By John Cassidy, New Yorker
In the past two and a half years, we have got used to a level of foreign-policy incoherence from the Trump Administration. Donald Trump’s statements about North Korea, nato, and other subjects have often contradicted what other officials have said, and sometimes contradicted what Trump has said himself. But, even by Trump’s standards, the past couple of days have been jarring.
On Sunday evening, the day after the attacks on oil installations in Saudi Arabia, Trump tweeted, “There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification.” On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that American officials had informed the Saudi government that, according to U.S. intelligence reports, “Iran launched more than 20 drones and at least a dozen missiles at the Saudi oil facilities on Saturday.”
By then, though, Trump’s tone had changed. Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, he reiterated that the evidence indicated that Iran was responsible, then added, “I don’t want war with anybody. . . .With all that being said, we’d certainly like to avoid it.” Other Administration officials sought to walk back his Sunday-night tweet—or that’s what it looked like they were doing. “I think locked and loaded means several things,” Marc Short, the chief of staff to Vice-President Mike Pence, told Fox Business. “One thing it means is that America today under this President is far better prepared to handle these sorts of events because we’re now a net exporter of oil.”
What changed between Sunday and Monday? One thing was that the financial markets opened, and the price of a barrel of crude oil shot up about nine dollars, or roughly fifteen per cent—the biggest jump in more than a decade. The attacks had prompted Saudi Arabia to reduce its daily output of crude by about 5.7 million barrels, or roughly fifty per cent. When supply falls, prices rise. This price adjustment, which occurred even though Trump said over the weekend that he would release oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve “to keep the markets well supplied,” demonstrated two things.
First, it punctured the myth, assiduously propagated by Trump, Short, and others, that the fact that the United States is now the world’s biggest producer of crude oil (it’s all that fracking) means the economy is protected from turmoil overseas. Trump’s rhetoric about oil independence has “led to a misperception that the U.S. is somehow energy independent and insulated from the global disruption in global oil markets,” Jason Bordoff, a former Obama Administration official who is a professor at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, told my colleague Robin Wright. “Consumers at the pump are about to be reminded that oil prices are set in the global markets.”
Second, Monday’s action in the oil markets indicated that a full-scale military blowup in the Middle East could cause a much bigger price jump. In 1973, the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War prompted opec to proclaim an oil embargo, and oil prices quadrupled. In 1990, after Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States assembled a military coalition to confront Saddam Hussein, the oil price doubled. It’s hard to predict how oil traders would react to, say, a U.S. strike on Iranian oil refineries that provoked Tehran, or one of its regional surrogates, to attack a Saudi desalination plant. On Monday, there was talk of the crude price reaching a hundred dollars or more in the case of an all-out conflict.
Trump watches the financial markets closely, if not obsessively. At least twice this year, a fall in stock prices has prompted him to moderate his line in the trade war with China. It’s also clear that he is ultra-sensitive to the threat of a recession, or any sort of an economic slowdown, and its impact on his reëlection bid. Why else do you think he has been trying to bully the Federal Reserve into slashing interest rates for the past nine months? On Monday, he returned to the theme, noting that foreign governments were paying lower interest rates on their bonds, then adding, “And now, on top of it all, the Oil hit. Big Interest Rate Drop, Stimulus!”
Trump is also well aware that he campaigned on ending America’s long wars, not starting a new one. He knows that his most ardent supporters don’t want to pay higher gas prices going into an election year, and neither do other voters. On the other hand, he wants to look tough. And he’s already called off one military strike on Iran this year. That was in June, after the Iranian military shot down an unmanned U.S. reconnaissance plane.
To sum up, Trump’s in a pickle, and he’s the one responsible for it. By needlessly reneging on the U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal and launching a sanctions campaign that amounts to economic warfare against Tehran, he has strengthened the Iranian hard-liners and further destabilized a region that was already in turmoil. By enabling Saudi Arabia in bombing Yemen and carrying out horrendous war crimes, he has contributed to a terrible humanitarian crisis: according to the United Nations, about 3.3 million of the Yemenis who have fled remain displaced, and another fourteen million desperately need food, medicine, and other assistance. So far in his Presidency, Trump has largely escaped personal responsibility or political consequences for his bad and foolhardy policies. Now some of the repercussions are hitting home.
If calm is restored to the Gulf region and the Saudi oil installations come back online quickly, the economic consequences of the weekend attack could end up being relatively minor. On Tuesday, there were reports that full production could be restored in just two or three weeks, and the price of crude rebounded somewhat. Meanwhile, economists at Goldman Sachs suggested that a higher oil price, by stimulating more capital spending in the energy industry, could even end up boosting G.D.P. growth a bit.
As the economy has already slowed down this year compared to last year, I doubt that Trump will find that forecast encouraging, and I don’t blame him. He knows what higher oil prices and economic troubles in the run-up to an election did to Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. No wonder he has toned down the rhetoric—although you can never be quite sure what he means, or if he even knows himself. Just after remarking that he didn’t want a war, he suggested that the United States could yet carry out a retaliatory strike and then charge the Saudi government for it. The “fact is that the Saudis are going to have a lot of involvement in this if we decide to do something,” he said. “They’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully.” Maybe they do. To everybody else, it seemed like yet another dreadful and incoherent statement.