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Ahead of Vote to End U.S. Support of Hostilities in Yemen, Menendez Demands Senate Do More to Recalibrate U.S.-Saudi Relationship

“This is not caterwauling or media piling on, this is Congress doing what the American people elected us to do: Ensuring that the United States Government conducts foreign policy in a manner that protects the United States and the American people.”

WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today delivered a speech on the Senate floor to frame several critical questions about the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the context of America’s long-term interests in the region.

In explaining his vote in support of a joint resolution to cease American support for the brutal Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, Senator Menendez explained that American backing for the war in Yemen is inconsistent with American values. The Senator closed his remarks by calling on his colleagues to go further, assert true leadership,  and force the Trump Administration to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for all its foul deeds by passing his bipartisan Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:

“I come to the floor today to talk about the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship in the broader context of America’s interests in the Middle East. I want to begin by responding to an op-ed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo published by the Wall Street Journal in which he called the U.S.-Saudi Arabia partnership ‘vital.’ 

That statement reflects a distorted view of the U.S.-Saudi Arabia relationship that has permeated the Trump Administration, in which the United States is somehow dependent on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for regional stability and security cooperation.

It’s a view perhaps best articulated by the President’s own unhinged pre-Thanksgiving statement, in which he suggested selling weapons to the Saudis was more important than America’s enduring commitment to human rights, democratic values, and international norms. Or the President and Secretary Pompeo’s continued, incredulous, insistence that we still don’t know whether the Crown Prince is directly responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Desperate to justify this myopic view, Trump officials whimper that the Saudi government’s military operations in Yemen are the only means to ‘root out’ Iranian influence and defend the status quo of U.S. support for the Saudi-led Coalition.  Put another way, these morally-blindered and blinded individuals believe that to advance American interests in the region, there is no other option than dependence on Riyadh and no other way than business as usual. 

So the United States should just stay the course, resigned to accept when a so-called vital partner government lures a Washington Post columnist, an American resident with U.S. citizen children, to its consulate in a third country with the express intent of eliminating his dissenting views from public discourse. In the most gruesome way possible.

I for one reject Secretary Pompeo’s false choice. We can be tough on Iranian aggression, we can continue our efforts to eliminate Al Qaeda and ISIS, and yes, at the same time, we can have a reality-based debate on the strategic utility of the U.S.-Saudi partnership. Our security interests and our values demand such a debate.  

I believe that we can pursue an effective strategy to counter terrorism and Iranian aggression while also demanding better from the U.S.-Saudi Arabia partnership. That means standing for transparency, accountability – and truth – when our partners flagrantly violate American values, disregard international norms and take actions that undermine our broader our strategic interests and run counter to regional security. 

The Trump Administration has cynically framed this vote as a binary, zero-sum choice:  you’re either for Iran or you’re for Saudi Arabia.  Well, I am for the United States of America. I am for America’s security interests. I am for American values.  And I am for partnerships and alliances deeply-rooted in both.

I can’t imagine that any of my colleagues would put me in any pro-Iran camp.

To be clear, the vote the Senate will take on S.J. Res 54 is not about the totality of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, it is a vote about whether U.S. support for the Saudi-led Coalition’s actions in Yemen are in our national interests.

We do indeed have important security interests with the Saudis. Both of our nations benefit from cooperation in confronting threatening forces.  Yet we cannot sweep under the rug the callous disregard for human life and flagrant violations of international norms the Saudis have shown.

That is why, as Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I fully support the opportunity to continue to examine components of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and determine whether that relationship requires course correction.

Beyond Saudi Arabia, I do not want any of our security partners to interpret our relationship as a blank check.  Unfortunately, whether due to the President’s possibly unconstitutional financial entanglements, or his family’s overly-cozy relationships with the Crown Prince, this Administration is putting the Saudi government on a pedestal that stands above America’s values.

They continue to extend a blank check to certain players within the Saudi government no matter how brazen their actions, rather than meaningfully influence Riyadh, or assure that U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia is properly-balanced and in line with our strategic interests – not directed by the personal and financial motives of select individuals in our governments.

This refusal to stand up for American values, to assert true leadership, is part of the Trump Administration’s willful adherence to a misguided understanding of the most effective ways to bring stability to the Middle East.   It is an outgrowth of Trump’s reckless, morally bankrupt approach to foreign policy and love affair with authoritarian strongmen.

