Moral authority or national interest? Senate weighs both in Saudi relations.
Can the United States exercise its moral authority in foreign policy without giving its vital national interests short shrift?
That question has permeated much of the debate in Congress in recent days over US relations with longtime ally Saudi Arabia.
To a degree not seen in decades, senators of both parties have asserted the importance of factoring in America’s long-held values and global role as moral guide as they wrestle with two key questions: How to address the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and how involved the US should be in the Saudi intervention in the Yemen conflict.
The United Nations has deemed war-torn Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, and indignation in the US has mounted with evidence of US-supplied munitions hitting civilian targets in Saudi Arabia’s air offensive.
The Senate on Thursday adopted a war powers resolution that would require the Trump administration to end US support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen. The resolution draws on congressional authority defined in the 1973 War Powers Act, legislation that reflected the heightened congressional activity in foreign policy matters during the Vietnam War era.
Congress had never actually used the authority granted in the act until this week.
The Senate war powers resolution is a largely symbolic rebuke of both the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia, since the House is unlikely to follow the Senate’s lead and adopt its own resolution this year.
But it likely signals just the beginning of pressure for change in US-Saudi relations. Shortly after passage of the war powers resolution, the Senate passed on a voice vote a separate resolution sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee specifically condemning Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the alleged state-sponsored killing of Mr. Khashoggi. The resolution also calls on Saudi Arabia to “moderate its increasingly erratic foreign policy.”
Moreover, a bipartisan group of senators is promising a broad Saudi sanctions bill early next year.
At the core of much of this action is a sense that America’s moral compass has gone missing in guiding relations with Saudi Arabia – and that at least some balance between values on one side, and security and economic interests on the other, must be restored to those relations.
All week, both Republican and Democratic senators have referred to this need for balance and a new footing for US-Saudi relations.
“We’re not just dealing with moral imperatives here. We need to rethink our relationship with a despotic regime which murders dissidents in cold blood, which treats women as fourth-class citizens, which does not allow dissent or democracy in their country,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind.) of Vermont, a sponsor of the war powers resolution, told the Monitor Tuesday. “I think the American people have serious doubts about maintaining the kind of relationship we now have with a despotic regime that has got us into a war [that] has led to the deaths of already 85,000 children from starvation.”
Touting a separate resolution he is co-sponsoring that would declare the crown prince “complicit” in Khashoggi’s murder and demand serious negotiations to end the Yemen war, Sen. Todd Young (R) of Indiana faulted US policy for giving Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler carte blanche to carry out increasingly reckless actions that have undermined US interests. The resolution was adopted as an amendment to the war powers resolution Thursday.
“The failure over the last year and a half to utilize all available US leverage with respect to Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen has left the crown prince with the mistaken impression that the United States will turn a blind eye to his increasingly brazen atrocities,” Senator Young said. Apparently speaking to the administration, he added that “those who suggest we must sacrifice our principles for security will have neither.”
One congressional objective is to throw US weight behind sputtering peace talks in Sweden between the embattled Yemeni government and Houthi rebels. The UN-brokered talks registered a breakthrough Thursday when the two sides agreed to a cease-fire in the key port city of Hodeidah, a move that could open the port to receiving more food and other supplies and relieve the country’s humanitarian crisis.
The Trump administration continues to reject any action that it believes could damage relations with Saudi Arabia. The US considers the kingdom a vital partner in its confrontation with Iran over what it considers Tehran’s “malign activities” across the Middle East. President Trump this week reaffirmed his faith in “the leader of Saudi Arabia” and the Saudi kingdom as “a really good ally,” while senior administration officials have cautioned members of Congress about singling out Saudi Arabia for its actions in a very difficult neighborhood.
The Khashoggi killing “is a heinous crime – the president has said that,” national security adviser John Bolton said Tuesday. “But it’s a region where a lot of heinous crimes are committed by Iran, by the Assad regime, by terrorists all around,” he said, adding that in the midst of all of it the US-Saudi relationship “is real and vital to American strategic interest, and there’s no point in blinking at that.”
Would congressional pressure work?
As the negotiations over some response to the Yemen war and the Khashoggi killing have built to a crescendo, regional analysts have carried out something of a side debate on the wisdom and effectiveness of congressional pressure on Saudi Arabia and in particular on the crown prince, known in Middle East circles as MbS.
Some say it’s high time Congress got involved and insist congressional action can influence Saudi behavior, while others caution against targeting a key ally in a way that could weaken vital US interests.
“We should not be projecting our anger about MbS onto the conflict in Yemen,” says Gerald Feierstein, former US ambassador to Yemen under President Barack Obama and former deputy assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs now at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
“If the Congress wants him to be sanctioned, I’ve no concern about that. If they want to say he’s not welcome in the United States ever again, fine,” Ambassador Feierstein adds. “But the reasons for the conflict in Yemen have nothing to do with Jamal Khashoggi.”
Not everyone agrees with that. For many analysts, the same adventurism and sense of untouchability that led the crown prince to launch the military intervention into Yemen in 2015 are what lie behind the brazen Khashoggi murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.
The key for Feierstein is to find a way to message MbS without losing an indispensable ally.
“The issue is not Saudi Arabia, the issue is Mohammed bin Salman,” he says. “As long as we have an interest in a stable global economy, and as long as we have an interest in regional security, Saudi Arabia is going to be important – and we have to figure out how to preserve that.”
Yet others say Saudi Arabia’s importance to US interests should not be allowed to drag down US standing in the world. And they insist that by exercising its leverage the US can influence Saudi behavior.
“Congressional action can shape our relationship with Saudi Arabia in ways that I think are extremely valuable,” says Daniel Byman, an expert in counterterrorism and Middle East security at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“I certainly think we can change their behavior,” he adds, noting as one example the Saudi Air Force’s dependence on the US for training, spare parts, and munitions. “They’ll still have an adventurist foreign policy,” he says, “but on some of the worst of the worst we can have an influence.”
Others see a difference between efforts to modify Saudi Arabia’s worst behavior and stark declarations of demands for a change in Saudi leadership.
Gregory Gause, a professor of international relations at Texas A&M University in College Station, says the US should go beyond pressing for behavioral change – while stopping short of demanding a change in leadership, which he says risks destabilizing the kingdom.
“It is not enough to push the Saudis to behave more responsibly,” Professor Gause writes in a piece for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There needs to be a more general understanding with Riyadh about the bases for cooperation on a range of regional issues.... That understanding has to include a frank discussion of the limits on behavior that violates international norms, further destabilizes the region and makes the maintenance of the bilateral relationship more difficult than it already is.”
For starters, Gause says the US should insist privately with Riyadh that it needs “another interlocutor besides the crown prince” for the foreseeable future.
It would not be an angry ultimatum but rather “advice from one friend to another,” he says, “that new faces are needed to reassure Saudi Arabia’s international partners about Saudi reliability going forward.”
Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.
Update: This story was updated after the vote to add Senator Young’s resolution as an amendment to the war powers resolution.