Outrage against the regime of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has been intensifying among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle following the disappearance of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi last week.
Whether or not that outrage will have any meaningful impact on U.S. policy towards Riyadh, however, remains to be seen.
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and longtime critic of the Saudi regime, has not been seen since he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. Turkish officials have said they believe the journalist was murdered inside the consulate and that his body removed from the building in pieces.
Saudi officials have denied those charges but have been unable to explain his disappearance.
Republican Senator Rand Paul announced Wednesday that he intends to introduce legislation to block all “funding, training, advising and any other coordination” with the Saudi military until Khashoggi is returned alive.
“The Saudis will keep killing civilians and journalists as long as we keep arming and assisting them. The President should immediately halt arms sales and military support to Saudi Arabia,” Paul tweeted.
Saudi Arabia is a longtime military ally of the U.S. and one of the largest purchasers of American weapons. The U.S. military has been assisting Saudi forces in their war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen since 2015 – providing arms, training, intelligence and fuel.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham are among other Republicans who’ve expressed outrage over Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Graham, a hawkish Senator often at odds with Paul’s non-interventionist foreign policy approach, told CNN Thursday that “all indicators” suggest the Saudis killed Khashoggi.
“They need to account, Saudi Arabia does, for what happened in the consulate,” Graham said.
This week, I intend to introduce another measure to cut all funding, training, advising, and any other coordination to and with the military of Saudi Arabia until the journalist Jamal Khashoggi is returned alive. https://t.co/3wGT30HWEc
— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) October 11, 2018
Many Democrats in Congress have also called for punitive actions against Riyadh.
“If it is true that the Saudi regime murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist critic, in their own consulate, there must be accountability, and an unequivocal condemnation by the United States,” Senator Bernie Sanders said.
President Donald Trump’s response to Khashoggi’s disappearance has been far more tame, leading experts to believe significant changes to the U.S.-Saudi relationship are unlikely.
“This took place in Turkey, and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen,” Trump said. “We don’t like it even a little bit. But as to whether or not we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country … that would not be acceptable to me.”
Trump was referencing a major arms deal reached between the two countries in 2017 that will send $110 billion in weapons made by U.S. defense manufacturers to the Kingdom.
“I think that sanctions would be hard to contemplate for instance … partly because that would directly harm weapons manufacturers and other U.S. exporters that sell to Saudi Arabia,” Paul Musgrave, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told The Globe Post. “I think it is likely that in the short to medium turn you’ll see a lot of outrage but not much policy change.”
Still, Musgrave said that there are a number of tools Congress has at its disposal to pressure the Trump administration to take action.
Congress has the power to cut off military support or block weapons transfers to the Kingdom if it chooses to exercise it.
Another option would be making future military support contingent on the President certifying that Saudi Arabia is taking steps to improve its human rights record.
A similar certification requirement was included in the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act which requires the Secretary of State to certify that Saudi Coalition forces are taking tangible steps to reduce civilian casualties in Yemen every six months before further U.S. support can be authorized.
“It might be politically embarrassing for the executive branch to certify something that’s patently untrue,” Musgrave said.
While U.S. support for the Saudi’s war in Yemen has continued and there’s no sign civilian casualties have decreased, State Department official Joan Polaschik of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs said the certification requirement is having an impact.
“There’s certainly a lot of keen Congressional interest in this issue and this is something we’re telling the Saudi’s every day. We have to make a decision again so you need to step up your game,” Polaschik said Tuesday in response to a question from The Globe Post.
While lawmakers could certainly make the administration uncomfortable, Musgrave said it’s unlikely they’ll be able to make any significant impact on U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia.
“Under normal political circumstances, that kind of thing would matter, but the Trump administration seems to be impervious to embarrassment,” Musgrave said.