Secretary Tillerson made a statement earlier today calling on the Saudis and their allies to ease the blockade on Qatar. The emphasis on de-escalation and resolving the dispute was appropriate, but this should have been the administration’s unified position all along. Of course, the crisis might have been avoided or more easily resolved if the administration had not given the Saudis and their allies the impression that Washington would support them no matter what they did. It is not tenable to tell clients that they won’t face any lectures or pressure from Washington and then expect them to respond constructively to a public rebuke. Having given the Saudis et al. the greenest of green lights beforehand, the Trump administration now appears unprepared and out of their depth when they try to backtrack.
Because of Trump’s ill-informed and irresponsible intervention in the crisis earlier this week, the leaders of the governments imposing the blockade may assume that the president’s endorsement of their actions counts for more than Tillerson’s statement. The administration’s ongoing foreign policy dysfunction and Trump’s tendency to make arbitrary decisions that cut his top officials out of the loop make it difficult for the latter to be taken seriously as credible spokesmen for American positions. When there are wide public differences between what U.S. officials say the U.S. position is and what the president says it is, other governments can take advantage of the confusion created by that disagreement to ignore statements from Washington they don’t like. The lack of coordination between the president and his foreign policy team is a serious and continuing problem, and in a crisis like this it limits U.S. influence and makes our government’s protests ring hollow.