Are Democrats Alone in Challenging Saudi Arabia?

Not so long ago, there appeared to be near unanimous and bipartisan agreement among lawmakers that US-Saudi relations needed a fundamental recalibration. Since that time, however, this sentiment has dissipated amid partisan squabbling. Democrats in both the House and Senate are largely still angry over much of what they deem as malign and destabilizing behavior by Riyadh. The Republican Party however, with the exception of outspoken hawks like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), has largely fallen silent on the issue and has reverted back to deferring to the Trump Administration on US-Saudi relations. Has the bipartisan appetite to recalibrate relations by punishing Riyadh and reorienting US policy away from the Gulf power—as well as from its closest partner, the United Arab Emirates—subsided completely?

Proof Is in the Numbers

The answer to that question, based on recent vote totals, appears to be “yes.” After the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was revealed and reports bubbled to the surface about troubling actions by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, a number of punitive bipartisan efforts were undertaken against Riyadh. As Congress wrapped up legislation before its August recess, more votes were held, namely to end arms sales to the kingdom, the UAE, and Jordan, and the number of Republicans voting with Democrats has dropped.

Historic votes on the War Powers Resolution, for example, saw Republicans in both chambers cross the aisle and vote with their Democratic colleagues in impressive numbers (given many members’ reticence about crossing President Trump). By the time lawmakers initiated efforts to end arms sales, however, the number of Republicans voting with their counterparts was in the single digits and the joint resolutions passed each chamber with bare majorities.

No Common Strategy

These voting patterns hint at a more fundamental split between the two parties on the issue of US-Saudi relations. This fissure was on full display during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) markup on July 25 that ended in acrimony. Before the meeting, the chairman and ranking member—Sens. James Risch (R-Idaho) and Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), respectively—were already at loggerheads about Risch’s decision to pull rank and proceed with the markup against Menendez’s wishes. The two were in disagreement about which of their competing bills (S. 398 and S. 2066) would receive a vote before the Senate as a whole.

Democrats prefer Menendez’s bill, S. 398, the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act, as it is seen as more forceful and it levies sanctions on members of the Saudi royal family. Risch, however, viewed his bill as the appropriate response to Saudi behavior; he said he had the administration’s support and it was more likely that S. 2066 could become law. The Saudi Arabia Diplomatic Review Act simply requires the administration to produce reports assessing the nature of US-Saudi relations and would require Saudi officials to be denied visas to travel to the United States (though this requirement could be waived).

After a contentious back and forth, Risch withdrew his bill and the SFRC passed Menendez’s. However, Risch immediately said that he and the GOP Senate leadership would not allow a floor vote on the bill.

Time is Up?

So now, with Democrats and Republicans divided on how, or even if it is wise, to punish Saudi Arabia, the prospects of anything meaningful happening for the rest of the president’s term are dim. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Michigan) explained the dilemma succinctly at a briefing earlier this week. She explained that large-scale change in US policy almost always happens at the beginning of a presidential term, not in the middle. To Slotkin, the most realistic point at which Congress could try and force a fundamental reset on critical issues like US relations with its partners in the Gulf is 2021.

Rep. Slotkin has a valid point. Congress is headed for a six-week recess followed by a couple of weeks of work to fund the entire US government before the end of the fiscal year (September 30). As more time passes and the administration moves forward with normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia (like by meeting face-to-face with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman), Republicans will be increasingly reluctant to challenge the president on the issue. As it stands—and barring any inadvertent diplomatic moves by the Saudis—Democrats are alone in wanting to challenge the administration’s relationship with Riyadh, giving the latter a little more room to breathe easily.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

The House of Representatives departed for a six-week recess and the Senate is wrapping up unfinished business before leaving town as well.

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Joint Resolutions of Disapproval. As was discussed last week, President Trump opted to veto three joint resolutions of disapproval for proposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (see veto messages here, here, and here). Despite strong levels of support on initial passage, the Senate was nowhere close to mustering the necessary 67 votes to override the president’s vetoes.

