On Sunday, a U.S. F/A-18E fighter plane shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter jet that was attacking U.S.-backed Arab and Kurdish forces fighting to liberate Raqqa from ISIS. Russia reacted with predictable bluster, threatening to shoot down U.S. aircraft. It’s doubtful that World War III is actually upon us. The Russians, after all, did little after Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 that it claimed violated Turkish airspace in 2015. Moscow is hardly likely to risk war over an airplane belonging to its ally.
But the risk of miscalculation is always present and growing in Syria. There, Bashar Assad and his Iranian and Russian patrons are increasingly coming into conflict with U.S.-backed forces as a scramble for the future of Syria intensifies amid indications that ISIS may soon be routed out of Raqqa. (For example, an American pilot recently shot down a drone that attacked U.S.-backed rebel forces in southern Syria.)
At a time like this, it is all the more imperative to have a sober and thoughtful commander-in-chief in the Oval Office backed by an experienced and well-coordinated foreign policy team. Needless to say, that’s not what we have at this time. Not only has the administration failed to fill many of its top foreign policy jobs (indeed, Rex Tillerson has said he may not appoint senior State Department officials until next year), but there is a curious lack of coordination among various arms of the U.S. government.
Exhibit A is the ongoing crisis with Qatar, which has been blockaded by its neighbors, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain because they accuse the Qataris of backing Islamic extremists (something that they have been known to do themselves). Trump, who apparently bonded with the Saudis on his recent trip to their country, has been completely behind the Saudi-led coalition. He said on June 9: “The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level. We have to stop the funding of terrorism.”
Tillerson, having spent many years working with Qatar during his time at ExxonMobil, is, by contrast, plainly worried about alienating that oil-rich kingdom which hosts a major U.S. airbase. He wants to play the role of honest broker, mediating the dispute without taking sides. Josh Rogin of the Washington Post quoted a State Department official: “Everybody was taken by surprise by the president’s comments. It undermined what the secretary had to say. The policy that is being worked is the Tillerson policy, Trump’s comments notwithstanding.”
So the president’s comments don’t represent U.S. policy? This is a mind-boggling assertion, but it may well be true, given that last week Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis—another advocate of the “honest broker” approach—signed a $12 billion deal to sell Qatar 36 F-15s. It’s hard to overstate the incoherence of U.S. policy, with the U.S. selling advanced weapons system to a country that the president considers to be a “funder of terrorism.”
The failure to coordinate policy between the White House, on the one hand, and the Departments of State and Defense, on the other, is baffling—and worrying. When the U.S. faces a no-kidding crisis with a real risk of war—something that may soon occur in both Syria and North Korea—it’s imperative to have an administration that really is a “fine-tuned machine,” as Trump bragged in February. From the outside, the administration looks like it’s in need of a major tune-up—but that will be hard to accomplish. The biggest obstacle to a more coherent and cohesive policy process also happens to be the boss.