Amid all the self-inflicted turmoil of the Trump administration, it's easy to forget that before this week, the president and his team hadn't really been tested by a foreign policy crisis requiring a decisive response. That changed on Monday, when a group of Gulf countries in the Middle East—led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—suddenly severed ties with Qatar. This is a big deal, as Qatar is a small country that isn't self-sufficient; Saudi Arabia closing its border means that it's suddenly difficult for food to be imported to Qatar. It's also a matter of concern for the United States, as the Gulf nation is home to the most important American air base in the region.
The official reason for the diplomatic split centers on a report by Qatari state media that the country's leader had made favorable remarks about Iran, an enemy of most Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia. That report appears to have been a fake planted by hackers, possibly Russians, but Qatar's neighbors have deeper problems with the tiny, wealthy nation: Namely, Qatar is accused of supporting Islamist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas that the Saudis and Egyptians (who joined the ban, along with Bahrain, Yemen, and the Maldives) consider terrorist groups.
Qatar's funding of extremists has been criticized for a long time by both other Gulf countries and the US, and in 2014 there was a similar spat, with several countries withdrawing ambassadors from Qatar until the country agreed to change some policies, like funding a television network Egypt thought was fomenting anti-government sentiment.
What's different this time can be summed up in two words: Donald Trump. Though the roots of the crisis have nothing to do with US politics, Trump's inexperience and rash public statements may have worsened it, and his blunders showcase how unprepared he is to handle complex and tense situations on the world stage.
Experts I spoke to explained that normally, America looks to strike a tricky balance in the region: The US obviously wants to combat ISIS and other terrorist groups, but in order to do so it has often partnered with countries with horrible human rights records and histories of supporting extremism, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia—even as those partners have disagreements with each other. Then there's the historical animosity between countries dominated by Sunni Islam (including the Gulf states) and Shia Iran.
"It's almost a tightrope you want to walk," said Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor of international relations who spent 27 years in the US State Department, including multiple assignments in the Middle East. "Religion is so complicated, and these intra-Islam differences are so important, that there's value in the US being seen as a peacemaker and not standing on one side."
Trump, characteristically, has ignored many of the subtleties involved in Gulf relations. Just before the Qatar crisis, the president visited Saudi Arabia and clearly embraced the views of its leaders. His pro-Saudi slant was so pronounced that he even contradicted his own government—just as the Pentagon was reaffirming the importance of the Qatar base, Trump was on Twitter praising the Saudi decision.
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Why did Trump do this? One problem, suggested Burns, is a staffing shortage at the State Department. There are hundreds of experts on the ground in the Middle East, Burns said, but their expertise and advice might not be getting properly transmitted to Trump because there aren't enough managers at the higher levels of the department. That may have resulted in a response that Burns described as "confused and inconsistent."
"Here's the question that gets with this administration raised time and time again: Is there a disconnect between the president, who has shown himself to be very impressionable, and the professionals within the military establishment and certain cabinet members who are looking at this from a more strategic standpoint?" wondered Reva Goujon, an analyst at geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm Stratfor. "It appears that Trump has wholeheartedly accepted and endorsed this [Saudi] agenda to stamp out Islamism. And Islamism has many different flavors to it."
Embracing the anti-Islamist stances of Saudi Arabia and other autocratic Gulf countries means embracing—or at least overlooking—the brutal anti-democratic policies of these states, not to mention the horrors the Saudi-led coalition is committing in Yemen (a coalition the US supports). Though past presidents, including Barack Obama, have allied themselves with the Saudis, Trump has taken it to another level with his unqualified support. (This has inspired a backlash from Democrats in the Senate, who now oppose a sale of arms to Saudi Arabia.)
Trump risks giving a "blank check" to the Saudi-UAE alliance, according to Frederic Wehrey, an expert in the region at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I think the Saudis are trying to position themselves as the interlocutors for the US in the Gulf and even the entire [Middle East]," he told me.
By Friday Trump seemed to have backpedaled on his anti-Qatar stance, and the administration said it was working with all parties to resolve the dispute. But his initial comments may have stoked the crisis by signaling to Saudi Arabia that whatever they do is just fine with him.
"If Saudi Arabia and the UAE feel they have Trump's backing on this, then they're going to be more emboldened to push harder and harder on their demands, which will prolong this crisis," Goujon said.
She added that Qatar needs to "maintain US ties at all costs" for the sake of security, while the US likely has no interest in the expensive and disruptive process of moving its base there. Still, "Qatar has to ask itself, 'How firm is my US support at this point?'" Goujon continued.
That uncertainty and mixed signals is a regular feature of foreign policy under Trump—for instance, last month, when he declined to explicitly reaffirm that the US was devoted to NATO's mutual defense pact, alarming European leaders, he reportedly did so without telling his senior advisers. His sharing of extremely classified intelligence with Russian officials seems to have been similarly whim-driven.
The experts I spoke to agreed that the Gulf states will likely find a way to sort through their differences, likely after concessions from Qatar, just as happened in 2014. But Trump has added an element of chaos to the mix. And over all of this hangs a further question: What is Trump going to tweet during the next crisis?
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