There is a broad, bipartisan consensus in Congress that action must be taken to reset the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia, but there’s no consensus on how to do it. Now comes Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James E. Risch (R-Idaho), who is launching a new bid to find a solution that can satisfy lawmakers and avoid a veto from President Trump.
The U.S.-Saudi relationship has been spiraling downward since Saudi agents murdered Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi in their Istanbul Consulate last October. But examples of Saudi bad behavior had been piling up since Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, effectively took power in 2015 and embarked on several risky gambits, which have included cracking down on activists and opposition, kidnapping the Lebanese prime minister and launching a bloody military campaign in Yemen that has devolved into a dire humanitarian crisis.
“The U.S.-Saudi relationship has been going south for a long time,” Risch told me. “The Khashoggi event shocked a lot of people and brought a lot of people to the realization that the Saudis were not in tandem with us as they had been in the past.”
Since then, lawmakers have introduced 15 bills to address the Khashoggi murder and more than 50 bills addressing Saudi Arabia overall. In May, the Senate failed to override Trump’s veto of a bill to end most U.S. military support for the Saudi war in Yemen. Late Tuesday, Risch introduced a new bill called the Saudi Arabia Diplomatic Review Act of 2019, which he hopes will be the basis for real action and a real change in policy.
“The objective here is to maintain the relationship and at the same time bring [the Saudis] to the realization and change of conduct that needs to be done if the relationship is to be continued,” Risch said. “It can’t continue in the direction that it’s going. I have met with the Saudis and told them that they are only one Khashoggi-type of event away from having to find a new partner.”
After several conversations with Trump about his legislation, Risch told me he is “cautiously optimistic” the president would sign it into law. Trump’s own comments on Saudi Arabia have alarmed lawmakers. Case in point: He said at the recent Group of 20 meeting in Osaka, Japan, that MBS was doing “really, a spectacular job” in reforming Saudi Arabia and there was no “finger directly” pointing at MBS for the Khashoggi murder, which is not true.
The CIA and Agnes Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, have both concluded that MBS very likely ordered the murder. Risch’s legislation endorses previously passed Senate legislation that states Congress “believes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi” and calls for accountability.
But the Risch legislation does not call on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to publicly identify all Saudis involved in the murder and ban them from entering the United States, as does a House bill sponsored by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.). His bill was approved unanimously by the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month and could soon be added to the House’s version of the defense authorization bill.
Risch’s bill would deny visas to all members of the Saudi royal family who serve in the Saudi government up to the minister level, until Trump is able to certify that the Saudi regime has made progress on broad human rights issues. Trump would be able to waive these visa sanctions if he determines they are in the national interest. MBS and his father, King Salman, would not fall under the restrictions, which Risch said was intentional.
Malinowski told me he is concerned Risch’s legislation could provide the Trump administration with enough wiggle room to prevent MBS from facing direct accountability. But he praised Risch for coming up with a comprehensive approach.
“It does reflect a growing bipartisan consensus in the House and Senate that something has to be done to re-inject American values into the U.S.-Saudi relationship,” he said. “There should be enough common ground here to reach agreement on something that is meaningful.”
The Risch legislation also does not restrict U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia — a sensitive issue in Congress since Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used an emergency declaration in May to override congressional objections to $8.1 billion worth of sales in the pipeline. The Senate voted again in June to stop the sales, but without sufficient support to override another expected presidential veto.
Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have a competing bill that would provide for sanctions on MBS for the Khashoggi murder and a suspension of arms sales. Graham told me that if Risch’s bill comes up, he will try to amend it to make it tougher on MBS.
“For it to be a credible rebuke, it has to go to the source of the problem, and the source of the problem is MBS, not just on this but in general,” Graham said. “What he’s done in the Middle East is borderline insane.”
The Risch legislation would institute the visa bans upon enactment and then give the State Department 270 days to produce a report on Saudi human rights practices of all kinds. The Trump administration would also be authorized to punish Saudi officials who help Saudi fugitives escape U.S. justice or who spy on Saudi students in the United States.
As for Yemen, the bill would require the administration to report on all actors perpetrating human rights abuses while authorizing new sanctions on those preventing the distribution of humanitarian aid or supplying arms to the Houthi rebels.
Risch will be arguing to his Senate colleagues that their power to influence U.S. foreign policy and fix the relationship depends on producing legislation that can actually be enacted into law, even if that means making some compromises and avoiding poison pills that would trigger a presidential veto.
“We’re trying to be honest brokers here and get something done,” Risch said. “The U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship is one that is worth attempting to salvage. And that’s what we are trying to do.”