Four months later, Saudi Arabia is only beginning to pay the price for its decision to kill Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi at its Istanbul embassy. The vote this week by the House of Representatives to end American military assistance for the Saudis’ war in Yemen is the direct consequence of outrage over the brazen slaughter of the Saudi expatriate and U.S. resident.
The Senate passed a similar resolution 56–41 in the waning days of the last Congress, with several Republicans crossing the aisle to join a unanimous Democratic caucus. If Majority Leader Mitch McConnell allows the measure to come to a vote again, there’s a chance the bill will arrive on President Trump’s desk. That will put the president in the position of having to exercise a veto on behalf of a deeply unpopular Saudi regime and a bloody war that few in Washington understand or support.
Yet as bad as the optics would be, that’s exactly what Trump should do.
Congress and the media will interpret a bipartisan vote on the issue to be a necessary rebuke to the Saudis as well as to a White House that has struggled to find the right tone in response to the Khashoggi murder. But a defeat for the Saudis and their Yemeni allies could bring a far more brutal and despotic regime to power, and the real winner of such an outcome wouldn’t be the cause of reform in Saudi Arabia or even the anti-Trump Resistance, but Iran — which has already been emboldened and enriched in its quest for regional domination by its nuclear deal with President Barack Obama.
The Saudi crown prince’s apparent decision to assassinate Khashoggi illustrated that he recognizes no limits in his efforts to consolidate power in Riyadh and to silence all opponents. Khashoggi was a stern critic of the prince (Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS) and of the war in Yemen. His status as a writer for the Washington Post and a resident of the United States should have rendered him off-limits for the sort of thuggish repression that the Saudi government employs against its own people.
MBS deserved a stern rebuke from the United States. President Trump’s failure to articulate American outrage about the murder in the days after his death was revealed was both morally wrong and a crucial mistake. By continuing to make excuses for MBS and articulate realpolitik justifications for the U.S. relationship with the Saudis, Trump undermined the policy he was rightly seeking to preserve. That continues to this day, as the administration is still stalling on reporting to Congress about Khashoggi’s death, giving critics of the Saudis and Trump more ammunition.
Khashoggi’s death has been a rallying point for the defense of journalists against repressive regimes such as that of the Saudis. This issue is also an extension of the mainstream media’s complaints about Trump’s war on the press. But while MBS is a tyrant and Trump engages in overkill against his press critics, the notion that helping a government that is even more despotic than the Saudis’ gain an advantage in a geostrategic struggle will somehow protect the freedom of the press or the cause of human rights is absurd.
The war in Yemen has been a human-rights catastrophe, causing the deaths of thousands and a famine. The Saudis bear part of the responsibility for these horrors. That is particularly true with respect to their indiscriminate bombing campaign against Houthi targets, which has caused massive civilian casualties. American support for this effort and the fact that the Saudis are largely using U.S. weapons is troubling.
But while the Saudis’ record is difficult to defend, Congress’s invoking the War Powers Act in order to eliminate the U.S. role in the conflict will not lessen the suffering of the people of Yemen. To the contrary, doing so would merely give the Houthis — a force whose human-rights record is probably even worse than that of the Saudis — a leg up in their efforts to topple the government of Yemen. Just as dangerous, it would be widely interpreted as one more victory for Iran in a region that is still reeling from Tehran’s successful intervention in Syria.
Tehran’s role in aiding the Houthi war effort is an example of just how misplaced President Obama’s hopes that Iran would use the nuclear deal to “get right with the world” were. Iran has continued to push for regional hegemony, rightly scaring moderate Arab regimes as well as fueling the fears of Israelis.
President Trump spent the days after news of the Khashoggi murder broke making ill-advised statements about wanting to keep America selling arms to the Saudis. But as much as that was a mistake, the president wasn’t wrong to point out that the alliance with the Saudi government was in the interests of the United States. As unpopular as the Saudis might be, they are still the lesser of two evils when compared with an Iranian regime that is both a human-rights offender and seeking to spread violence and instability throughout the Middle East.
The Saudis have earned American distrust dating back to 9/11, and as the Khashoggi murder demonstrated, MBS is a loose cannon who can’t be trusted to behave responsibly. Yet MBS is also reformer who seeks to modernize the Saudi state and pull back on some repression; he even largely eliminated the kingdom’s dangerous policy of funding radical Islamic educational institutions around the world (a role in which the Saudis have been replaced by Qatar).
The desire of Congress to rebuke MBS and Trump — who has undermined Republican confidence in his foreign policy with attacks on NATO — is understandable. But as frustrating and morally ambiguous as it might be, a Cold War mentality in which America backs a bad actor to stop an even worse one remains the only sensible U.S. policy in the Arabian Peninsula. A vote to end American involvement in Yemen won’t advance peace or the principles of human rights. All it will do is give an undeserved and dangerous victory to Iran.