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 SandersKamala Harris receives new Iowa endorsements after debate performance Wasserman Schultz makes bid for House Appropriations Committee gavel Overnight Health Care: Crunch time for Congress on surprise medical bills | CDC confirms 47 vaping-related deaths | Massachusetts passes flavored tobacco, vaping products ban 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 — Presented by Boeing — Deal on defense bill proves elusive | Hill, Holmes offer damaging testimony | Trump vows to block Navy from ousting officer from SEALs Hill, Holmes offer damaging impeachment testimony: Five takeaways Graham requests State Department documents on Bidens, Ukraine 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 GrahamFBI official under investigation for allegedly altering document in Russia probe: report Trump steps up GOP charm offensive as impeachment looms Graham requests State Department documents on Bidens, Ukraine MORE (R-S.C.), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHouse Democrat asks USDA to halt payouts to Brazilian meatpacker under federal probe Supreme Court weighs lawsuit pitting climate scientist against skeptics Senate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters MORE (R-Fla.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungBipartisan bill requires Congressional oversight of Afghanistan peace process The Hill's Morning Report - Wild Wednesday: Sondland testimony, Dem debate take center stage Tester: Our forefathers would not have tolerated Trump asking Ukraine to investigate Biden MORE (R-Ind.) are solid conservatives; Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGOP senator blocks vote on House-passed Violence Against Women Act Congress feels heat to act on youth vaping GOP senator wants Violence Against Women Act passage by year end MORE (D-Calif.), Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeySenators grill safety regulator over self-driving cars Hillicon Valley: Twitter shares more details on political ad rules | Supreme Court takes up Google-Oracle fight | Pentagon chief defends Microsoft cloud contract House, Senate announce agreement on anti-robocall bill MORE (D-Mass.) and Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsHillicon Valley: Google to limit political ad targeting | Senators scrutinize self-driving car safety | Trump to 'look at' Apple tariff exemption | Progressive lawmakers call for surveillance reforms | House panel advances telecom bills Democrats raise privacy concerns over Amazon home security system Senators press Facebook over user location tracking policies 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 TrumpWatergate prosecutor says that Sondland testimony was 'tipping point' for Trump In private moment with Trump, Justice Kennedy pushed for Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination: book Obama: 'Everybody needs to chill out' about differences between 2020 candidates 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.