The specter of Jamal Khashoggi hangs over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The murdered journalist and commentator has not been forgotten, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hoped. The kingdom’s 75-year old security relationship with the U.S. has been damaged by the crown prince’s decision to kill Jamal; that relationship may not survive intact.
Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey by the Saudi foreign ministry to get documents for his planned marriage. Waiting inside was a hand-picked team of assassins dispatched to Istanbul for the explicit purpose of killing him. The United Nations special rapporteur who investigated the murder concluded that it was an official state act and that there was reason to investigate the role that the crown prince might have played individually.
Just months before the murder, Mohammed bin Salman had a very positive visit in the United States. He was touted as the agent of change in the Middle East, and a young reformer. Those hailing him seemed oblivious to the humanitarian catastrophe he had created in Yemen. He is the driving force behind the disastrous Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war, which has produced mass malnutrition in the Arab world’s poorest country.
Now the Houthi rebels and their Iranian allies have taken the war to Saudi Arabia. For months, the Houthis have been firing ballistic missiles, rockets, and drones at Saudi cities and military bases. Now, the Iranians have attacked Saudi Arabia’s Achilles’ heel — its oil infrastructure — and dramatically demonstrated that the Saudi economy is hugely vulnerable to Tehran.
The Trump administration offered rhetorical support to the Saudis and added a modest number of additional troops to the American base at Prince Sultan Air Base in the kingdom. It made no effort to rally support for any authorization to use force against Iran from Congress.
Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi specifically cited the murder of Khashoggi as the reason not to provide Saudi Arabia more support.
“Please,” Pelosi said this month, referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meeting with Mohammed bin Salman. “They’re sitting across from the person who chopped up a reporter and dissolved his remains in chemicals, and he’s sitting across the chair from the person suspected of leaving that. I don’t see any responsibility for us to protect and defend Saudi Arabia.” Powerful words from the most powerful Democrat in Congress.
She continued: “I do not think we have a responsibility to protect and defend Saudi Arabia. What agreement is that a part of?” Pelosi is right: There is no treaty committing the United States to the defense of the kingdom. Unlike our NATO partners, Japan, the Philippines, or Australia and New Zealand, there is not a Senate-approved mutual defense treaty for Saudi Arabia. Every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has promised to assist Saudi security, but those commitments are not congressionally mandated.
Pelosi was far from alone. Only 13% of Americans support using military force against Iran to defend the Saudis, and 25% think America should withdraw entirely from the region. Saudi Arabia has long had problems with getting popular support in America, especially since 9/11, but its approval rating is the lowest ever.
Robert Jordan, our ambassador to Saudi Arabia after 9/11, has eloquently called on Congress to cut off military aid and logistics to Saudi Arabia to account for Khashoggi’s “brutal murder” and the gruesome war in Yemen. He argues that failure to atone for Khashoggi will embolden “tyrants” around the world.
In the past, Saudi Arabia sought to maintain bipartisan support for the partnership. Former Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Bandar Bin Sultan was a master at working both sides of the Hill. The murder of Khashoggi has lost the Saudis not only the support of Democrats, but also many Republicans.
The future of the relationship is in doubt. America doesn’t need Saudi oil as it used to. The American people are rightly sick of endless wars in the Middle East. Donald Trump is an aberration who has no apparent respect for human rights.
The United States cannot bring Khashoggi’s killers to justice, including the crown prince. Nor can we materially influence the kingdom’s human rights record, although we should try. But we can influence and stop the war in Yemen by turning off the flow of spare parts, munitions, and expertise to the Royal Saudi Air Force, which is wholly dependent on American logistics for its American-built aircraft. There is no alternative: Russian radar will not work in an F-15. So we have leverage to help end a humanitarian catastrophe.
It is time for Congress to take action. One of Khashoggi’s last columns was a searing criticism of the Saudi crown prince’s war in Yemen. On the anniversary of Jamal’s murder, Congress should act and cut off all support for the crown prince’s war.