Designating a National Day of Remembrance for Beirut Barracks Bombing. On July 24, Rep. Greg Pence (R-Indiana), the brother of Vice President Mike Pence, introduced H. Res. 515 proposing to recognize October 23, 2019 as a national day of remembrance for the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon.

Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict through a Negotiated Two-State Solution. Also on July 24, Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-California) introduced H. Res. 518, a slightly edited resolution similar to H. Res. 326 that he introduced in April and that was amended on July 17. His latest resolution expresses the sense of the House that an end to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis should come from a two-state solution negotiated by the sides and that any unilateral moves (e.g., annexation or pursuing statehood status) are unwelcome and harmful to this goal. Lowenthal and his cosponsor Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia) introduced the new version before recess after internal fights scuttled a planned vote on the original version.

Calling on the UAE to Immediately End Any Form of Human Rights Violations. That same day, Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Missouri) introduced H. Res. 524 that calls on the UAE to immediately end its human rights and free speech violations against political prisoners. In addition, the resolution calls on Abu Dhabi to close any secret prisons being run in Yemen, which was the subject of a lengthy news report detailing abuses in such prisons.

Recognizing the Goal of US Foreign Policy Should Be Promoting Human Rights. Rep. Lowenthal introduced a separate resolution on July 25, this one (H. Res. 527) expressing the sense of the House that the goals of US foreign policy globally should be to promote human rights and equal rights for all.

Establishing a Joint US-Israel Cybersecurity Center for Excellence. Senator Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada) introduced S. 2309 which would require the secretary of state to write and issue a report to Congress that outlines the potential benefits of creating a joint cybersecurity center with Israel.

No Financing for the Export of Nuclear Technology to Saudi Arabia. On July 30, a group of senators introduced a bill that would bar the Export-Import Bank from financing the export of any nuclear technology, fuel, or related goods and services to Saudi Arabia. This comes after a report that a Trump associate tried to steer lucrative nuclear energy contracts to Saudi Arabia at the same time as he was angling for a position with the administration—in all likelihood, he would have benefited financially had the effort worked.

2) Hearings and Briefings

FY 2020 Budget: State Department CT and CVE Bureau. On July 24, the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism held a hearing with the State Department’s Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan Sales. The hearing was billed as one intended both to explore the administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget request and to exercise oversight of the department’s counterterrorism and countering violent extremism priorities. Sales’s thoughts during the hearing tracked closely with some of his previous appearances that ACW covered more thoroughly here and here. In short, Sales highlighted the administration’s focus on foreign terrorist threats from groups like al-Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State, and Iranian-backed entities like Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Reviewing Authorities for the Use of Military Force. That same day, the SFRC held a hearing with the Undersecretary for Political Affairs and the Acting Legal Adviser at the State Department to understand the current administration’s thinking on the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF), particularly as lawmakers fear the Trump Administration wants a war with Iran. David Hale and Marik String presented the case to the committee that the administration is not currently seeking an AUMF to undertake military conflict with Iran nor does it currently interpret the 2001 and 2002 AUMFs—which authorized the use of force against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, in the former, and Iraq, in the latter—as authorizing the use of force against Iran. The last part of the statement came with a large caveat, however. The duo asserted the administration does believe it has the right to use military force in self-defense if the United States comes under attack as it carries out operations pursuant to the 2001 and 2002 authorizations. Furthermore, they said that the administration is not precluded from using force in self-defense under Article II of the Constitution.

Dialogues on American Foreign Policy and World Affairs. On July 24, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) joined the Hudson Institute for a wide-ranging discussion on US foreign policy, including in the Middle East. On regional concerns, Sen. Whitehouse tried to dispel the notion that the Democratic Party is having serious debates about its support for Israel. He also expressed concern about US-Turkey relations since Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 program and a host of other contentious issues, including US support for Syria’s Kurdish forces.

