The Empty Presidency

The President of the United States just unprecedentedly intervened in a spat between two American allies…via Twitter.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis initially tried on Monday to smooth over the rift, with Mr. Tillerson offering to play peacemaker and Mr. Mattis insisting it would have no effect on the campaign against the Islamic State.

Less than 12 hours later, however, Mr. Trump discarded that approach by putting his thumb on the scale firmly in Saudi Arabia’s favor. His tweets, which a senior White House official said were not a result of any policy deliberation, sowed confusion about America’s strategy and its intentions toward a key military partner.

The most interesting thing about this isn’t actually the intervention, which appears to be firmly in line with the new administration’s reflexive pro-Saudi leanings.  It’s the question of credibility this raises.  The President seems to almost be going out of his way to ensure that statements from the Secretary of State & Defense are not taken seriously, as they cannot speak for the administration.

On the other hand, the President cannot plausibly claim to speak for the administration either.  The White House is very likely to execute an embarrassing climb-down from the President’s tweet-rant against Qatar*, leaving in place…what, exactly?  Any future policy pronouncements that have gone through deliberation and the inter-agency process are just as liable to be contradicted by the President.  And any future Presidential pronouncements are likely to be rejected by his own staff & bureaucracy.   If push comes to shove, the US stance on this and other commitments like, say, NATO’s Article V, are completely unclear.

In a real sense, no one can credibly claim to speak for the position of the US government.  Which is an interesting challenge that I think is under-rated relative to the actual “policy positions” held by the President.

*: This is all so weird, for the record.

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