One of the mantras about President Donald Trump’s first few years in office is that he has not faced a real foreign-policy crisis. This requires a very narrow definition of “crisis” — there are many examples of slow-motion debacles Trump has done little to stop — but now is not the time to quibble. One could make a case that Trump had not faced a global crisis not of his own making for his first 2½ years in office.
Well, we are in crisis mode.
The weekend attack on the Abqaiq oil-processing plant and the Khurais oil field in Saudi Arabia has roiled global oil markets and escalated tensions in a region that was not exactly chill before this happened. The attack cut off 6% of daily global oil output. That’s a big deal. As the Financial Times’s Gideon Rachman observed: “For decades, any list of global geopolitical risks will have had ‘attack on Saudi oil facilities’ near the top. Now it has happened. … The key decisionmakers in this particular drama — Trump, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, and the leadership of Iran — are all headstrong and prone to taking risks.”
To be fair to Trump, his first response to the attack was to suggest a release of oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve to calm markets “if needed.” This was actually a pretty sensible signal, as the reserve was designed for this kind of contingency.
Then things started to go downhill on Trump’s Twitter feed:
• “Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Sep 15, 2019
• “PLENTY OF OIL!” Sep 15, 2019
• “Because we have done so well with Energy over the last few years (thank you, Mr. President!), we are a net Energy Exporter, & now the Number One Energy Producer in the World. We don’t need Middle Eastern Oil & Gas, & in fact have very few tankers there, but will help our Allies!” Sep 16, 2019
A good rule of thumb is that “REMAIN CALM” tweets from Trump have pretty much the opposite effect. Oil markets did not react well to Trump’s all-over-the-map response.
This is not just a foreign-policy crisis for Trump. A spike in oil prices could send a U.S. economy already gripped by uncertainty into a recession. A military escalation with Iran would have virtually the same effect, and the administration’s rhetoric certainly seems to tilt in that direction. From Trump’s tweets to State Department official Brian Hook analogizing the attack to 9/11, the administration sounds locked and loaded.
Monday was a roller coaster of Trump officials sounding hawkish and Trump himself sounding less hawkish. Predicting what the administration will do is a fool’s errand. What seems worth pointing out, however, is just how bad the U.S. position looks on the Middle East chessboard.
Why? Three reasons. First, this crisis has hit the administration at a moment when it is seriously understaffed. There is no replacement for John Bolton as national security adviser. There is no confirmed replacement for Daniel Coats as director of national intelligence. They are already scraping the bottom of the bottom of the barrel. Hook is the State Department’s point person on Iran, and he has been otherwise busy sending e-mails worthy of Nigerian scammers to Iranian ship captains. Expecting this crew to do anything properly is trusting hope over history.
Second, this administration has zero credibility in its claims of who might be responsible for the attack. The Wall Street Journal’s Dion Nissenbaum, Summer Said and Jared Malsin reported that the U.S. told Saudi Arabia it thought “Iran was the staging ground” for the attacks, but the Saudis seemed far less sure. Even if the Saudis were to trust administration officials, it is not clear that anyone else would. Trump’s deference to the Saudis has already aggravated Congress. The administration’s lack of transparency on intelligence issues ranging from 5G to, say, Mohammed’s role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, does not inspire confidence in any of its public pronouncements.
To be clear: I am not saying that Iran did not play a role in the attack. I am saying this administration has dissembled so frequently on so many issues (including whether the president would talk to Iran’s leaders without preconditions) that I see no reason to believe the administration’s motivated claims on this issue.
The third and most disturbing revelation about this crisis is just how little credibility Trump has to deter further attacks. As Politico’s Nahal Toosi noted, “the latest crisis exposed a major conundrum in Trump’s foreign policy: The president and his aides have sent conflicting signals on what, if anything, the U.S. will do to defend its Arab allies in the Middle East when it comes to Iran.”
This is a real problem. Trump’s threats in the region (or anywhere else) are not taken seriously. Trump’s inability to credibly commit to anything makes it impossible to deter Iran or any other actor in the region. This does not mean that the U.S. will not retaliate if provoked again. It does mean that it would be understandable if regional actors did not share that belief based on Trump’s past behavior, which increases the chances of blundering into conflict.
The odds are excellent that a June 17 analysis by Elizabeth Saunders and Michael Horowitz that ran in the Washington Post is correct and war with Iran is unlikely. Still, as this crisis evolves, it will do so with a broken national security policymaking process, diminished U.S. credibility, no evidence of U.S. resolve and an Iran policy that is the worst of all possible worlds.
Other than that, I am sure everything will work out great.
Daniel W. Drezner (@dandrezner) is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to the Washington Post’s PostEverything feature.