Global Opinions

Trump betrayed U.S. moral leadership. So Congress had to act.

(Brian Stauffer for The Washington Post)

Robert Menendez, a Democrat, represents New Jersey in the U.S. Senate. He is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“The longer this cruel war lasts in Yemen, the more permanent the damage will be. . . . The crown prince must bring an end to the violence and restore the dignity of the birthplace of Islam.”

It was Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s penchant for truth-telling such as this that earned him the ire of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A year ago, at the behest of the Saudi royal family, he was murdered and gruesomely dismembered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

The Saudis should have known that murdering a U.S. resident and journalist would trigger a fundamental reexamination of the way Americans think about the House of Saud. Regrettably, we should have known President Trump would find a way to use this tragedy to further forfeit our nation’s status as a champion of values such as human rights and press freedom.

For decades, our partnership with Riyadh was based on mutual strategic interests. But it had been strained by the kingdom’s arcane restrictions on women, abysmal human rights record and insistence on restricting basic freedoms. More recently, Saudi Arabia led a vicious intervention against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, effectively kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister and created a sustained rift in a critical American regional security bloc.

The recent attacks on major oil facilities in the kingdom remind us that Saudi Arabia continues to face legitimate and unacceptable threats. But we must assess whether its policies are meaningfully countering these threats.

Legitimate security interests do not excuse the reckless and likely criminal military campaign in Yemen, where evidence suggests the Saudi-led coalition has deliberately targeted hospitals, weddings and even a school bus full of children. With more than 15,000 civilians dead or maimed and 8 million nearing starvation in Yemen, U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition arguably contributed to creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Khashoggi’s murder will be remembered as the straw that broke the camel’s back — a grim reminder that Saudi behavior has strayed so far out of line with our own values that business as usual with the kingdom was no longer in our interests.

But as the rest of the free world sought answers about Khashoggi’s death, Trump betrayed the moral leadership we expect from a U.S. president — bungling his administration’s response, undermining our intelligence community’s findings and stonewalling investigations, all to help the Saudis cover up a murder.

And so, Congress was forced to act.

Then-Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and I triggered a provision in the Global Magnitsky Act, mandating that the administration determine who was responsible and whether the president would sanction them. The Trump administration simply refused to answer our request.

Then, the Senate unanimously condemned Khashoggi’s murder, including the crown prince’s involvement. The House of Representatives voted to sanction those responsible. Congress passed a bipartisan measure to effectively end U.S. military support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen, which the president ultimately vetoed.

In response, Congress passed a series of unprecedented resolutions to block the sale of thousands of precision-guided bombs to the governments of the Saudi coalition. Trump quickly vetoed those too, in yet another show of loyalty to the Saudi royal family.

Yet we remain undeterred. In July, the Foreign Relations Committee approved my bipartisan Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act to sanction those responsible for Khashoggi’s death, pursue a resolution to the conflict in Yemen and increase scrutiny on Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses. It is now up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to hold a vote in the full Senate.

Khashoggi’s murder reminded us how authoritarian regimes, from Cuba to China to Saudi Arabia, fear the power of a free press. It also exposed the danger of having a U.S. president regularly demonize the media, and laid bare the fragility of our own system and how much it relies on the people in power to respect it.

The world will not forget Jamal Khashoggi. His views and aspirations will one day become reality. There will be freedom of expression and respect for human rights in Saudi Arabia. And here in Congress, we will continue to demand accountability, press for justice and work to restore the integrity of our foundational institutions.

Read more about Jamal Khashoggi:

A missing voice, a growing chorus

Ezzedine Fishere: Jamal Khashoggi symbolized the promise of reconciling political Islam and democracy

Asli Aydintasbas: The liberal world order crumbled a year ago. We’re still reeling.

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Saudi Arabia is suffocating the Arabic public sphere. We must fight back.

Tawakkol Karman: We need justice for Yemen — and justice for Khashoggi

David Von Drehle: Hollywood loves triumphant journalism stories. This isn’t one of them.

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