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Andrew Leber

Qatar diplomatic crisis again reveals Trump's incoherent Twitter policymaking

Just last month, Trump called Qatar a 'strategic partner' [AFP]

Date of publication: 8 June, 2017

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Comment: This is how the American empire ends; not with a bang, but with a Tweet, writes Andrew Leber.

In the midst of a Gulf Arab diplomatic crisis that escalates by the hour, the incoherence at the highest levels of the US foreign policy machine is surreal.

The United States appears to have not one, not two, but three separate positions on the rift - Qatar as regional partner, Qatar as somebody else's business, and Qatar as a soon-to-be-example of what happens to countries that fall from the president's good graces.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson cautiously urged dialogue and de-escalation, while US Ambassador to Qatar Dana Shell Smith was somewhat more forthright in reminding her online followers of ongoing US cooperation with Qatar in counter-terror operations, confronting IS and international finance. Subtle differences, but the nuance is there, if you look.

Of course, President Trump's Twitter diplomacy treats nuance and subtlety much like he once treated his tenants.

The president reminded us on Tuesday that "The FAKE MSM is working so hard trying to get me not to use Social Media. They hate that I can get the honest and unfiltered message out."

A bit hard to believe, when articles reporting on Trump's tweets drive a sizeable chunk of the "FAKE MSM's" pageviews - remember covfefe

President Trump's Twitter diplomacy treats nuance and subtlety much like he once treated his tenants

Yesterday's particularly honest and unfiltered messages threw caution to the wind and appeared to cast the United States fully behind Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the GCC's diplomatic crisis, undercutting any potential for the US to play a moderating role in tamping down what is gearing up towards an unpredictable and destabilising confrontation.

Never mind that the United States has 10,000 servicemen and women stationed right in the firing line at Al-Udeid airbase in Qatar. 

He then drew a direct line between his Riyadh speech and several Gulf countries' moves against Qatar, tweeting to his 31.8 million followers: "So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!"

Even an op-ed in a Saudi daily, explicitly calling for regime change in Qatar, was "disappointed with the quick-fire US response". Trump effectively claimed credit for launching the spat, just weeks after calling Qatar a "strategic partner" during his trip to Riyadh - playing right into the talking points of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and fellows of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Trump's online and offline bombast has undercut surrogates' attempts at supporting coherent policies again and again, whether at home or abroad, offering up ammunition to the US courts in coming legal battles - notably over the "Muslim Ban" - and feeding perceptions of a US foreign policy oscillating wildly between schizophrenic and sluggish.

He sidestepped a sentence offering explicit support for NATO in a speech heavily vetted by his national security team. He mocked Mayor of London Sadiq Khan's staid response to terror attacks in London. He rammed home his support for his "travel ban" over and over in the face of upcoming court challenges, after months of surrogates and spokespeople arguing that his executive order was anything but. 

The Trump administration is presently the least institutionalised in living memory, especially when it comes to foreign policy. More than 80 percent of key positions lack even a nominee - the staff shortage is especially acute in the State Department, where Rex Tillerson and a pair of aides are trying to manage the foreign affairs of the world's most far-flung empire.

Nobody is going to rein in Trump - that much is clear

The founding fathers and all those who elaborated on American political institutions over the decades could scarcely have imagined an administration where few even want to serve. 

Nobody is going to rein in Trump - that much is clear. The 70-year-old billionaire and real estate mogul in the most powerful political position on the planet answers to nobody - not the least the phantom "elder statesmen" of a political party so hell-bent on robbing the poor to enrich the rich that they'll excuse anything in the executive branch if it furthers their legislative agenda.

Read more: Has Trump provoked a second wave of Arab counter-revolution?

Even the spectre of an eventual re-election campaign encourages little moderation, convinced as Trump is of his own electoral prowess and the adoration of his support base. Little wonder that Plato - no great believer in democracy as attainable or desirable - placed so much emphasis on the education and character of leaders in his fictional Republic.

Yet here we are, with a president far more at home among absolute monarchs and autocrats than among the elected leaders of Europe

In another era, the lack of genuine leadership even at home would be unthinkable. At no other time could the murder of an American veteran on Memorial Day weekend by an extremist in the midst of a hate crime, go utterly unremarked upon. Yet here we are, with a president far more at home among absolute monarchs and autocrats than among the elected leaders of Europe.

Now we see what it means when America's leaders believe in no higher cause than personal enrichment and settling personal scores, and will not even pay lip service to the importance of peaceful diplomacy, human rights, or representative government abroad.

One need not ignore the darker episodes in America's dealings abroad to recognise that wholesale abandonment of our country's supposed ideals is hardly an improvement, especially if it only encourages unnecessary conflicts rather than seeking a means to avoid them.

That this administration is an international embarrassment is unlikely to resonate with any American audience beyond Trump's existing critics, given that every new absurdity is re-interpreted as part of the president's "tough talk" or "deal-making skills". By the time most Americans realise what damage Trump's incoherent foreign policy has done to the United States' reputation and interests abroad, it will be far too late to recover.

This is the way the American empire ends; not with a bang, but with a Tweet.


Andrew Leber is a PhD student in the department of government at Harvard University.

Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewMLeber


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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