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 percent 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 decision-makers in this particular drama — Donald Trump, the US president, 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:
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 emails 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 United States 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 leadership without preconditions) that I see no reason to believe their 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 United States 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.
Other than that, I am sure everything will work out great.