How Khashoggi murder, Yemen war are reawakening activism in Congress

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/File
President Trump shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington March 20.
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Congressional discontent with President Trump’s foreign policy is nothing new on either side of the aisle. But the murder of Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi, and the White House’s response to it, may be a tipping point. A Tuesday statement from Mr. Trump affirmed his faith in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the US-Saudi relationship, despite the CIA’s preliminary determination that the prince directed Mr. Khashoggi’s murder. And that, some analysts say, may be a last straw for legislators uncomfortable with what seems like a transactional foreign policy, devoid of a values component. If they respond, it could represent more than pushback: Some experts foresee a resurgent bipartisan congressional role in foreign-policy oversight, after two decades of dormancy – though it may not extend far beyond the Saudi-led war in Yemen and relations with Saudi Arabia generally. The murder and the White House’s response “was grotesque in a way that highlighted the unpleasantness and unacceptability of a purely realist approach to international relations,” says Thomas Carothers, an expert in democratization and US foreign policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Why We Wrote This

Who is responsible for preserving American values in US foreign policy? In the past, Congress has exercised bipartisan oversight of the executive branch. Now, some pro-Saudi policies are stirring discomfort.

“From the legislative branch side, we’re going to do as much as we can, as hard as we can, to send a signal to the world.”

Those forceful words – concerning the US response to the Saudi government’s murder of Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi – were spoken Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” by a United States senator.

They may sound like the stuff of any number of congressional Democrats who are promising a reinvigorated role for Congress in the oversight and carrying out of US foreign policy.

Why We Wrote This

Who is responsible for preserving American values in US foreign policy? In the past, Congress has exercised bipartisan oversight of the executive branch. Now, some pro-Saudi policies are stirring discomfort.

But in fact the comment was made by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

And what his words suggest is that Congress’s awakening from what analysts say has been a two-decades-long dormancy when it comes to foreign-policy activism won’t simply be the stuff of the Democrats’ retaking control of the House of Representatives in elections this month.

Indeed the factors that some experts cite in foreseeing a resurgent bipartisan congressional role in foreign-policy oversight range widely.

They go from the specific – disgust over the Khashoggi killing and a broad and building rejection of the US role in Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in Yemen – to a growing bipartisan discontent with the executive branch’s foreign policy, which to many seems increasingly divorced from traditional American values such as human rights, press freedom, and democratic governance.

“On both sides of the aisle, in the House and the Senate, there are a lot of people who are uncomfortable with a tendency of this president to cozy up to dictators … and to set aside the ideals of democratic governance and human rights that have traditionally played some part in US foreign policy,” says Thomas Carothers, an expert in democratization and US foreign policy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

The next Congress will be “even more willing to challenge the president” and “increase its role” in the conduct of foreign policy, Mr. Carothers says, largely because the Democrats will take control of the House in January.

But he adds that the seeds of a foreign-policy “disconnect” between the executive and legislative branches were already planted by a Republican-controlled Congress – and could be seen in initiatives such as Russia sanctions that went beyond what President Trump wanted to see, and a successful bipartisan effort to resist administration proposals to gut democracy-promotion programs.

Yet it is the murder of Mr. Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul – and Mr. Trump’s response to it so far – that stands out to Carothers and other analysts. They see it as a kind of last straw for many in Congress who were already uncomfortable with what looked increasingly like a transactional foreign policy devoid of a values component.

“The Khashoggi killing and the way the president has stood by the crown prince [Mohammed bin Salman] despite the evidence was grotesque in a way that highlighted the unpleasantness and unacceptability of a purely realist approach to international relations,” Carothers says.

At odds with CIA findings?

Trump reaffirmed his faith in Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, in a statement Tuesday in which he said that while “it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event … our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a very important ally in our fight against Iran.”

In an interview aired Sunday, Trump told Fox News host Chris Wallace that the prince has repeatedly reassured him that he had no role in and did not order the journalist’s murder.

Saudi Press Agency/AP
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (front row on left) listens to Saudi King Salman give his annual policy speech in the ornate hall of the consultative Shura Council, Monday, Nov. 19, 2018, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Salman gave his first major speech since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, expressing support for his son, the crown prince, and making no mention of the accusations that the prince ordered the killing.

That left the president appearing again to dismiss the findings of his own intelligence experts. The CIA made a preliminary determination, based on intercepts and knowledge of Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian regime, that the Khashoggi murder indeed occurred with direction from the prince. The agency’s high confidence in that assessment was expected to be part of a final report the CIA was to submit to the White House late Tuesday.

