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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 SandersDeVos knocks free college push as 'socialist takeover of higher education' The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Capital One — Giuliani denies discussing preemptive pardon with Trump Manchin: Ocasio-Cortez 'more active on Twitter than anything else' 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 PompeoSchumer meets with Biden national security picks To promote human rights and democracy, Biden should start with China The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms 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 GrahamBarr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel Democracy is the MVP in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms MORE (R-S.C.), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioPressure builds for coronavirus relief with no clear path to deal The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Coast-to-coast fears about post-holiday COVID-19 spread Potential 2024 Republicans flock to Georgia amid Senate runoffs MORE (R-Fla.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungShelton's Fed nomination on knife's edge amid coronavirus-fueled absences Grassley quarantining after exposure to coronavirus Rick Scott to quarantine after contact with person who tested positive for COVID-19 MORE (R-Ind.) are solid conservatives; Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinCriminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot Bottom line Incoming Congress looks more like America MORE (D-Calif.), Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyManchin: Ocasio-Cortez 'more active on Twitter than anything else' US national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations MORE (D-Mass.) and Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms Overnight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate 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 TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump 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.