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Opinion We must demand accountability for Saudi Arabia’s behavior

The Saudi Consulate is cordoned off by Turkish police in Istanbul on Oct. 15 during the investigation over missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Saudi Consulate is cordoned off by Turkish police in Istanbul on Oct. 15 during the investigation over missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi made a habit of tracking down and assassinating his critics overseas. That helped his country to earn the status of a rogue state. This time, though, the culprit is Saudi Arabia, a long-standing U.S. ally and linchpin of the Trump administration’s Middle East policy. The likely murder of Saudi journalist (and Post columnist) Jamal Khashoggi should trigger a fundamental review of the nature of the United States’ alliance with the Saudis.

Reports indicate that Saudi Arabia dispatched a hit squad that brazenly abducted and murdered Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul — simply because he regularly criticized his government in public. The Saudis have issued blanket denials and refused to provide any evidence to the contrary, arrogantly assuming they don’t owe us an explanation.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) warns that military and economic ties could be threatened if Saudi Arabia is proved to have killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (Video: Kate Woodsome, Breanna Muir/The Washington Post)

When I came to Congress a little more than 10 years ago, support for Saudi Arabia was broad and bipartisan. But now, as the new crown prince engages in increasingly reckless behavior, more and more of us are wondering whether our ally’s actions are in our own best interests. The list of erratic actions from Mohammed bin Salman is long: the jailing of royal family members, the detention of the Lebanese prime minister, a nonsensical feud with Qatar, the growing internal repression of political speech and the disastrous war in Yemen.

These counterproductive moves have been met with increasing criticism on Capitol Hill and have prompted new questions about the Saudi project that is perhaps most damaging to global security: the decades-long effort to sow across the world the seeds of Salafist Islam, often a crucial ingredient of the Sunni extremism that fuels terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al- Qaeda.

This administration appears unlikely to take decisive action, so it’s up to Congress to determine the consequences. One of those consequences must be ending our military assistance, which has given the Saudis free rein in the ongoing horror in Yemen.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) says there must be consequence for the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who resided in Virginia. (Video: Kate Woodsome, Breanna Muir, Justin Scuiletti, Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

For the past three years, the United States has been helping Saudi Arabia carry out a devastating bombing campaign in Yemen against a local insurgency by Houthi rebels. Time after time, horrific reports detail U.S.-made bombs dropping on civilian buses, weddings, funerals and medical facilities. The war has killed thousands of civilians and led to a massive humanitarian crisis — and it has a “Made in America” label on it.

The Saudis have been telling us these civilian deaths are not intentional. And because U.S. law prohibits us from participating in war crimes, our government has repeatedly chosen to believe them. Yet civilian casualties in recent months have been increasing. Yemen is on the brink of famine, with thousands of children already dying of starvation and dehydration. A new research report notes that “there is strong evidence that Coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution.” (Translation: They are actively trying to starve the country into submission.) Saudi Arabia is delaying and obstructing aid shipments and critical commercial goods such as food, fuel and medicine. Saudi warplanes target water infrastructure, hospitals and health clinics. But still our assistance continues, putting an American imprint on every civilian casualty in Yemen.

Here’s the bottom line: The Saudis are not telling us the truth. Their obfuscation over what happened to Khashoggi inside their consulate is the same game they have been playing with us in Yemen as they’ve killed thousands of civilians. No wonder they expected no consequences over the murder of just one.

The Saudis initially remained immune from serious U.S. criticism about their role in Yemen. First, the Barack Obama administration aimed to avoid aggravating the Gulf states further in the wake of their opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement; more recently, the Saudi royal family has benefited from its inexplicably close relationship with the Trump family.

But right now, the Saudis’ position in Congress is in free fall, with serious implications for the relationship if there isn’t a full accounting for the fate of Khashoggi.

I recently joined colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to support imposing sanctions against those responsible, including the highest-ranking officials in the government of Saudi Arabia. Congress should also block any pending arms sale to Saudi Arabia and review the small amount of foreign assistance funding that qualifies the kingdom for millions in discounts on those arms sales. It’s time we stop subsidizing war crimes and mass starvation. We should hold hearings on Saudi Arabia’s suppression of domestic dissent, and highlight the cases of dozens of other journalists and activists who have been silenced as part of Mohammed’s campaign against his critics.

Saudi Arabia is an important country to the United States. The Saudis are an important counterterrorism partner and have helped forge the current detente between the Sunni Gulf states and Israel. There are good reasons to not destroy the relationship. But that can’t happen until there is a full accounting of Khashoggi’s disappearance, and until the United States receives assurances that Saudi Arabia will be a much more responsible ally. I’m afraid this movie has an unhappy ending, but we owe it to Khashoggi to learn the whole story and reset our relationship with the country that likely carried out his murder.

Read more:

David Ignatius: Jamal Khashoggi’s long road to the doors of the Saudi Consulate

Anne Applebaum: This is why so many journalists are at risk today

Ben Cardin: Here’s how the United States can stand up for Jamal Khashoggi

The Post’s View: The backlash to Khashoggi’s alleged murder is growing — except in the White House

Joel Simon: What makes Jamal Khashoggi’s alleged murder so depraved