by Alireza Ahmadi
Reflecting on the unpopularity of the U.S.-Saudi relationship after the September 11 attacks, scholar F. Gregory Gause III said that the relationship has never been based on public support but rather on “an elite bargain” that overcomes “vast political and cultural differences between the two societies.” He continued:
In times of crisis, there is no reservoir of popular support to be drawn upon for sustaining the relationship. Just the opposite: The more public scrutiny that is focused on the relationship, both in the United States and in Saudi Arabia, the more difficult it becomes for the elites on each side to defend it.
Due to the intractably affectionate relationship between the Trump administration and the Saudi royals as well as the uproar over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi—and the CIA’s determination that the crowned prince was responsible—this gap in popularity has widened to a gulf. This creates a level of exposure and unpopularity and increasing partisanship for the administration’s foreign policy that Democrats will now be able to exploit.
By most accounts, the Saudi war in Yemen has failed to achieve any of its objectives and has created new problems. Trump’s recent, garish statement recommitting himself to Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) seems to have convinced experts that the administration will not, on its own, force Saudi Arabia to abandon its military ambitions. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took to the Wall Street Journal opinion page to call the Saudi government that has shattered Yemen a “powerful force for stability in the Middle East.”
The administration is now blocking an already watered-down UN Security Council resolution sponsored by Britain attempting to address the humanitarian fallout because Saudi Arabia’s crown prince “threw a fit.” The administration tried and failed to block the passage of the resolution sponsored by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) to bar all U.S. assistance to the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen. Although a great achievement, it is also a “largely symbolic rebuke” that will not affect US policy, especially as the House is unlikely to even vote on it by the end of the session. True, this development does demonstrate greater appetite among Republicans for punitive action against the Saudi regime in light of the murder of Khashoggi. But there is little chance any tangible action can be taken before the new Congress convenes in the new year.
Washington’s anger over the Khashoggi murder will likely a fade over time but the Saudi’s vaunted lobbying and public relations machine in Washington has been targeted for unprecedented scrutiny. Key Republican supporters, their confidence shaken, are even calling for a “recalibration” of the relationship. Democrats who have long spoken of Riyadh with respect now accuse the regime of criminality. And the image of a bone saw will likely not be wiped away from Mohammad bin Salman’s political profile anytime soon.
Democrats have been relatively more amenable to the argument that the Saudi government promotes extremism and takes on destabilizing policies in the region—often with U.S. arms and support—that actually harm U.S. interests. But there is also every conceivable political advantage in raising the cost for Republicans of maintaining current Trump administration policies by highlighting the Trump’s overinvestment in the Saudi relationship and the conflicts of interest that may be influencing that dynamic. Trump’s undying support for Saudi Arabia’s 33-year-old princeling is increasingly difficult to explain.
Having the majority in the House of Representatives is not necessarily the strongest position of power to influence U.S. foreign policy. The executive branch is “the sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations,” and the duty to provide “advice and consent” on appointments falls to the Senate. However, House Democrats will be able to influence and police the Trump administration’s Middle East policy through three distinct tools: investigation, policy oversight, and legislation.
House Democrats campaigned on using their investigative authorities in House committees and “every arrow in [their] quiver,” to quote Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi before the election, on investigating Trump and his administration’s “culture of corruption, cronyism and incompetence.” More recently they have outlined two distinct but interconnected lines of inquiry that may have implications for Middle East policy. First is the likely investigation into Trump’s personal finances going back years. The other is regarding possible Trump campaign and administration ties with foreign powers—mainly Russia. This will be particularly uncomfortable for a president that campaigned on being a successful entrepreneur and nationalist who is hell-bent on “draining the swap” and putting “America First.”
Neither of these inquiries will begin focusing on Saudi Arabia or other U.S. alliances in the Middle East. But in the Mueller probe and the many media investigations on these subjects, any investigations of influence peddling in Washington will veer toward Riyadh and Gulf Cooperation Council allies at some point. Mueller’s investigative mandate was largely about Russia, but he is now examining the Trump inner circle’s ties with American agents of Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the secret contacts they arranged.
Trump himself has vacillated between bragging about being the recipient of Saudi largesse and claiming to have no financial ties with them at all. Jared Kushner pushed an aggressively pro-Saudi stance on his father-in-law at the outset of the Qatar row, shortly after his father was denied a cash infusion from a Qatar-tied firm to protect the flagship asset of his family’s troubled real estate organization.
Republicans in Congress limited the ability of the ranking member to interfere in the issuance of subpoenas by a committee’s chairman. That decision will likely haunt them, and the administration.
Policy Oversight and Legislation
Democrats will naturally be more inclined to carry out their oversight responsibilities regarding Trump’s policies beyond the Yemen issue. Trump administration policy on a whole host of issues— from the overall approach to Iran to the occupation of northern Syria and the designs on Bashar al-Assad—are vague, divorced from strategic guidance, or change dramatically by the day and by the government agency commenting.
Republicans were far more indulgent of the administration. They never held a single public hearing dedicated to their Trump administration’s departure from the Iran nuclear deal and briefed Congress on Yemen relying on information provided by Saudi Arabia.
Democrats in Congress have mulled various bills, attracting varying levels of Republicans support, that may affect these issues. With control of the House of Representatives in the new term, Democrats and supporting Republicans are well positioned to pass legislation demanding an end to U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen. They have proposed measures to restrict lobbying by foreign governments to address what they see as an anemic regulatory and enforcement regime. Democrats have proposed blocking U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation and even possible targeted sanctions against Saudi Arabia or human rights violation including, but not limited to, the Khashoggi murder.
This will do more than insult the Saudi royals or limit their ability to influence U.S. policy through lobbying. As Chatham House’s Micah Zenko notes in an insightful appraisal of U.S. forces in the region, strong support for regional allies that provide the U.S. military with access to their land, is a key feature of America’s CENTCOM-driven approach to the Middle East. So, Riyadh may perceive congressional limits on the level of cooperation the U.S. military can provide for Saudi Arabia’s regional policies as inconsistent with the structural foundation of the relationship.
The passage of these proposals would put pressure on Republicans, especially with the approach of the presidential election cycle. Senate Republicans and the White House have the power to block any of these measures from becoming law. But at a time when the American people are acutely aware of the darker side of Saudi Arabia, there will be a price to be paid by Senate and White House Republicans for blunting efforts to address the shortcomings in American law about foreign influence and human rights violations by a despotic, rogue sheikhdom.
Alireza Ahmadi is a researcher and analyst focused on U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East. His articles have appeared in The National Interest, The Hill, and Al-Monitor. @AliAhmadi_Iran