So, M. President, I hope today to frame some critical questions about the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the context of America’s long-term interests in the region.

Let’s start with taking stock of actions taken by Saudi Arabia over the last two years – the two years that, according to Secretary Pompeo,  the Trump Administration has been ‘rebuilding’ the U.S.-Saudi partnership while we here in the ‘salons of Washington’ were caterwauling about human rights.

In June 2017 a quartet of Arab countries announced a full blockade of fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar.  The ‘Saudi-led bloc’ justified this blockade by accusing Qatar of transgressions that, while seriously concerning, are not unique to Qatar or even to some members of this Saudi-led bloc, such as financial support for terror. 

This blockade tossed aside decades of investment by Republican and Democratic U.S. Administrations to partner with the entire Gulf Cooperation Council – Qatar included – on security challenges ranging from Iran, Al Qaeda, missile defense, maritime security, and cyber threats. 

Put another way, the Saudi-Qatar dispute has translated into a lot more work for our military professionals and diplomats for the past year as the Gulf Arabs fought amongst each other, interrupting critical priorities like defeating ISIS and countering Iranian aggression.

It has also complicated coordination with our Arab partners on U.S. foreign policy priorities like stabilizing Libya and Syria, and potentially deeply undermined U.S. objectives like stability in the Horn of Africa.

Who is the winner of this rift constructed by our Saudi-led partners?  Iran.

Now, turning to Yemen. The Saudis and their partners have continued their brutal air campaign in Yemen, often indiscriminately.  Tens of thousands of innocent Yemenis have died, and millions more are on the brink of starvation.  Meanwhile, Iran’s influence has increased within the country, and Al Qaeda has taken advantage of the chaos to expand its reach and control of Yemeni territory.

The winners of this fruitless war?  Iran and Al Qaeda.

Then, in November 2017, the Prime Minister of Lebanon traveled to Saudi Arabia for what he reportedly believed was a friendly visit with the Saudi Crown Prince. Instead, the Crown Prince detained Prime Minister Saad Hariri and forced him to resign from his position on TV. Let that sink in for a minute. A newly minted Crown Prince effectively hoodwinked and intimidated a sitting Prime Minister into publicly resigning his position.

This entire stunt was reportedly intended to push back on Iran’s expanding influence in the region. 

After days of high drama and uncertainty, including a refusal by Lebanon’s President to accept the resignation, Hariri left Saudi Arabia via Paris, and returned to a Lebanon where Iran’s proxy Hezbollah remains not only a part of the Lebanese government, but arguably in a strong position for rallying public support behind Hariri.

The winner of this foolish blunder?  Iran.

That very same month, November 2017, Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman directed the detention of hundreds of Saudi princes and executives at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh. While this effort was spun as a crackdown on corruption, it was clearly a crackdown on the Crown Prince’s political competitors.

Reports from this dark period in the gilded prison of the Ritz indicate that Saudi government-directed forces tortured detainees and coerced them transferring money to the government or giving up real estate and shares in companies. 

I am not in any way condoning the graft and exploitation in the Kingdom, but this opaque process – outside any semblance of rule of law and driven purely by the will of the Crown Prince, is not actually a sustainable approach to promoting transparency and accountability. In fact, it should and did send chills down the spines of investors and American companies seeking to expand commercial and economic ties in the Kingdom. A strong respect for the rule of law is an essential condition for doing business.

So when Trump points to the value of business ties with Saudi Arabia as a reason for not imposing consequences for Khashoggi’s murder, let’s remember that in the hands of Crown Prince anyone can be shaken down, locked up, or tortured at a five-star hotel in Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia. And let’s also continue asking exactly who is benefitting from potential business ties.

Secretary Pompeo mentioned in his op-ed that the Crown Prince has ‘moved the country in a reformist direction, from allowing women to drive and attend sporting events, to curbing the religious police and calling for a return to moderate Islam.’

What the Secretary did not mention however, are the deeply disturbing reports that at same time MbS was granting Saudi women the right to drive, he also detained many female activists who were themselves calling for the rights of women, including the right to drive. 

