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) SandersTexas man indicted over allegations he created fraudulent campaign PACs Overnight Energy: Wheeler weathers climate criticism at confirmation hearing | Dems want Interior to stop drilling work during shutdown | 2018 was hottest year for oceans Dems offer measure to raise minimum wage to per hour 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 PompeoTop North Korean official to meet with Trump this week: report The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi asks Trump to postpone State of the Union | US troops killed in Syria blast | Day 2 of Barr confirmation US calls China's death sentence for Canadian man 'politically motivated' 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 GrahamCentrist efforts to convince Trump to end shutdown falter Overnight Defense: Four Americans killed in Syria suicide attack | State of the Union becomes latest shutdown flashpoint | Missile defense review on track for Thursday release White House condemns 'terror attack' that killed US troops in Syria MORE (R-S.C.), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTrump tells GOP senators he’s sticking to Syria and Afghanistan pullout  On The Money: Shutdown Day 26 | Pelosi calls on Trump to delay State of the Union | Cites 'security concerns' | DHS chief says they can handle security | Waters lays out agenda | Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions Senate rejects effort to block Trump on Russia sanctions MORE (R-Fla.) and Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungGOP senators propose bill to pay 'excepted' workers during shutdown Trump's military moves accelerate GOP search for next McCain Kevin McLaughlin tapped to serve as NRSC executive director for 2020 MORE (R-Ind.) are solid conservatives; Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFeinstein grappling with vote on AG nominee Barr 5 takeaways from Barr’s testimony Grandson's note to Barr during confirmation hearing goes viral MORE (D-Calif.), Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeyDems blast EPA nominee at confirmation hearing Overnight Energy: Watchdog investigating EPA enforcement numbers | EPA's Wheeler faces Senate grilling | Interior's offshore drilling staff returning to work during shutdown EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks MORE (D-Mass.) and Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsSunday shows preview: Washington heads into multi-day shutdown Overnight Energy: Senators introduce bipartisan carbon tax bill | House climate panel unlikely to have subpoena power | Trump officials share plan to prevent lead poisoning Flake to co-introduce bipartisan climate bill 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 TrumpPentagon update to missile defense doctrine will explore space-base technologies, lasers to counter threats Giuliani: 'I never said there was no collusion' between the Trump campaign and Russia Former congressmen, RNC members appointed to Trump administration roles 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.