Hypocrisy, goes the saying, is the tribute vice pays to virtue. On Saudi Arabia, at least, President Trump is no hypocrite. Forthrightly eschewing pieties about democracy and human rights, he has made clear that he will not let the barbarous murder of Jamal Khashoggi disrupt relations with the kingdom, especially arms sales. Contracts, dollars, jobs—that’s what matters. Everything else is idle chatter.
Despite his overestimate of the size of Saudi contracts and their impact on U.S. employment, Mr. Trump regards his approach as the height of realism. In interviews this past weekend, key members of his own party disagreed. New York Rep. Peter King said that “the Saudis are the most immoral government we’ve ever had to deal with.”
North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis dismissed the “rogue operatives” cover story: “In Saudi Arabia, you do not do something of this magnitude without having clearance from the top. We need to find out who that is and hold them accountable.” Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse brushed aside the “struggle gone horribly wrong” narrative. “You don’t bring a bone saw to an accidental fistfight,” he said, raising the possibility of canceling the Saudi arms deal.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he thought Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had directed the killing. If so, he pointed out, Magnitsky Act sanctions should be targeted at the crown prince and other senior members of the chain of command. Sen. Tillis even entertained the possibility of pressuring King Salman to designate a new successor.
It fell to South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham to rebut the president head-on. “Our values are more important than money and jobs,” he said. America’s moral voice, he added, is “more important to the world than anything.” That’s the way U.S. presidents used to talk—and often act.
In fairness, Mr. Trump is not the first president to make the U.S.-Saudi relationship a high priority. But while previous presidents were dealing with cautious, aging kings who ruled by consensus within their extended family, Mr. Trump is confronted with a reckless young crown prince who has shouldered aside family rivals to reach the top.
Since taking command, Mohammed bin Salman has arrested the prime minister of Lebanon, detained leading Saudi officials—including members of his own family—for a ransom estimated at $100 billion, and enacted a severe crackdown on journalists and regime critics. Beyond his country’s borders, he has instigated a blockade of Qatar and plunged into a no-win war in Yemen, triggering what the United Nations secretary-general calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The World Health Organization says each week witnesses 10,000 new cholera cases, and the U.N. estimates that as many as 14 million Yemenis are at risk of starvation.
President Trump appears unfazed by all this. In an interview with the Washington Post, he praised the crown prince as a strong leader who has “very good control” and can “keep things under check,” adding “I mean that in a positive way.” If maintaining control is the ultimate test of political leadership, it seems, all means to this end are within the pale.
Of course, Mr. Trump won’t distance himself voluntarily from the country he regards as the linchpin of his Middle East policy. The question is whether Congress can apply enough pressure to effect meaningful change.
Yemen is the place to start. The sale of U.S. arms to the Saudis is enabling Mohammed bin Salman’s ill-judged intervention. The Saudi claim that American precision-guided missiles would reduce civilian casualties has not been borne out. It is not clear that the Saudis care very much about these casualties, though it is occasionally useful for them to pretend that they do. Congress could invoke the Arms Export Control Act, pass a joint resolution disapproving additional arms sales, and dare the president to veto it.
An additional option, not exclusive of the first, is exercising the old-fashioned power of the purse. In its next defense authorization bill, Congress could limit the use of appropriated funds for Yemen-related operations. Without U.S. refueling missions and other support activities, the Saudi military effort eventually would grind to a halt.
This exercise of congressional responsibility would have a dual purpose: to end U.S. complicity in a moral and humanitarian disaster, and to send a credible message to Saudi leaders that the U.S. will no longer give them a blank check in the region—nor for their dismal domestic record on human rights.