eyes on the U.S.

Flying Blind, Trump’s Foreign Policy Keeps Allies Guessing

Aboard the USS Carl Vinson on March 19
Aboard the USS Carl Vinson on March 19
David Nakamura and Karen Deyoung

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As he nears his 100th day in office, President Donald Trump's efforts to appear decisive and unequivocal in his responses to fast-moving global crises have been undercut by a series of confusing and conflicting messages from within his administration.

Over the past two weeks, policy pronouncements from senior Trump aides have often been at odds with one another — such as whether Syrian President Bashar Assad must leave power as part of a negotiated resolution to end that nation's civil war.

In other cases, formal White House written statements have conflicted with those from government agencies, even on the same day. For example, Monday brought disparate U.S. reactions — supportive from Trump, chiding from the State Department — to the Turkish referendum this week that strengthened President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's authoritarian rule.

Even when there is unanimity in the messaging — such as Trump's boast, based on Pentagon statements, that a U.S. Navy "armada" was headed toward the Korean Peninsula — the administration was forced into the embarrassing admission a few days later that the strike group was, in fact, sailing in the opposite direction.

Although every administration experiences growing pains, the recent succession of mixed signals over key national security issues has stood out, painting a picture to some of an administration that has not fully developed its policies or a broader international agenda and whose key agencies are not communicating with one another — or the White House. It is a situation that has led foreign diplomats and congressional lawmakers to express uncertainty about the administration's goals and about who is speaking on its behalf.

Former U.S. national security officials who served under both Republican and Democratic presidents emphasized that the Trump administration has been hampered by a president who has been slow to appoint hundreds of midlevel managers at Cabinet agencies, including the Pentagon and State Department, and who has at times expressed disdain for the traditional interagency decision-making process.

The result is that the normally meticulous care that goes into formulating and coordinating U.S. government policy positions or even simple statements is often absent. Institutional memory is lacking, these former officials said, and mistakes and contradictions easily slip through the cracks.

When you have officials stating conflicting viewpoints, you're sending a confusing message.

"Part of it reflects the fact that these departments are not staffed, and they're not operating at capacity or at speed," said Stephen Hadley, who served as former president George W. Bush's national security adviser. "These Cabinet secretaries are kind of home alone, working with people that they don't really know. They don't have their own people in place, their policies in place, or processes in place yet."

Inside Trump's National Security Council, the agency charged with coordinating foreign policy decision-making and consistent messaging, the disarray has been palpable. Trump's first choice for his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced out amid revelations that he had misled senior officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, over his communications with Russian officials before Trump took office.

Beyond his difficulties with the Russia issue, Flynn was unable, in the few weeks that he presided over the NSC staff, to establish a smooth decision-making process that could rationalize the often widely disparate views of Trump's key White House advisers and new Cabinet members. His replacement, H.R. McMaster, moved quickly to consolidate power by pushing out Trump's senior strategist, Stephen Bannon, who had initially been awarded a seat on the NSC "principals committee."

McMaster has sought, with incomplete success, to exert more control over staffing and to establish a more disciplined process in place of what had been a largely ad hoc system. In the wake of Trump's decision to authorize missile strikes on a Syrian airfield as retribution for the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons, McMaster said that the administration had held several NSC meetings, including with Trump aboard Air Force One and at his private Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, to develop and coordinate the military operation.

Yet those efforts were to some degree undermined when senior officials went on the Sunday political talk shows after the strikes and offered conflicting statements on Assad's future. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the administration's top goal was defeating the Islamic State, while Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said no resolution to the Syrian civil war was possible with Assad in power.

"Public diplomacy is a huge tool, presenting a united front, presenting a shared vision of how you approach global affairs — everything from the use of military force to sanctions," said Jennifer Psaki, who served as the White House communications director and as a State Department spokeswoman under President Barack Obama. "When you have officials stating conflicting viewpoints, you're sending a confusing message — not just to people in this country and to Congress, but confusing and conflicting messages to partners and allies around the world."

Trump aides disputed the suggestion the administration was speaking with more than one voice. Michael Anton, the director of strategic communications at the NSC, said there was "nothing inconsistent" about the White House's Syria policy.

"Defeating ISIS has always been the paramount goal, and nobody ever envisioned a long-term future for Assad," Anton said, using an acronym for the terrorist group. He emphasized that there is "communication at every level, every day" among policy experts and among the communication staffs at the various agencies and the White House.

Events of the past week have raised concerns about consequences in a volatile world, where such missteps can be costly.

Most of the public statements made by the agencies are vetted through Anton's office before they are released, he said.

But there is no permanent spokesman at either State or the Pentagon, making it difficult to keep up with the deluge of requests from reporters. Anton has three aides, while Obama's NSC had up to seven people in the same division, according to former Obama aides.

This week, the Trump White House appeared to be on a different page than the State Department in the wake of the Turkish referendum that greatly expanded Erdogan's powers. While the State Department emphasized the United States' interest in Turkey's "democratic development" and the importance of the "rule of law and a diverse and free media," the White House statement said Trump had called to congratulate Erdogan and discuss their shared goal of defeating the Islamic State.

Anton said the statements were not in conflict, citing a "tension in U.S. policy goals."

U.S. and Turkish officials said Trump and Erdogan planned to meet in person before a NATO summit scheduled for May 29-30 in Brussels.

"You want to keep a NATO ally, a partner in the strategic fight against ISIS," he said. "You also have a national interest in democracy in Turkey. . . . Sometimes foreign policy requires making difficult choices and balancing interests that are in tension."

While some analysts spoke approvingly of a "good cop, bad cop" approach, none seemed sure whether that's what the administration had intended.

Outside experts said there were budding signs of maturation within the administration. They cited the decision-making process on the Syrian strikes and the glitch-free summit between Trump and Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago two weeks ago.

While 100 days is a traditional milestone at which the progress of a new administration is assessed, it is the wrong measure for the Trump insurgency, which promised to upend traditional ways of doing government business, Hadley said.

"There is a shakedown cruise for every administration," he said. "This one is going to be longer and bumpier, precisely because of how they came to power ... The question is how it will look after the first 150 days or maybe 200."

Former officials and foreign policy analysts viewed some of the administration's policy reversals — including its renewed support for NATO and tougher tone on Russia — as the natural evolution from inexperience and lack of knowledge to confrontations with reality.

Still, events of the past week have raised concerns about consequences in a volatile world, where such missteps can be costly.

The administration's erroneous statements about the location and direction of the USS Carl Vinson — an aircraft carrier that officials said was dispatched to the Korean Peninsula last week as a show of force against North Korea's belligerence — were widely viewed as a simple "screw-up," in the words of several former officials.

uss carl vinson ship boat trump

USS Carl Vinson sailing in the Pacific Ocean — Photo: U.S. Navy

While administration officials said the goal was to reassure regional partners, South Korea expressed concern over a possible bait and switch, and China warned against escalation.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer insisted Wednesday that the White House had said nothing incorrect, since the ship is now — more than a week after it was announced — apparently on its way toward the Korean Peninsula.

"We said it was heading there, it is heading there," he said.

To those who worked in the Obama White House, the disarray has led to a sense of vindication about their own strategy after years of being accused by political rivals of micromanaging the agencies.

"Success of a policy in some cases resides as much in the nuance of the messaging as it does in the policy," said Bernadette Meehan, who served as the NSC spokeswoman under Obama. "You explain it, get people to buy in, rather than stoking up fears unnecessarily. It's incredibly important if you want a policy to have success to have cohesive messaging."

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020


Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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