Now we are hearing reports that these women are being tortured and sexually harassed, bound to iron beds, electrocuted, and beaten.  Is this the kind of reform that Secretary Pompeo believes the United States should endorse?

As for calling for a return to ‘moderate’ Islam, the Anti-Defamation League reports that Saudi state television hosted several hour-long programs this Ramadan featuring a preacher who has called for God to ‘destroy’ the Christians, Shi’ites, Alawites, and Jews.   

Other analysis published by the ADL this November found that Saudi government-published textbooks for the 2018-19 academic year promote incitement to hatred or violence against Jews, Christians, women, and homosexual men.

As ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said, “The United States must hold its ally Saudi Arabia to a higher standard.  The US cannot look the other way while Saudi Arabia features anti-Semitic hate speech year after year in the educational material it gives to its children.” 

So let’s take stock of Saudi Arabia’s contributions to regional stability. It seems a fitting time to ask if an approach that involves bullying another U.S. regional partner, holding the Prime Minister of Lebanon hostage, torturing female activists, business executives, and other princes, and carrying out a military campaign in Yemen that will result in the death of millions more civilians by year’s end – is an approach in line with U.S. values or U.S. priorities. 

Has Iran been weakened by these actions?  Is the focus still on Al Qaeda and defeating ISIS?  I don’t think so.

The President has made it clear that no U.S. foreign policy objective – especially human rights - is as important to him as securing tens of billions of imaginary dollars to create a million fantasy jobs through weapons sales to the Saudis.

Congress has long and well-established overseeing the sale of weapons as part of U.S. foreign policy. We have learned throughout our history that selling weapons is a complex matter, and that without close attention to the human rights practices of foreign buyers, the U.S. can easily find itself in the situation that we are now with Saudi Arabia.

Today, U.S. arms are being used irresponsibly, tragically, and in possible violation of international law in the deaths and injury of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, including helpless children.  The U.S. must elevate human rights concerns in all aspects of its foreign security assistance, including arms sales. Otherwise, the abuses that result will do more to foment the conditions of unrest and despair that are the breeding grounds of conflict, war and terrorism.

Secretary Pompeo also suggested that if the United States in any way reassesses its relationship with Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom will rush into Russian arms.   I would suggest, Mr. Secretary, that most countries in the Middle East are already hedging against perceptions that the United States is not invested in the region, and those assessments are based on the President himself. 

How else to explain Putin’s high five with the Crown Prince at the G20 in Argentina?  The parade of Gulf rulers in Russia doing deals on the margins of the World Cup earlier this year?  Or the announcements by several U.S. partners of talks to purchase the Russian S-400 system despite the prospect of Congressional sanctions under the CAATSA law?

Given not just the war in Yemen, but also the murder of Khashoggi, the blockage of Qatar, I believe we need to take steps to recalibrate the future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. 

That is why I am disappointed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not take up the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act of 2018,  a bill that I am leading along with Senators Young, Reed, Graham, Shaheen, and Collins.  We will continue to work on this legislation next year. 

It does not seek to tear down the entire Saudi-U.S. relationship.  Instead it is carefully calibrated to force a rebalancing in priorities:

  • The United States should no longer be selling weapons to the Kingdom that will be used to kill women and children in Yemen.  We should however, continue to support Saudi Arabia’s legitimate defensive needs like intercepting Houthi missiles coming from Yemen.
  • The United States should no longer refuel Saudi-Coalition aircraft for operations in Yemen clearly correlated with a rise in civilian casualties. 
  • The United States must now take a stand against all stakeholders in this conflict that are blocking humanitarian access, preventing forward movement under the UN peace process, or receiving weapons from Iran. 
  • Our bill also ensures that Congress right-sizes its oversight over this relationship – the Trump Administration must follow the letter of the Global Magnitksy law and it must take a firm stand in support of human rights when it comes to Saudi Arabia. 

This is not caterwauling or media piling on, this is Congress doing what the American people elected us to do: ensuring that the United States Government conducts foreign policy in a manner that protects the United States and the American people. 

We are not doing our job if foreign governments believe they can murder journalists and dissidents with impunity and disregard international norms without damaging their relationship with the United States.

Saudi Arabia has joined a sinister clique along with North Korea, Russia, and Iran in its assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.  A few more weapons purchases cannot buy our silence. 

If the President will not, the Congress must act.