The September 14 attack on Saudi oil facilities—an attack the United States, Britain, Germany, and France all say Iran carried out—demonstrates how close the Middle East is to war. But the focus on Iranian aggression must not obscure Saudi Arabia’s own role in the worsening situation, including its disastrous war in Yemen. Rushing to provide U.S. military support to Saudi Arabia now will send the absolute wrong signal to Riyadh, whose conduct over the past few years has damaged America’s global standing and threatened our security.
Congress is currently considering whether to end U.S. backing for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. It should suspend U.S. arms sales and other support for the Yemen war not only to help end that horrific conflict, but also to make clear that Saudi Arabia must take steps to avoid a broader regional conflagration.
I know from personal experience the complexities of U.S.-Saudi ties, having served as American ambassador in Riyadh from 2001-2003—until now, perhaps the most difficult period in our nearly nine-decade bilateral relationship. During my tenure, I faced a Saudi government in denial that 15 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens, and blind to the threat religious extremism posed to both our countries. Then, as now, Saudi leaders refused to acknowledge dangers everyone else saw clearly. Now, unlike then, the danger emanating from Saudi Arabia comes not from radicalized citizens, but from the Saudi leadership itself.
Among the many flagrant acts undertaken by Saudi Arabia over the past few years, two have fixed in the minds of U.S. lawmakers and the American public: the catastrophic Saudi-led war in Yemen, and the gruesome murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s reckless crown prince better known as MBS, stands behind both of them.
In Yemen, over four years of war has produced no progress in Saudi Arabia’s fight against Houthi rebels, though fighting has killed tens of thousands of civilians, and threatened millions more with starvation and disease. Many of the more than 20,000 airstrikes carried out by Saudi Arabia (and its ally the United Arab Emirates) have used American munitions to repeatedly and illegally target civilians, despite the fact that the Saudi military has had years of U.S. training and support. Jamal Khashoggi’s final newspaper column before he was murdered warned that Saudi Arabia could not win militarily in Yemen, and he urged an end to the war before it further damaged Saudi Arabia’s reputation. I first met Jamal during my time as U.S. ambassador; he was a proud Saudi whose calls for domestic reforms and respect for human rights stemmed from a desire to see his country thrive. But he was brutally murdered by Saudi agents for daring to criticize MBS.
The Trump administration long ago should have condemned the twin Saudi outrages of the war in Yemen and Khashoggi’s execution, and curtailed U.S. military and other support. Instead, Trump has stood by a reckless Saudi leader, failed to criticize even the most horrific Saudi violations and expanded sales of the very weapons that have killed thousands of innocent Yemeni civilians. The president cites U.S. arms sales to justify support for Saudi Arabia, sending the terrible message that America’s values are for sale, and undermining our core principles.
But the status quo also poses increasing dangers to both Saudi Arabia and the United States. The war in Yemen has strengthened Iran’s ties with the Houthis, providing Tehran with an ally poised to strike Saudi Arabia and U.S. interests in the region (as seen by the false Houthi claim of responsibility for last week’s attacks). Moreover, both al Qaeda and Islamic State have taken advantage of the war to further establish themselves inside Yemen, likely planning future attacks against America and U.S. interests. The war in Yemen even threatens the partnership between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; their Yemeni allies, who previously had joined forces to fight the Houthis, recently began fighting against each other.
In the face of the dramatic September 14 attacks and given years of Saudi misconduct, Congress should resist pressure to reflexively stand in solidarity with Riyadh and should advance—not pause—its recent moves to restrain U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia. Congress is currently debating several provisions in the annual defense bill that would suspend U.S. support for the war in Yemen, and provide modest accountability for Khashoggi’s murder, including a temporary halt to U.S. bomb sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Enacting these measures both would demonstrate that America’s values have no price and help de-escalate tensions in the region rather than pouring fuel on an already crackling fire. Despite bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, Senate Republicans fearful of contradicting the president have resisted these measures, but it is time they step up to rein in Saudi Arabia’s misconduct before Riyadh launches a war with Iran that would be even more deadly than its catastrophic intervention in Yemen.
Suspending U.S. arms sales at this juncture also could help seize a brief window to end the Yemen war by making clear to Saudi Arabia that it cannot prevail militarily in its conflict with the Houthis. Last year, an end to U.S. midair refueling of Saudi jets helped convince Riyadh to back a limited ceasefire for Yemen’s main port for humanitarian aid. A suspension of bomb sales by Congress now could similarly incentivize the Saudis to return to negotiations, before the metastasizing of the conflict renders peace out of reach.
In dealing with Saudi Arabia, America’s choice has never been between blithely accepting Saudi conduct or severing our relations; presidents from FDR to Ronald Reagan have found ways to preserve American values while selectively cooperating where it is in our interests. Ideally, Congress and the president would work together on foreign policy, but the president’s unwillingness to rein in Saudi misconduct means Congress now has a responsibility to act; Yemen can’t wait for a course correction by a future administration.
The stakes are too great for Congress to be cowed by calls for sympathy with Saudi Arabia following this month’s attacks. If Congress fails to act, U.S. arms will kill more innocent civilians in Yemen as the chance for peace dwindles; impunity for Khashoggi’s murder will embolden tyrants around the world; and the war in Yemen will continue empowering terrorists and further destabilizing an already risky region.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine