The brutal murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Istanbul consulate has prompted swift condemnation around the world, but the West’s political response has been mixed so far. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has suspended arms exports to Saudi Arabia, while French President Emmanuel Macron has remained non-committal and has decried immediate arms embargoes as “demagoguery.” US President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has been taking a “wait and see” approach, and that has frustrated many in the United States, including Republican senators.
Despite the polarized political atmosphere in the run-up to the midterm elections, there has been surprisingly strong bipartisan agreement that Washington should take a tough stance on Riyadh. And expectations are that Congress will continue to put pressure on the Trump administration. Indeed, if congressional leaders decided to block American weapons sales and military aid to Riyadh, this could fundamentally alter the US-Saudi relationship.
In the past weeks, President Trump has been reluctant to come down hard on the Saudis. Early on, it became clear that his main concern is preserving “his” $110 billion arms deal (in fact, negotiations started under President Barack Obama), arguing that halting the deal could risk other Saudi non-military investments in the US worth $450 billion and endanger a million American jobs (the numbers are exaggerated).
Trump’s advisers have pointed out that the US-Saudi relationship is too important, both commercially and strategically, to be damaged because of the death of a journalist. Indeed, the Trump administration considers Saudi Arabia — next to Israel — its key ally in the Middle East and an important partner to curb Iran’s influence in the region. However, Trump made a drastic shift last week when he said that “the cover-up [of Khashoggi’s murder] was the worst in the history of cover-ups.” It’s questionable, however, whether the White House is willing to take rigorous measures to punish Saudi Arabia’s leadership.
Senators on both sides of the aisle, however, don’t want to sit on their hands. They were suspicious of the Saudi explanations for Khashoggi’s disappearance from the start. One of the most vocal Republican senators has been Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, who urged the administration to “sanction the hell” out of Saudi Arabia. Republican Senator Rand Paul, who has supported Trump on many issues, even argued in favor of canceling the arms deal. To urge Trump to take the allegations against Riyadh seriously, 22 senators from both parties wrote a letter calling upon the administration to launch a government investigation into the Khashoggi murder, which could trigger US sanctions against Saudi individuals.
Congress Is Watching
There are several reasons for the senators’ strong reaction. First, the fact that Khashoggi was a US resident and a contributor to The Washington Post certainly helped to bring his murder to congressional attention–in contrast to the many other human rights violations occurring in Saudi Arabia. Second, the case enabled senators to demonstrate that Congress is an independent branch of government that has the power to challenge Trump’s positions. Senators feared that the Trump administration might get “back to business” with Riyadh once the case had dropped off the political agenda. The senators wanted to show that Congress will speak out against human rights violations even when the administration is unwilling to do so. Third, most of the Republican senators who signed the request do not seek re-election in the upcoming midterms and are thus under no pressure to align with Trump’s position. Finally, some lawmakers may well fear a debate about Saudi influence campaigns in Washington that also addressed congressmen–a debate that has started already.
When it became clear last week that the Trump administration had to more resolutely condemn the murder, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced sanctions on those individuals found responsible. But Pompeo also stressed that America’s “shared strategic interest with Saudi Arabia will remain.” Therefore, it seems unlikely that the administration will take more drastic steps, such as cutting US military aid. Still, on Wednesday Pompeo called on the Saudi leadership to negotiate a ceasefire in war-torn Yemen.
If the Democrats win back the House of Representatives (not an unlikely scenario), they will likely push the administration to harden their line further still and may even derail Trump’s Middle East policy. For example, the House Foreign Affairs Committee has the power to stop foreign arms sales. However, congressmen from both parties will also fear repercussions for the US defense industry, which maintains a strong lobby on Capitol Hill and employs many Americans. A complete overhaul of US-Saudi defense cooperation is therefore unrealistic, and expectations that the Khashoggi murder will fundamentally alter US-Saudi relations premature at best.
Meanwhile, European governments and lawmakers will pay close attention to the US response. The situation in Europe is similar: while members of the European Parliament and national parliamentarians have requested a Europe-wide arms embargo against Saudi Arabia, several heads of government are reluctant to take such a fundamental step, including Macron. If the Trump administration ends up letting off Riyadh lightly, some European governments might follow suit.
But Europe should be brave. Taking a principled stand in response to the Khashoggi murder is a chance to show that — in contrast to Donald Trump’s foreign policy — the Europeans are willing to speak out clearly against human rights violations and take rigorous measures, even at the expense of economic benefits.
The article was originally published in the Berlin Policy Journal on November 2, 2018.