Senate Reclaims War Powers, Rebukes U.S.-Saudi Alliance

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Discussing the role of libertarian advocacy, Milton Friedman once explained that “When [a] crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

Advocating a more restrained and peaceful foreign policy often seems futile, with hawks and interventionists in both parties dominating the discussion. But by steadily making the case over many years through policy analyses, books, and events, and in the media, the Cato Institute has been able to lay the intellectual groundwork for major policy shifts in this arena. One example has been the work of Cato’s foreign policy scholars on one of America’s most problematic allies: Saudi Arabia.

In late November, the Senate took an extraordinary step in reasserting its powers over war and foreign policy. For the first time, the chamber adopted a resolution under the 1973 War Powers Act to end U.S. involvement in a foreign war. The resolution would have the effect of ending U.S. support and assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. The Senate had rejected a nearly identical proposal in April, but the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has given new momentum to critics of the U.S.-Saudi alliance. This time, the Sanders-Lee-Murphy resolution was passed with 56 senators in favor and 41 opposed, despite the last-ditch lobbying campaign by secretary of state Mike Pompeo and then secretary of defense James Mattis. Even before the vote, the administration announced that it was stopping the practice of refueling Saudi warplanes en route to airstrikes in Yemen.


It’s a remarkable rebuke to the Saudis, whose privileged place in America’s foreign policy doctrine has long made them effectively immune from accountability and criticism on Capitol Hill. But it’s not a new stance for Cato, whose scholars have long questioned the wisdom of an American commitment to the oppressive theocracy. Thanks to their efforts, these ideas were ready and waiting when the politically impossible suddenly became the politically inevitable.

Ted Galen Carpenter and Malou Innocent have two chapters on U.S.-Saudi relations in their 2015 book Perilous Partners. In light of the sudden developments in late 2018, Cato was able to quickly bring these chapters to print in a special stand-alone volume with a new introduction by Carpenter, The Ties That Blind: How the U.S.-Saudi Alliance Damages Liberty and Security. As Carpenter explains in the introduction, “The reality is that the United States has no truly vital interests in the Middle East that warrant the kind of distasteful moral compromises that are inherent in maintaining an alliance with Saudi Arabia.”

By laying the groundwork for seemingly radical ideas like ending the U.S.-Saudi alliance, Cato has been able to provide quick, ready, and credible policy arguments when events overtake a flawed Washington consensus—in this case through numerous media interviews, public events, and meetings on Capitol Hill. Although the Senate vote in its lame-duck session was largely symbolic, with the House refusing to take up the bill before the new Congress was seated, it sends a clear signal that the political winds have shifted. What was once unthinkable is now becoming increasingly inevitable, as public opinion turns harshly against Saudi Arabia and its crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Policymakers and members of the public alike should now carefully consider the warnings of noninterventionists like Carpenter, who have long pointed out the flaws in America’s entangling alliance with Riyadh.

Purchase print or ebook copies of The Ties That Blind at cato.org/store.