House Democrats Talk US-Iran Tensions. On July 25, three freshman House Democrats with significant foreign policy experience sat down with the International Crisis Group to assess ongoing tensions between the United States and Iran. Reps. Andy Kim and Tom Malinowski of New Jersey and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan spoke at length about the administration’s current policies and their shortcomings, as well as House efforts to constrain the president’s ability to wage war against Tehran.

3) Nominations

Gen. Milley Confirmed as Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Senate voted 89-1 last week to confirm Gen. Mark Milley to succeed Gen. Joseph Dunford as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Milley is expected to take over as the president’s top military advisor at the end of September.

SFRC Moves Forward with Ambassadors. The SFRC voted to approve a quartet of ambassadorial nominations this week for posts in some critical areas. Kelly Craft was given a nod as she tries to become the next US ambassador to the United Nations. John Rakolta, Jr., Richard Norland, and Jonathan Cohen were also ushered through committee; after the Senate’s final vote, the White House hopes to install the three in the UAE, Libya, and Egypt, respectively.

4) Personnel and Correspondence

Congressional Progressives Weigh in on Conflict between Israelis, Palestinians. Over the weekend, outspoken progressive lawmakers Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) shared their thoughts about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. During his podcast interview, Sanders made news by telling the hosts that US policy should not be “pro-Israel, pro-Israel, pro-Israel” and that his administration would consider using US security assistance as leverage to extract policy concessions from Israel that are better for the region more broadly. Tlaib, for her part, explained to CNN her reasons for supporting the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement and disputed critics’ attempts to paint the movement as anti-Semitic.

House Members Call on Germany to Blacklist Hezbollah. In June, members of the House wrote to German Chancellor Angela Merkel urging the German parliament to reconsider its decision not to designate Lebanese Hezbollah as a terrorist group in its entirety. On July 29, signatories of that letter, as well as new additions, followed up with a letter to the German foreign minister making the case for that designation.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Jared Kushner Leads Trip to Middle East Seeking Investments. On July 29, Jared Kushner and a team of White House and State Department advisors flew to the region to visit five countries in five days, according to one report. The trip will take the group to Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. Earlier reports suggested Kushner and his team would also visit the UAE and Qatar, though that was before the itinerary was finalized.

Coats Out as DNI, Rep. Ratcliffe Tapped to Oversee Intelligence Community. Over the weekend, President Trump tweeted that current Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats will be leaving in August. He also stated that he would nominate the ultra-conservative Congressman John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to succeed him. Ratcliffe reportedly pleased the president during recent heated congressional hearings where he took members of the intelligence community to task for their handling of the investigation into Russian interference in US elections. Should he be confirmed, Ratcliffe would be responsible for overseeing that same intelligence community.

2) Department of Defense

Newly Confirmed Secretary of Defense Outlines His Perspectives on the Region. Mark Esper, who was recently confirmed to the top spot at the Pentagon, gave a brief interview with reporters to outline his understanding of the simmering tensions between the United States and Iran. While he reiterated the administration’s position about securing shipping lanes in the Arabian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, Esper said that, to his knowledge, Washington was not giving any commitment to use force to defend foreign ships.

Furthermore, Esper said he will be traveling to the headquarters of Central Command (CENTCOM) to discuss Operation Sentinel, the name for US efforts to safeguard freedom of navigation in the region. CENTCOM reportedly hosted a meeting of states involved in Operation Sentinel recently, including the UAE.

3) Department of State

Assistant Secretary Fannon Visits Jordan, Lebanon. On July 31, Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources Francis Fannon left for a three-state tour that includes stops in Jordan and Lebanon. Fannon will meet with Lebanese and Jordanian government officials and members of the private sector to discuss energy development, cooperation, and security.

4) US at the United Nations

Washington Vetoes Resolution Condemning Israeli House Demolition. On July 22, Israel demolished 10 Palestinian apartment buildings outside Jerusalem; it deemed them a security risk because they are near the separation wall under construction. In response, members of the United Nations Security Council crafted multiple statements condemning the act, but the United States objected to each revision, ultimately sinking all hopes of protesting Israel’s move

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here