There are indications now that the Saudi Arabian government may have murdered a prominent Saudi journalist who advocated domestic reforms and opposed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A Turkish investigation concluded that a 15-member “preplanned murder team” killed Jamal Khashoggi when he was visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Not surprisingly, Riyadh has flatly denied Turkey’s allegation, but that denial seems to have even less credibility than most Saudi statements. Khashoggi has contributed articles to the Washington Post and numerous other prominent Western news outlets, and he has an abundance of influential friends in such circles. They do not seem inclined to let this incident fade away.
Khashoggi’s disappearance and apparent murder—as appalling as it may be–should be overshadowed, though, by Saudi Arabia’s far more extensive human-rights abuses and outright war crimes. That is especially true regarding the way it has conducted the war in Yemen. There is abundant evidence of multiple atrocities that Riyadh and its United Arab Emirates (UAE) junior partner have committed and continue to commit. The coalition’s war strategy has created a famine as well as a cholera epidemic. Among the many deliberate attacks on innocent Yemeni civilians was an August incident in which coalition aircraft attacked a school bus, killing 40 children.
Yet, incredibly, just weeks later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified that Saudi and UAE forces were making a reasonable attempt to avoid inflicting harm on civilians. Pompeo’s certification was necessary to meet the requirements of a congressional statute barring aid, especially military aid, to countries that do not take appropriate precautions. The latest certification preserves the fiction that Saudi and UAE forces are not guilty of war crimes and that the United States is not a willing accomplice in such crimes.
As I describe in a recent National Interest Online article, such brazenly false certifications are nothing new. Both the Trump administration and its predecessors have displayed that sickening cynicism with respect to numerous countries and their “friendly” dictatorial regimes, most notably Egypt and Pakistan. Indeed, similar phony certifications were routine fare in the 1980s, when Washington repeatedly whitewashed massive human rights abuses on the part of foreign allies. Some of the worst offenders were in our own hemisphere, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Colombia. More recently, the worst offenders are concentrated among Washington’s Middle East allies.
The pervasive dishonesty of U.S. officials should be a matter of national shame. Pompeo has carried on a long and dishonorable tradition. Congress may have intended that a requirement certifying that U.S. aid recipients are complying with human-rights standards would pressure those regimes to avoid egregious abuses. If that truly was the intent, and not just empty congressional posturing, then that strategy has failed.
If Congress intends to get serious about enforcement, the country with which to start is Saudi Arabia—especially regarding its conduct in Yemen. Congress needs to cut-off all military assistance to Riyadh and the UAE immediately. Beyond that issue, the legislative branch must insist that human-rights certifications accurately reflect reality. Even leaving aside the Saudi regime’s possible murder of a dissenting journalist, Riyadh does not come close to meeting the most basic human-rights standards for receiving U.S. aid. Americans have endured more than enough whitewash episodes from administrations over the decades regarding Saudi Arabia.