National Opinions

The Senate asserts itself on Saudis: American values and truth first

Jennifer Rubin
Jennifer Rubin

The Washington Post reports: “The Senate cast two historic votes Thursday to end U.S. participation in the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen and condemn the Saudi crown prince as responsible for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, delivering clear political rebukes of President Trump’s continued embrace of the kingdom.

“The unanimous vote to hold Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for Khashoggi’s murder reflects the extent to which senators of both parties have grown tired of Trump’s continued defense of Mohammed’s denials. It also puts significant pressure on leaders in the House - where the president’s Saudi policy is a much more partisan issue - to allow members to cast a similar vote condemning the crown prince before the end of the year. . . . [S]enators voted 56-to-41 vote to end U.S. participation in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen by invoking the War Powers Resolution - the first time a chamber of Congress has ever done so.”

The votes are significant for several reasons.

First, this is one more sign that Trump is losing his iron grip on Republicans. On Saudi Arabia, a possible shutdown, trade and other matters, the Senate has been putting rhetorical distance between itself and Trump. This, however, is the first significant vote that reflects the Senate’s determination to exercise its independent judgment. It is also a rejection of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who opposed the war-powers vote but was compelled to bring it to the floor.

Likewise, it marks an embarrassment for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who carried Trump’s water in denying that a “smoking gun” existed tying the crown prince to the killing - at expense to their own credibility. (Executive branch employees take note: Dissembling for Trump never works out well.)

Moreover, the Yemen vote is a reaffirmation of Congress’s constitutional prerogatives. When Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, agree, it’s noteworthy. “When we’re putting American treasure, and even more importantly, American blood, on the line, it is wrong to entrust that to one person. I don’t care what that person’s political affiliation is ... it should never be in the hands of one person,” Lee said.

As Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., put it: “We are reasserting our responsibility to be a coequal branch with the executive in foreign policymaking. It’s a role that Congress has abdicated for decades.”

Second, this is the start, not the end, of a more robust debate about our Middle East relationship and what both Democratic and Republican lawmakers see as overreliance on the Saudis. “Right now the Senate resolution is more heat than fire,” said veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller. “But it creates a new public frame of reference on MBS’s war in Yemen by rebuking the president on his Saudi policy, asserting rare congressional resolve on war powers and setting the stage for more scrutiny and putative action in the new year.”

Third, the votes reject in dramatic fashion Trump’s amoral foreign policy, one that shows no commitment to human rights or American values, which have always been the bedrock of policy choices from presidents of both parties. The notion that we can accept the grisly murder and dismemberment of a United States resident and continue business-as-usual interaction with the brutal regime was flatly rejected.

On the resolution condemning the murder of Khashoggi, Freedom House’s executive director Michael Abramowitz told me, “Freedom House is heartened by today’s unanimous vote in the Senate to reaffirm the principles of press freedom around the world and to state what the evidence has clearly shown - that Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman is directly responsible for the brutal murder of a journalist who had been critical of the Saudi regime.” He continued, “We would strongly urge the House of Representatives to follow suit and condemn Mohamed bin Salman’s appalling violation of human rights and freedom of the press. “ He concluded, “This vote underscores that it is past time for the administration to reevaluate our relationship with Saudi Arabia to ensure it serves the interests of the United States as well as citizens in Saudi Arabia and across the Middle East.”

Likewise, Rep.-elect Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., formerly assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor in the Obama State Department, told me that the resolution “signals to dictators, and not just to Saudi ones, that a license to kill from Donald Trump is not necessarily a license to kill from the United States. Congress has been reluctant to bear the burden of speaking for America to the world, but it has to start doing so, and hopefully this is a sign of things to come.”

Fourth, score one for objective truth. Trump’s attempt, foolishly aided by Mattis and Pompeo to create ambiguity about MBS’s involvement, in essence required lawmakers to disregard what they heard from the intelligence community and what common sense would tell them (i.e., an action of this magnitude would certainly have required the approval of the crown prince).

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was emphatic about MBS’s involvement. “I absolutely believe he directed it. I believe he monitored it. And I believe he is responsible for it,” Refusing to buy into Trump’s invitation to distort and deny reality strikes a blow for reality-based governance and for democracy itself, which requires acceptance of evidence if people are to hold their leaders accountable.

Fifth, the vote told us something about individual senators’ and the parties’ foreign policy views in the Trump era. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who talks a good game on human rights, voted against the measure on Yemen. By contrast, not a single Democrat voted against it. We would hope that their support was not simply based on the desire to embarrass the president but because they have rediscovered the importance of human rights and American values-based leadership in the world.

Finally, Republicans normally favor a primary if not exclusive role for the president in foreign policy and military matters. Trump’s lying, foolish foreign policy and aversion to American values have resulted in a loss of executive authority. (Even some Democrats like Malinowski are concerned are using war powers as a mechanism for checking Trump, when simple defunding of support for the Saudis’ Yemen war or sanctions could achieve the same end.)

In this case, the result was smart and just; in the future, Trump’s successors may regret the sequence of events that resulted in a diminution of their authority. It’s one more example (along with protectionism and the debt) where Trump has put the Republicans in exactly the wrong position - or at least the position they used to oppose.