The Senate Steps Up on Saudi Arabia

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Even Lindsey Graham — Lindsey Graham! — is offended by the administration’s callousness toward the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

By The Editorial Board-The New York Times

The editorial board represents the opinions of the board, its editor and the publisher. It is separate from the newsroom and the Op-Ed section.

The Senate delivered a sharp rebuke to President Trump and his see-no-evil support for the rulers of Saudi Arabia on Wednesday by advancing a measure that would cut American military support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. But unless Congress enacts and enforces the bill, which is unlikely, it will be just that, a rebuke, with little comfort for the starving Yemenis.

Still, the 63-to-37 vote was a signal of the exasperation of some Senate Republicans over being repeatedly made to fall in line behind Mr. Trump’s disregard for elemental American values and traditions.

The president has treated the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Virginia resident writing for The Washington Post, as a sideshow that shouldn’t get in the way of his friendship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the Saudi kingdom, and arms sales to Saudi Arabia. That callousness incensed even Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who has mutated from Trump critic to loyalist. Senator Graham said he was originally against the measure but then switched, explaining, “I changed my mind because I’m pissed.”

What most angered Senator Graham and other senators was the administration’s rejection of their request to hear Gina Haspel, the director of the C.I.A., whom they wanted to question about the agency’s reasons for concluding that Prince Mohammed was most likely behind the killing. Instead, the White House dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to rehash arguments for doing nothing that might upset Saudi Arabia and to echo Mr. Trump’s claim that the C.I.A. had no conclusive proof of the prince’s involvement — or, in the president’s infamous formulation, “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

The C.I.A.’s job is to assess information, not to build legal cases, and Mr. Trump was most likely worried that if the senators heard Ms. Haspel they would be left with no doubt that the order for so brazen and elaborate a murder came from the top. Adding to the insult of defying a legitimate congressional demand was Mr. Pompeo’s op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday dismissing concerns over Mr. Khashoggi’s killing and Saudi Arabia’s dismal record on human rights as “Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on.”

What Mr. Pompeo and his boss seem not to understand is that the caterwauling is not a failure to appreciate the importance of the Saudi alliance, which nobody denies, but a demand to balance American interests with American values, as Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explained when he voted in dissent from the administration’s policy.

That is a balance Mr. Trump has systematically disrupted, whether with Saudi Arabia, or in his fearmongering on asylum seekers, or in his denial of climate change. It’s about time the Senate showed a flash of anger.

But that flash will be just that unless Congress can sustain it. Wednesday’s vote was only to release to the Senate a measure that would invoke the War Powers Resolution of 1973 to end military support for the Saudi-led coalition that has inflicted untold horrors on Yemen since it started a bombing campaign in 2015. The cruelty of that war cannot be overstated: Thousands have been killed, many in the bombing raids, and Yemen is on the cusp of a catastrophic famine. The United States has been deeply involved in supplying weapons and intelligence to the Saudis.

Alas, the chance that the Senate measure will be adopted by the current Congress is minuscule. It still faces several procedural hurdles before a final Senate vote, and it has hardly any chance of passing the House before the end of the year.

Last month, Secretaries Pompeo and Mattis called for a cease-fire in Yemen and the start of peace negotiations. Yet the administration’s view, as laid out by Mr. Trump in his statement on Nov. 20 and by Mr. Pompeo in his op-ed, is that Iran is the evildoer in Yemen and more broadly in the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia is the force for stability and security. These are not sentiments that will bring about a peace deal. So it is up to Congress to put a halt to the bloodshed, which it has the powers to do.

Those senators who care about human rights or the rule of law should continue caterwauling and demanding that they hear from Ms. Haspel. And the leaders who will be with Mr. Trump and Prince Mohammed at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires this weekend should make clear to both that there can be no business as usual with Saudi Arabia until the truth about the Khashoggi murder is known, those responsible are held accountable, and the carnage in Yemen is brought to an end.

 

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