In his Tuesday statement, which seemed aimed at heading off the findings of the CIA report, Trump again emphasized the transactional nature of US relations with the Saudi kingdom – underscoring the $450 billion in trade and investment commitments the Saudis made to him during his first overseas trip as president.

At the same time, Trump acknowledged that “there are members of Congress who, for political and other reasons, would like to go in a different direction” in US-Saudi relations.

Indeed, Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky,  who generally has sided with Trump on foreign policy matters, tweeted in response to the president's statement – subtitled "America First!" – that “this statement is Saudi Arabia First, not America First.”

Senator Paul is sponsoring bipartisan legislation that would block arms sales to Saudi Arabia the administration has valued at $110 billion. 

Moreover, congressional discomfort with the Khashoggi affair is spilling over into renewed efforts on the Hill to curtail US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has left in its wake what international experts deem to be the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

On Tuesday, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, favored to become House Speaker in January, joined legislation that would force an end to US participation in the Yemen war.

Last week a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that would impose tougher sanctions on Saudi Arabia than the measures the administration has already taken against 17 Saudis deemed to have been involved in the murder plot. The Senate bill includes a blanket embargo on the sale of arms to Riyadh for offensive purposes and a ban on US refueling of Saudi planes engaged in the Yemen war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

Beyond that effort, another group of senators and representatives is pushing for a vote to end all support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and to make ending that war US policy.

Congress’s record

Experts in Congress and foreign policy say it’s been decades since Congress exercised in any meaningful way its role in setting and overseeing US foreign policy.

Writing in the February 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Stephen Weissman, a former staff director of the House Subcommittee on Africa, noted that Congress experienced something of a golden era in “playing a constructive role in matters of war and peace” from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.

“Congress weighed in responsibly on conflicts in Southeast Asia, Central America, the Middle East, and southern Africa,” he said, sometimes blocking “arguably misguided action on the part of the executive branch,” while at other times “partnering” with the executive to “improve outcomes.”

But Congress “started backsliding in the early 1990s” when President Bill Clinton sent forces to Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo without congressional authorization, Mr. Weissman wrote. By the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks it was total abdication, he added, noting how Congress set off a new round of executive-branch foreign interventions by the “rushed” 2002 authorization of the use of force in Iraq by President George W. Bush.

Now some foreign policy analysts say the Khashoggi affair may portend some limited revival of congressional involvement in foreign policy – but they aren’t holding their breath for much beyond some impact on the Yemen war and relations with Saudi Arabia generally.

“The two areas where a Democratic House with cooperation from a Republican Senate might be able to constrain administration policy is on Saudi Arabia and the war in Yemen,” says Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst at the Wilson Center in Washington with long experience in administrations of both parties.

“But a higher profile for the Congress on a couple of specific issues will not necessarily translate to activism and impact across the full spectrum of our foreign policy,” he says, “so the real question is going to be if Congress can act in ways to affect policy. And that,” he adds, “will require the Senate.”

Role of public opinion

Simply “holding hearings and issuing reports” will not be enough to signal the end of Congress’s foreign-policy dormancy, Mr. Miller says. And he adds that the arrival of a Democratic House might mean little more than ramped up vocal opposition to Trump foreign policy without some corresponding interest in influencing foreign policy on the Senate side.

“I think we should stop talking about a more proactive Congress on foreign policy, because it’s not Congress people are referring to, it’s the House,” Miller says. “And the House is one-half of one-third of the three branches of government, with everything but the House pretty much under the influence of the president.”

Yet while that may be true, the Carnegie Endowment’s Carothers says such analysis fails to consider the role that another aspect of American governance – public opinion, or the constituents of the members of Congress – plays in influencing US interaction with the world.

“Polls over recent years consistently show that Americans want a foreign policy that supports democracy promotion, and they want a balance between promoting human rights and democratic ideals and the need to get along with useful allies that don’t always uphold those ideals,” Carothers says. But President Trump has gone so far to one side of that balance that “he has put the country in a place where most Americans don’t want to be,” he adds.

“We’ve seen Congress stand firm on keeping some of the foreign-policy programs that reflect and promote the values that the American public supports,” he says, “and I think the next Congress will be even more willing to challenge the president and increase its role in setting foreign policy.”

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