Congress Takes on the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

In yesterday’s Washington Post, a headline proclaimed: “Saudi Arabia is Facing Unprecedented Scrutiny from Congress.” The article focused on a recently defeated Senate bill which sought to express disapproval of a pending $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, though the presence of a genuine debate on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia – and the ongoing war in Yemen – is a good sign, Congress has so far been unable to turn this debate into any meaningful action.  

Yesterday’s resolution, proposed by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, would have been primarily symbolic. Indeed, support for the bill wasn’t really about impacting Saudi Arabia’s military capacity. As co-sponsor Sen. Al Franken noted, “the very fact that we are voting on it today sends a very important message to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia that we are watching your actions closely and that the United States is not going to turn a blind eye to the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children.” This message was intended as much for the White House as for the Saudi government, with supporters arguing that the Obama administration should rethink its logistical support for the war in Yemen.

Unfortunately, opponents of the measure carried the day, and the resolution was defeated 71-26. These senators mostly argued that the importance of supporting regional allies outweighed any problems. Yet in doing so, they sought to avoid debate on the many problems in today’s U.S.-Saudi relationship. In addition to the war in Yemen – which is in many ways directly detrimental to U.S. national security interests, destabilizing that country and allowing for the growth of extremist groups there – Saudi Arabia’s actions across the Middle East, and funding of fundamentalism around the world are often at odds with U.S. interests, even as it works closely with the United States on counterterror issues. As a recent New York Times article noted, in the world of violent jihadist extremism, the Saudis are too often “both the arsonists and the firefighters.”

Despite these problems, the growing debate over the U.S.-Saudi relationship in congress has yielded few results. A previous arms bill proposed by Senators Murphy and Paul also failed to gain traction. That measure would have barred the sale of air-to-ground munitions to the Saudis until the President was able to certify that they were actively working against terrorist groups and seeking to avoid civilian casualties inside Yemen. Though it has the potential to actually slow the Saudi war effort and protect civilians inside Yemen, the bill has languished in committee since April.

Worse, the only concrete measure passed by Congress on this issue is counterproductive. The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) would lift various sovereign immunity protections, allowing the families of 9/11 victims to directly sue the Saudi government. Yet even with the release of the 9/11 report’s missing 28 pages, there is no evidence that the Saudi government - as opposed to individuals within the country - financed al Qaeda. The JASTA bill thus has few positive impacts, but creates a worrying precedent for the United States: allowing citizens to sue a foreign government implies that other states may let their citizens sue the United States over issues like drone strikes. A presidential veto is expected as a result, and many in Congress are having second thoughts about a veto override.

So despite the headlines, Congress has had a fairly limited impact on the U.S.-Saudi relationship. But the simple fact that debate is occurring on Capitol Hill is a positive sign. Perhaps it can convince the Saudi government to reconsider some of their destabilizing actions in the Middle East, particularly the horrible humanitarian toll of the conflict in Yemen. At the very least, an active debate in Congress can help to remind the White House that our interests and Saudi Arabia’s don’t always align.