Trump Runs PR for the Saudis But Congress Can Shut Him Down

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by Kate Kizer

Last week’s absurd statement from the White House was supposed to resolve any lingering questions about Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi’s murder by the Saudi government. Instead, the statement only made clear that Donald Trump will do nothing to hold Saudi Arabia or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) accountable—for his role in the Khashoggi murder or his destructive war in Yemen. Fortunately, this week the Senate can impose a reality check on the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia by voting to end the shameful U.S. role in the Saudi and United Arab Emirates (UAE) war in Yemen.

Congressional impatience with the war in Yemen, which has been growing over the last three years, came to a fever pitch when MbS’s role in the murder of Khashoggi became irrefutable. Ending U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen has now become the de facto position of the Democratic Party. Attempts to force votes in the House and Senate have attracted bipartisan support in Congress and from the American public.

Yet, as indicated by his statement last week, Trump has doubled down on protecting MbS because he and his cabinet have pinned their entire regional strategy on Saudi Arabia (and because of Trump’s personal business ties and interests with Saudi Arabia). Trump’s apparent preference for continuing his march to war with Iran over ending the bloodshed and famine in Yemen should expose the bipartisan failures of decades of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Indeed, Iran hawks expressed public disbelief at the statement, but their outrage rings hollow. Even though Trump is blatantly breaking with past presidential norms by ignoring a high-profile human rights violation, he is mollifying those same hawks by quietly gearing up for a conflict with Iran with the backing of the Gulf States and Israel.

Similarly, a mea culpa from former Obama-era officials on their role in starting U.S. support for the war in Yemen—although welcome—asserted that Iran was also to blame because of its role in “overthrowing the Yemeni government.” A true reckoning with the Obama administration’s role in the destruction of Yemen wouldn’t have emphasized Iran’s role or the conditional nature of U.S. support. Rather, it would acknowledge that the U.S. strategy of propping up of authoritarians throughout the region has brought about the very destruction, mass murder, and human rights abuses that exist today in Yemen and elsewhere.

No doubt the Obama administration’s failure to truly support the people rather than governments during the Arab Spring was in part due to the influence of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two countries terrified of democratic change on their doorstep and the emergence of a political Islam that doesn’t rely on the rule of a royal family. The Saudi and UAE’s lobby machines in Washington have been around for years, quashing any congressional criticism, garnering sympathy from journalists, and until recently acting behind a shroud of K Street lobbying firms. Gulf state influence has only multiplied under this administration through a coordinated front with Israel to push for an end to the Iran nuclear deal and foment a U.S.-led confrontation with Iran in various venues across the region, including Yemen.

That’s why the vote this week on the bipartisan war powers resolution on Yemen (S.J.Res. 54), led by Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Chris Murphy (D-CT), is critical on so many levels. It’s important to codify the Defense Department’s decision to end U.S. refueling support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and cut off all remaining U.S. military support for the coalition, which includes U.S. targeting assistance and intelligence sharing. Voting to pass S.J.Res. 54 will also bind the administration to its stated position of seeking a negotiated solution to the conflict and its call for a ceasefire within 30 days, and prevent the resumption of U.S. support should talks or a ceasefire falter. Moving to permanently end the U.S. military role in the conflict would not only be a much-needed signal to the coalition that U.S. support is not unconditional and the war must end now, but also an important step toward reasserting the constitutional authority of Congress over war-making.

But this vote could signal something even more important. If the bill passes, the Senate could stop the president’s plan for more war in the region in its tracks. It could show that there are limits to the tired Washington consensus that military confrontation is worth throwing American values and international norms out the window to maintain a hand-in-glove relationship with brutal dictators. It may also finally signal that, at the very least, Congress finally recognizes that backing despots who kill dissidents at home and abroad, starve millions of civilians for questionable military advantages, and use threats to keep Washington silent is a tried-and-failed strategy that serves no one but the despots themselves.

Kate Kizer is the policy director at Win Without War. She is an expert on U.S. foreign policy and democratization in the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @KateKizer.

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  1. Thank you, Kate Kizer, for alerting us about the bipartisan war powers resolution on Yemen (S.J.Res. 54), which may be voted on in the Senate this week. Is it too much to hope that the Trump administration is saying to the Saudis, we’ll downplay your ghastly Khashoggi affair on the understanding that you will move decisively to stop the horror in Yemen? Bipartisan Congressional backing for that position could be significant.

  2. Thank you Kate Kizer. This is a very significant development in US’s ME policy. Let’s hope the Senate can pull it off!

  3. Excellent commentary, Kate. White house (Trump’s) statement on Gasshogi was also significant in stating that “without Saudi Arabia Israel will be in big trouble”. This admission by Trump of the collusion between KSA and Israel was a great gift. No more fig leaf for Saudis. The custodians of holy places are completely exposed!

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