Since becoming president, Donald Trump’s proclivity for ‘unpredictability’ has been on full display. Whether this is a carefully thought-through strategy or simply the gloss the president and his inner circle apply to his freewheeling, chaotic and seemingly strategy-free approach to political leadership, the effects of that approach are being felt keenly in Washington DC and across the world. Nowhere is this truer than in ongoing political crisis in the Gulf, where not knowing the US’s next move is being equated in some corners with the US not having one.
The standoff between Qatar, three of its GCC neighbours and Egypt is the first major foreign policy crisis of Trump’s term in office. There have been important developments in Iraq, Syria and North Korea since Trump’s inauguration, but the Gulf crisis is new and different. The UAE and Saudi Arabia led the charge to isolate Qatar, the site of major US energy investments and a military base that hosts 11,000 US military personnel and is key to the campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
They felt able to act in spite of US interests in Qatar because they believe they have done what is needed to bring President Trump and his inner circle onside through carefully managed personal relationships and the kind of displays of grandeur put on during Trump’s visit to Riyadh in early May. Career American officials in the Departments of State and Defense see the crisis as damaging to America’s interests and reputation. Early on in the crisis, Trump bucked convention and advice from his own government by contradicting his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror.
Before Trump’s comments, analysts, foreign diplomats and many Washington officials had expected the wheels of American diplomacy to click into well-worn gear. They expected the US to channel Saudi and Emirati frustrations into a less public forum, knock a few heads together and force a compromise. Instead, Washington has looked paralyzed by indecision. Contradictory statements emerging from the Pentagon, State Department and elsewhere have deepened perceptions of strategic drift. Tillerson visited the Gulf in mid-July, almost two months after the crisis began but returned empty-handed in no small part because Riyadh and Abu Dhabi saw no reason to sign up to his mediation plan. French and British diplomats have had no more luck. The crisis is, Western diplomats have decided, somewhat conveniently, a ‘family affair’ that should be solved internally.
Unpredictability may be useful in gaining advantage over a negotiating partner when doing bilateral business deals but it has serious limitations as a tool for solving complex, multiparty diplomatic crises. There is much more going on under the surface of the Gulf crisis than terror funding or longstanding rivalries. Qatar is perceived as both a threat to its neighbours’ internal order – in part because of its sponsorship of media outlets that criticize them, and of the political Islamist Muslim Brotherhood – and as a barrier to a new regional order led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE that may not be in keeping with the values the US purports to represent.
The situation in the Gulf exposes a fundamental problem with Trump’s treasured unpredictability. It isn’t simply that his actions aren’t predictable – it’s that removing American predictability from the equation has secondary and tertiary effects which are fundamentally unknowable. As a national leader, Trump has few precedents. As an American leader, and hence the leader of the international order the US helped build after the Second World War, he has none. Trump criticized his predecessor, Barack Obama, for weak leadership that he argued allowed rival states to take advantage of the US. But the same charges could be levelled against his chaotic approach and apparent susceptibility to flattery.
The slow pace at which he has been nominating mid-level officials in the State Department (who are crucial in managing such a crisis) only exacerbates the issue, since the bureaucracy’s ability to interpret and implement directives from the top is accordingly very limited. Some officials in Washington mutter that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are deliberately exploiting the policymaking vacuum while they can. There is no reason why others might not follow suit.
The normal means by which crises might be managed by the US are absent, and it is unclear how long it will be before normal service is resumed – if it is at all. The Gulf crisis may serve not only as an object lesson in the risks of Trump’s unpredictable approach, but the seeds of disorder and chaos it sews.