For the first time since the weeks and months following the September 11 attacks, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has become a candidate for prime scrutiny on Capitol Hill.
A bilateral, strategic relationship based on the pragmatic oil-for-security formula that was once described as one of America’s most important partnerships in the world is increasingly becoming the object of scorn and criticism from members of Congress. Indeed, up until this year, Saudi Arabia was the closest version to a “Teflon Don” in the international system; an abysmal human rights record at home and the exportation of fundamentalist Islam abroad were largely trumped by the need to fill the international market with the very crude oil that Riyadh produced and sold.
The Kingdom’s “Teflon Don” status, however, is starting to wear off as an increasing number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are beginning to ask more questions about Saudi Arabia’s behavior in the region—whether it’s doing enough to fight jihadist groups, and whether the hassles of the U.S.-Saudi relationship are now greater than the benefits of a convenient marriage.
More often than not, the terms of reference for this bilateral security relationship have been relatively straightforward. The U.S. sells the Saudis big-ticket weapons systems like F-16 and F-15 fighter planes, helicopters, and surveillance equipment (in 2010, the Obama administration signed a weapons contract with Riyadh that was worth a massive $60 billion). The Saudis reciprocate by pumping millions of barrels of crude oil every day into the international marketplace.
By and large, the confines of this partnership worked quite well for both countries from the very first day that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Abulaziz Ibn al-Saud arrived at an understanding during the closing months of World War II. The Saudis, for instance, provided the U.S. military with a valuable staging area for operations in the region, and the United States made it known to the world that the House of Saud was a fundamental bedrock of regional stability whose security was a central tenant of America’s Middle East policy.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship, however, has been buckling under its own weight over the past seven years. The democratic jubilation-turned-regional turmoil of the Arab Spring in 2011 forced U.S. and Saudi leaders to reconcile a foreign policy agenda that was moving in increasingly divergent directions. While President Obama called upon Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak to step down, King Abdullah wanted Mubarak to stay. The Obama administration worked feverishly to resolve the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program diplomatically, but the Saudis were advocating for a unilateral U.S. military strike to “cut of the head of the snake” even before President Obama was elected. And at the same time that the Saudis were desperately trying to make a push for U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war, President Obama chose to stay way from a conflict that he viewed as a black-hole. President Obama’s decision to back away at the last minute in the summer of 2013 from retaliating to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons upset the Saudis to no end; Saudi royals like former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal have been griping about that about-face ever since.
With the last several years as a backdrop, Saudi Arabia’s year-long military intervention in Yemen against the Houthis is the latest example of the Kingdom asserting itself in a way that has raised concern from their U.S. allies. As the man responsible for sustaining America’s alliances around the world and filling the shoes of commander-in-chief, President Obama cannot afford to pull a Donald Trump and lash out uncensored (although he came close during his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, where he had some tough words for the Saudis, the Gulf Arabs, and the Europeans).
Congress, however, has the luxury of going where a president or a secretary of state cannot. Senators and members of Congress represent the people of their states and districts, but are relatively free to sponsor policies that are controversial or unconventional. If a White House, State Department, or Defense Department official says or does something that is perceived to be hostile to a friend or ally, it’s a big deal. But when a congressman does the same thing, it gets lost in the cacophony of 535 large egos or can be chalked up to partisanship.
Yet this is not the case with a resolution introduced by Sens. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) and Rand Paul (R., Ky.) that attempts to block future sales of U.S. bombs and missiles to Saudi Arabia pending a dramatic change of behavior from the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia’s wholesale destruction of entire Yemeni communities in pursuit of a noble goal (defending that country’s legitimate government)—a campaign that Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the U.N. Security Council’s own Panel of Experts all conclude has resulted in repeated violations of international humanitarian law—is certainly not in the interests of U.S. foreign policy objectives or the security of the Gulf region. And yet, with U.S. defense exports to Saudi Arabia continuing despite persistent evidence of war crimes, Washington appears to be aiding and abetting one of the region’s most violent civil wars.
For far too long, the U.S. Congress has taken a backseat to America’s arms export policy. When the administration intends to make a sale to a foreign country, America’s elected representatives are merely notified that a sale will occur. If the chairman or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations or House Foreign Affairs Committees don’t object (and they rarely do, unless the potential sale is so controversial or politically mind-numbing that Congress puts its collective foot down), the sale goes through. With the exception of two arms deals in 1986 and 1990, the Saudis typically get everything that they want to purchase. By the Congressional Research Service’s own accounting, the Saudis have spent $111 billion since 2010 on U.S.-manufactured weapons systems, including a $1.29 billion sale of air-to-ground-munitions that the State Department struck with Riyadh last November.
There aren’t many subjects during a presidential election year where Democrats and Republicans can agree. But forcing the U.S. Government to take a much closer look at U.S. defense exports to the Saudis is important enough for a liberal Democrat like Murphy and a conservative Republican like Paul to work in unison.
Their Senate colleagues should take the Murphy-Paul resolution seriously. It deserves a full and honest debate from the people’s elected representatives on a consequential U.S. foreign policy question: is the U.S. truly best served by approving unconditional weapons sales to allies that are engaging in behavior is contradictory to what Washington is trying to achieve? If regional stability is a top national security interest for the United States in the Middle East, it would stand to reason that facilitating the continuation of a civil war on the Arabian Peninsula is not a particularly good choice.
Fortunately for the American people, the U.S. Constitution is founded on the principle of separation of powers, where one branch of government checks the power and ambitions of another branch of government—even on issues pertaining to foreign policy.
Aiding and abetting another nation’s bombing campaign is serious business. This is especially the case when the bombing is being done by a U.S. partner and the campaign is only worsening the humanitarian situation of a nation already invested with members of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
If the Senate Foreign Relations Committee refuses to debate this resolution, Murphy and Paul should discharge the committee and attempt to bring their legislation to the Senate floor. A discharge petition is unusual and would likely draw complaints from members of Congress who are tired of walking from their offices to the floor to vote, but it is one of the most important parliamentary maneuvers available to a lawmaker who wants to assert the power of Congress.
Senator Paul forced his colleagues to vote last month on a sale of F-16 jets to Pakistan; he should work with Senator Murphy to do the same thing on future defense exports to the Saudis. The American people deserve a debate on whether or not the U.S. defense industry should be an open-arms bazaar or a privilege afforded to partners who contribute to regional stability.
Congress, as Senator Murphy has said, needs to get “back in the game when it comes to overseeing this fairly substantial increase in arms sales to…partners in the Middle East.” Writing a blank check is certainly not making the security and political situation in Yemen any better. Nor is it demonstrating to the American people that the first branch of government is utilizing its full power.
Daniel R. DePetris is an analyst at Wikistrat, Inc., a geostrategic consulting firm and a freelance researcher. He has also written for CNN.com, Small Wars Journal and the Diplomat.