SEOUL, South Korea -- President Donald Trump again showed how quickly his tweets can outrun U.S. foreign policy planning, after he backed Saudi Arabia's king and crown prince over the arrests of dozens of officials before the State Department had completed its review of the moves.
While Trump had talked with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about Saudi Arabia as they toured Tokyo together Nov. 5 and 6, there was no formal consultation before he tweeted early Tuesday that King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman "know exactly what they are doing."
A second tweet said "some of those they are harshly treating have been 'milking' their country for years!"
The tweets were only the latest time Trump has set U.S. foreign policy in 140 characters. It effectively gave the crown prince the full weight of the U.S. backing despite serious questions remaining about Saudi Arabia's commitment to the rule of law and its ability to guarantee financial transactions.
"Having the United States in many ways supporting a position that is seen as quite controversial can be problematic for the region," Raihan Ismail, an associate lecturer at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, said by phone. "Regional instability will continue to spook foreign investors. The Trump administration is seen as erratic."
Trump was responding to King Salman's order, announced on Nov. 4, to detain 11 princes, four ministers and dozens of former ministers and businessmen, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the world's richest men, as part of an anti-corruption drive led by the crown prince. The move reinforced speculation that he was clearing any remaining obstacles to his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's accession to the throne.
Trump's tweeting once again threatens to roil a complex international situation and one of the U.S.'s most critical relationships, and may embolden the crown prince at a time when some administration officials fear he is moving too far too fast.
Until Trump's tweet, the administration had largely withheld comment, with State Department spokespeople referring reporters to the Saudi government. With Tillerson and the rest of Trump's national security team with him on the Asia tour, there has been little time to hammer out a response.
That slow reaction reflects the complexity of recent developments in Saudi Arabia and the danger that comes with trying to interpret them.
For example, the U.S. is largely pleased with much of what the young crown prince has pushed for, such as his desire to move away from radical Islam, the move to allow women to drive and his Vision 2030 reform plan. At the same time, the administration is disquieted by other policies, such as the continued military campaign in Yemen, capped by the decision Nov. 6 to close Yemeni land, sea and air crossings to all but aid and rescue teams.