The US -Saudi alliance has come under pressure once again after the Jamal Khashoggi killing. Khashoggi, a journalist with the Washington Post, was murdered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. The CIA’s firm belief is that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) was involved.
This notwithstanding, US President Donald Trump has not only continued to support but in fact has shored up support for the Saudi royal family. This has angered many who believe silencing Khashoggi is a violation of the first amendment.
Historically speaking, the US has always had a Saudi problem, just like it has had an Israel problem and an Iran problem; ‘give them an inch..…they take a yard’. During the Cold War, the US used Iran as a ‘pillar’ of its foreign policy in the region, to contain communism. As a result, Washington met all or at least most of the Shah’s demands, especially in the sale of arms. In the aftermath of the revolution, the hostage crisis and the severing of diplomatic ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia replaced Iran as the ‘pillar’ of US policy in the region.
Over the years the US has struck billion dollar deals with it despite Saudi Arabia’s association with Al-Qaeda. There have been times that the US has attempted to rein in Saudi Arabia, especially through the passage of the ‘9/11 bill’ that allowed families of the victims to directly sue the Saudi regime. Throughout the George W Bush administration as well as that of Barack Obama, Presidents have been unable to curb Saudi Arabia’s appetite to dominate the region which, in some ways, has destabilized the region. The Obama administration supported the Saudi fight against Yemen - which is still ongoing. Though not directly involved, US participation, however minuscule, has created further regional problems as well as ‘aiding and abetting’ ‘bad behavior’. Riyadh is now Washington’s major regional ally in its fight against Islamic State (IS). To reward their support, US has granted it a great deal of leeway
During the 2016 campaign and thereafter as President, Trump made attempts to shore up support for Middle East allies because he felt there was a trust deficit created by the Obama administration by joining the Iran nuclear deal. Trump delivered on his promise to support allies in the region, particularly in furthering military sales and in walking away from the Iran Deal.
Khashoggi’s murder has created problems for bilateral relations. What has troubled many US lawmakers, both Democrats and an increasing number of Republicans, is Trump’s continuous support for the regime and his disregard for the CIA report which stated that that the Saudi Crown Prince MSB orchestrated the killing. The Senate was briefed by the Director of the CIA who said they were aware of his involvement. This has created a rift between the Congress and the President.
In matters pertaining to foreign policy, Congress usually defers to the President. In the Khashoggi case, there has been bipartisan support to a rethink of US-Saudi relations. This includes taking stock of unwavering US support and re-evaluating the role of the US in Yemen. Normally, Democrats would have led the charge and Republicans would protect the President from such an onslaught. In this case, the charge has been led by the Republicans especially Senators Bob Crocker and Lindsay Graham.
The Republicans got on board only after the CIA briefing and it seems that Congress has reasserted itself on foreign policy. The Senate passed a resolution that ended US military support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. For this measure, passed by 56 votes to 41, the Senate invoked the 1973 War Powers Resolution in an effort to curb the President’s powers in an armed conflict.
The bipartisan resolution is a clear testament that both Democrats and Republicans are upset not only by the US ally’s actions but by the ambivalence of the President’s inaction against Saudi Arabia.
These are rare times in Washington, when Democrats and Republicans agree, especially with the heightened levels of partisan polarization. It should be recalled that the President has veto authority and will likely use it to fight the resolution.
For years, the US and the international community have turned a blind eye to the human rights abuses committed by the Saudis, within and outside the country. In the aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder, along with the murder of thousands in Yemen, the US Congress is willing to act against presidential authority.
The Senate vote is a definite sign that Congress is unhappy with the way in which the administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, have handled the situation - with complete disregard for the institutions within the U S. Members in Congress did not suggest severing ties but prescribed greater accountability and reining in some arms deals.
If the House passes the resolution, President Trump will have to perform a delicate balancing act, between reining in an autocratic ally and dealing with a resurgent Congress. This will be especially true when the Democrats take over the House in 2019.
(The author is a Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral Scholar at American University Washington DC. She is also a doctoral scholar at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)