sustainable for much longer. Instead of hand-wringing about what may or may not speed up the inevitable, all reasonable parties need to figure out how to make sure two countries destined to confront each other like Iran and Saudi Arabia don’t end up fighting a war more deadly and prolonged than what we’ve seen in Syria and Yemen for the past several years.

Sometimes the best way to avoid a confrontation is to get everything out on the table, and it’s usually a very bad idea to let the enemy set the timetable. Time is on Iran’s side, with its nuclear ambitions slowed at best, and its pockets bulging with money from Obama’s nuclear deal. The Saudis and their partner states were openly worried that America was hanging them out to dry and realigning Middle East policy toward Iran.

Trump and the Saudi crown prince must have had one heck of a conversation when the president was in Riyadh. Everyone at the State Department is well aware their meeting will prove to be more consequential than whatever Trump says on Twitter in the morning.


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