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 SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersAlan Dershowitz: In defense of Chelsea Clinton O'Rourke: Decisions on late-term abortions 'best left to a woman and her doctor' CNN to host town hall with Cory Booker in South Carolina 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 PompeoState Department blocks reporters from Pompeo briefing with faith-based media: report The Hill's Morning Report - Dems contemplate big election and court reforms Pompeo jokes he'll be secretary of State until Trump 'tweets me out of office' MORE and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

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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 GrahamGraham: Dems want to abolish Electoral College because they 'want rural America to go away' Overwhelming majority of voters want final Mueller report released: poll Bottom Line MORE (R-S.C.), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate Dems petition Saudi king to release dissidents, US citizen Dem senator wants Trump to extend immigration protections to Venezuelans Juan Williams: Don't rule out impeaching Trump MORE (R-Fla.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungOvernight Defense: Senate breaks with Trump on Yemen war | Shanahan hit with ethics complaint over Boeing ties | Pentagon rolls out order to implement transgender ban | Dem chair throws cold water on Space Force budget Senate breaks with Trump on Saudi-led war in Yemen GOP senators introduce bill to rein in president's emergency powers MORE (R-Ind.) are solid conservatives; Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGOP rep to introduce constitutional amendment to limit Supreme Court seats to 9 Senate Dems petition Saudi king to release dissidents, US citizen Court-packing becomes new litmus test on left MORE (D-Calif.), Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeySenate Dems petition Saudi king to release dissidents, US citizen The Hill's 12:30 Report: Manafort sentenced to total of 7.5 years in prison Hillicon Valley: Google takes heat at privacy hearing | 2020 Dems to debate 'monopoly power' | GOP rips net neutrality bill | Warren throws down gauntlet over big tech | New scrutiny for Trump over AT&T merger MORE (D-Mass.) and Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSenate Dem calls on Trump to apologize for attacks on McCain Sixteen years later, let's finally heed the call of the 9/11 Commission  Senate Dems introduce bill demanding report on Khashoggi killing 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 TrumpDem lawmaker says Electoral College was 'conceived' as way to perpetuate slavery Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals to visit White House on Monday Transportation Dept requests formal audit of Boeing 737 Max certification 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.