Missing journalist strains US-Saudi relationship

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Anger over the disappearance of a U.S.-based Saudi journalist has erupted on Capitol Hill, with senators from both parties putting pressure on the Trump administration by raising the specter of punitive measures against Saudi Arabia.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Tuesday became the first lawmaker to call for specific congressional action in connection with the mysterious circumstances surrounding the whereabouts of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor who has been missing since visiting the Saudi consulate in Turkey on Oct. 2. Paul promised to force a vote blocking U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia if it is shown that the country was involved in foul play.

The international incident is putting a strain on U.S.-Saudi ties, as calls persist for the Trump administration to leverage its close relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.


“It’s very likely that even if some in the administration were to hope that this incident would kind of smooth over and go away, I don’t think that’s likely to be possible because of the strong reaction from leading members of Congress and senators from each party,” said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy. “I think they will in a sense force the administration’s hand for there to be tougher action.”

Trump broke his administration’s silence this week by saying he was “concerned” about Khashoggi’s disappearance. Vice President Pence followed with a tweet saying he is “deeply troubled” and that “the free world deserves answers.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later released a statement saying senior U.S. officials have raised the issue with the Saudis through diplomatic channels.

Paul, a persistent critic of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, went a step further.

“If they’re responsible, or even if there’s any indication that they’re implicated in killing this journalist that was critical of them, we’ve got to stop sending them arms,” Paul told WHAS, a Kentucky radio station.

Khashoggi was an insider of the Saudi royal court before he became a fierce critic, particularly of Crown Prince Mohammed. He has been living in self-imposed exile in Washington, D.C., since 2017, and he went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week to get paperwork for his marriage to his Turkish fiancée.

Unnamed Turkish officials told several news outlets over the weekend that they believe Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate and dismembered there.

The Saudis have called such accusations “baseless,” saying he left the consulate the same day he arrived.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he is “chasing” the investigation and demanded the Saudis provide evidence to prove Khashoggi left the consulate.

Pompeo’s statement also called for “the government of Saudi Arabia to support a thorough investigation of Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance and to be transparent about the results of that investigation.”

U.S.-Saudi relations were already under the microscope before Khashoggi’s disappearance. In particular, critics in the United States are irate at U.S. support for the Saudi Arabian–led coalition in Yemen’s civil war.

A mounting civilian death toll in the war has largely been blamed on airstrikes from the Saudi coalition, which the U.S. military supports with aerial refueling and intelligence sharing.

Pompeo last month endorsed Saudi conduct in the war with a certification that the coalition is taking steps to protect civilians and end the war. Congress mandated the certification in order for U.S. refueling to continue.

Critics derided the certification as a “farce,” saying the death toll contradicts Pompeo’s assertion.

Trump and the Saudi government have fostered close ties since early in his presidency after the Saudis successfully courted him. Trump’s first stop on his first overseas trip was in Saudi Arabia, where he received a lavish welcome, illustrated by a viral photo of Trump and other dignitaries touching a glowing orb.

The Trump administration reciprocated with a warm welcome for Crown Prince Mohammed this year at the start of his trip across the United States.

But the day-to-day leader of Saudi Arabia has proven to be a polarizing figure. Supporters hail him as a reformer who is bringing change to the country, citing his lifting of the ban on women driving and his contributions toward building an entertainment industry, among other more liberal policies.

But opponents say he has ruthlessly shored up power under the guise of an anti-corruption campaign that has purged his critics and that his policies are largely responsible for the devastation in neighboring Yemen.

With that backdrop, critics in the United States have long chided Trump’s admiration for Prince Mohammed.

But the murder of Khashoggi could be a breaking point.

“If this is true — that the Saudis lured a U.S. resident into their consulate and murdered him — it should represent a fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted over the weekend.

Trump’s supporters on Capitol Hill also are issuing warnings.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted Monday that he spoke with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and fellow committee member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) about Khashoggi.

“We agree if there was any truth to the allegations of wrongdoing by the Saudi government it would be devastating to the U.S.-Saudi relationship and there will be a heavy price to be paid — economically and otherwise,” Graham said.

Corker later tweeted that he raised the issue with the Saudi ambassador and warned that “while we await more information, know we will respond accordingly to any state that targets journalists abroad.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), meanwhile, pledged over the weekend to “review all options in Senate,” tweeting that “the United States and the civilized world must respond strongly” if Khashoggi’s death is confirmed.

A spokeswoman for Rubio added Tuesday that he has “been in touch with the Saudi embassy and State since early last week.”

McInerney, of the Project on Middle East Democracy, called the congressional reaction “stronger than any I have seen to any incident in the past” related to the Saudis, saying it signals a “real turning point” in U.S.-Saudi relations, though he said it’s “difficult to imagine” a full break in diplomatic relations.

Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, also said he does not foresee a full break in relations, primarily because U.S. and Saudi regional goals are aligned.

“I don’t see any government — Republican or Democrat — making the kinds of transactional breaks in terms of trade and military-to-military ties,” he said. “I just don’t see them doing that over an incident, no matter how heinous, that involves a Saudi national somewhere outside the United States and someone who is a resident of the U.S. but not a U.S. national.”

Still, he said, Congress could “greatly complicate” arms sales, especially if Democrats take back either chamber in the midterm elections.

“It’s possible that if you end up with a Democratic House and/or Senate and Trump in the White House, this could be used to make life very difficult for the administration vis-à-vis the arms sales that are the essence of the U.S.-Saudi relationship,” he said.

For now, Ibish said, pressure could force Trump to do more to get both the Saudis and the Turks to release their evidence.

“I don’t think this is going to do it for the Democrats, for some of the Republicans and for the press,” he said of Trump’s reaction. “And that’s not a triad you want to go up against.”

Tags Ben Cardin Bob Corker Chris Murphy Jamal Khashoggi Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Mike Pompeo Rand Paul Saudi Arabia U.S.-Saudi relations

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