Focus on Yemen, not the Saudi crown prince

There is not much doubt that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is under more strain than at any time since it became clear that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi nationals.

First, on Nov. 28, in an unusual show of bipartisanship, 13 Republican senators joined the entire Democratic Senate caucus to support, by a vote of 63-37, a war-powers resolution introduced by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes Krystal Ball calls on Sanders to follow Yang's lead on war on drugs Buttigieg calls Warren 'evasive' on Medicare for all MORE (I-Vt.) to terminate American military support for Saudi operations in Yemen. They did so despite the protestations of both Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Pentagon waiting for Saudi assessment on attack | Defense bill talks begin | Border fight takes centerstage | Pentagon finalizes .5B in wall contracts | US withholds Afghan aid citing corruption House Armed Services panel gets classified briefing on Saudi attacks US withholds 0M in Afghan aid citing corruption MORE and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

ADVERTISEMENT

While American support for the Saudis in the Yemen civil war was nominally the subject of the resolution, the resolution clearly was motivated by the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Indeed, just a week after the Senate passed the resolution on Yemen, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a non-binding resolution condemning Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MbS) for “complicity” in Khashoggi’s murder. They did so in response to a closed-door briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel that left many senators angry and frustrated.

The six senators sponsoring the condemnatory resolution hardly are ideological soulmates. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHouse Armed Services panel gets classified briefing on Saudi attacks America's newest comedy troupe: House GOP GOP group hits Pence over Trump alleged business conflicts MORE (R-S.C.), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump faces difficult balancing act with reelection campaign Republicans wary of US action on Iran California poll: Biden, Sanders lead Democratic field; Harris takes fifth MORE (R-Fla.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungSenators pressure Trump to help end humanitarian crisis in Kashmir Congress set for chaotic fall sprint Overnight Defense: Senate fails to override Trump veto on Saudi arms sales | Two US troops killed in Afghanistan | Senators tee up nominations, budget deal ahead of recess MORE (R-Ind.) are solid conservatives; Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGOP's Kennedy sends warning shot to Trump nominee Menashi Democratic senators quietly hope Biden wins over rivals Grassley: Kavanaugh classmate didn't contact Senate panel MORE (D-Calif.), Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeySanders defends job losses from ending use of fossil fuels The Hill's Morning Report - Pompeo condemns Iran for 'act of war' while Trump moves with caution Defense bill talks set to start amid wall fight MORE (D-Mass.) and Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenate committee approves 0 million for state election security efforts Media and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity Bill to return B in unredeemed bonds advances MORE (D-Conn.) are, to varying degrees, all progressives. That they could come together as they have is a reflection of growing congressional unease, not only with the crown prince but with the support he continues to receive from the Trump administration.

Yet, while there certainly is a strong case for terminating American support for the Saudis in Yemen, it is not at all clear that condemning the crown prince necessarily helps to achieve that objective. It will be hard enough to persuade the Saudis to terminate their operations against the Houthis, who represent a serious threat to their southern flank, especially as they continue to receive support from Iran, Riyadh’s arch enemy. Attacking the crown prince by name, especially in a non-binding resolution, will not necessarily move him to accommodate American concerns about his conduct of the Yemen war. In fact, doing so is likely to prompt him to defy American wishes.

The crown prince has demonstrated that he can quite comfortably reach out to Russia, America’s great-power rival in the Middle East; his high-five with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Argentina did not go unnoticed. Moreover, whatever reservations the Saudi royal family may have about the way Crown Prince Mohammed has managed their country’s affairs, they are unlikely to respond positively to what clearly is an insult to their leader. And they surely will resent outside interference in what they consider to be a domestic matter for them to deal with.

Finally, the Senate action, though in many ways a praiseworthy attempt to demonstrate to President TrumpDonald John TrumpMarine unit in Florida reportedly pushing to hold annual ball at Trump property Giuliani clashes with CNN's Cuomo, calls him a 'sellout' and the 'enemy' Giuliani says 'of course' he asked Ukraine to look into Biden seconds after denying it MORE that Congress is indeed a co-equal branch of the United States government, is also scaring the Israelis on both sides of their otherwise bitterly divided political spectrum. Israel’s relationship with the Saudis has come increasingly into the open, and the last thing Jerusalem wants is for the Saudis to become so alienated from Washington that they decide to freeze or even roll back their burgeoning ties with the Jewish state.

For its part, Tehran has been quite happy to watch Yemenis die as long as the Saudis hemorrhage funds that otherwise would be applied to the crown prince’s program for his country’s economic and social reform. Getting the Iranians to back out of Yemen will not be easy but will be necessary, if Riyadh is to follow suit. Perhaps Russia’s increasingly warm ties with Riyadh could be helpful in this regard.

There is considerable merit in pressing the Saudis to abandon what has become a costly war that has done little more than create a massive humanitarian crisis. Condemning the crown prince will not help matters, however, nor will it cause him to alter his policies; it will only prolong the conflict.

In the meantime, the Yemeni people will continue to suffer — and, surely, that is not the outcome that the U.S. Senate possibly could be seeking.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.