What’s a bone-saw murder between friends?
Not much, apparently. By vetoing Wednesday a bill to restrict arms sales to Saudi Arabia, President Trump missed another chance to hold the US-allied kingdom accountable for its brutal conduct in the Middle East — and against its own citizens. Although Congress probably lacks the votes to override the president’s veto, the House and Senate should use every other tool they have to keep up the pressure on the administration and the kingdom’s thuggish de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Both houses passed the legislation earlier this month in response to the disastrous Saudi-led war in neighboring Yemen and to the murder last year of a US-based journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who was sawed into pieces by the prince’s henchmen at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Among other provisions, it would have prevented the sale of bombs, ammunition, and precision-guided munitions to Riyadh. The measures, which garnered bipartisan support, also would have stopped sales to the United Arab Emirates, which until recently had been Saudi Arabia’s loyal sidekick in the Yemen war.
The war has always been Prince Mohammed’s pet project, launched when he was all of 29 years old. The Saudi royals — with the support of the Obama administration and now the Trump administration — are trying to dislodge the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, a task they initially expected would be swift and easy. Now in its fifth year, the war has instead become an ugly quagmire, with no end in sight. Fighting has claimed more than 91,000 lives and created a vast humanitarian crisis. The coalition itself is thought to be directly responsible for about 8,000 civilian fatalities.
American-made planes, dropping American-made bombs, killed those civilians. A ban on further weapon sales would have sent an unmistakable message that the United States — Saudi Arabia’s most important ally — has had enough.
It also would have signalled that the murder of Khashoggi — a killing that US intelligence services believe Prince Mohammed personally ordered — is not acceptable. After the Saudi role was revealed, the kingdom did some damage control, arresting 11 government operatives said to have organized and carried out the killing and seeking the death penalty against five of them. But Saudi Arabia can’t behead its way out of this problem: The kingdom needs to abide by the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary killings by undertaking a legitimate investigation into the murder, including the crown prince’s role, and publicly apologizing for Khashoggi’s death.
So, now what? Congress could try to override Trump’s veto, but the prospects of success are dim. Another possibility: Lawmakers could try a slightly different tack, by conditioning future military sales to Saudi Arabia on participation in peace talks in Yemen. Trump might veto such a bill too, but there’s still a value in holding votes. Even if they fail to make it into law, each one reinforces the message to Riyadh that its international support is evaporating. If the Trump administration wants to broker a peace agreement, it ought to use the congressional votes as diplomatic leverage to convince Saudi Arabia that the longer the war drags on the more likely it is to face consequences. The UN also recommended that Congress hold hearings on the culpability of individual Saudi officials in the Khashoggi murder, something it can do without the administration’s approval.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that still crucifies convicts, imprisons dissidents, denies basic human rights to women, and exports extremist ideology to the rest of the world. Republican and Democratic presidents alike have closed their eyes to human rights abuses in the kingdom in order to maintain an alliance that has lasted seven decades. But by spreading the kingdom’s outrageous behavior outside its own borders, Prince Mohammed is practically daring the United States to rethink its see-no-evil tradition. Until the war in Yemen is over and justice has been done for Jamal Khashoggi, Congress should keep dialing up the pressure on the crown prince.