March 06, 2019

Menendez Opening Statement at Nominations Hearing for U.S. Ambassadors to Saudi Arabia and Iraq

WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today delivered the following opening remarks at this morning’s hearing for the nominations of John Abizaid to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and Matthew Tueller to be ambassador to Iraq:

“General Abizaid, Ambassador Tueller, thank you both for your past service, and thank you both for signing up to serve in two complex countries with which the United States has critical security partnerships.

Now, Mr. Chairman, I think it sends an important signal that these are our first two nominees in this Congress, especially since we have not had a nominee for Saudi Arabia in two years. While we have had two closed briefings ostensibly touching on Saudi Arabia this Congress – they were wholly unsatisfactory in providing this committee with information. The Administration’s attempt to explain its failure to provide a legally-mandated determination about the murder of American resident Jamal Khashoggi was insulting.

I urge the Administration to hold open hearings to understand our actions and objectives.

And, Mr. Chairman, specifically, I ask you to work with me - and the other, bipartisan cosponsors on this committee - on the Saudi Arabia and Yemen Accountability Act. If the President fails to act, I believe Congress must.  

Now, to our nominees. You will both face challenging environments. General Abizaid, as we discussed, Saudi Arabia has taken a number of actions that have seriously strained the U.S.-Saudi relationship over the past few years – actions that belie the ambitious reforms many had hoped for.

Under new management, the Crown Prince has launched Saudi Arabia into a devastating war in Yemen; isolated Qatar, threatening Gulf cooperation and coordination against threats from Iran and regional terrorist groups; detained and tortured members of his own family; and effectively hoodwinked and intimidated the Lebanese Prime Minister.

And just this week we publicly learned about the detention and potential torture of a United States citizen. I would like to acknowledge that a member of Dr. Fitaihi’s family and his advocate are here today. 

Amidst all this, we continue to cooperate in confronting real and strategic threats to U.S. and Saudi interests. The Kingdom does continue to face legitimate threats, including from Houthis, often with Iranian backing. No country should be expected to live with the threat of missiles being launched into civilian centers across its border. But as this conflict drags on, violent Houthi factions only become more empowered.

But we cannot let these interests blind us to our values or to our long term interests in stability.  I have been disappointed with the Administration’s public posture towards Saudi Arabia. 

Our leaders cannot credibly call on the world stage and demand accountability for human rights abusers while giving a wink and a nod to the Crown Prince.

General Abizaid, while I am wary of the militarization of the State Department I believe you have the right experience for the kind of leadership we need at our embassy. As we discussed, you will face not only the challenge of engaging directly with the Saudis and managing a large mission in Riyadh, you will have to contend with a White House that at times seems to be running its own bilateral show.

Ambassador Tueller, given your current service to Yemen but stationed in Riyadh - as is the ousted Hadi government - I would also posit some of these challenges to you.

As our ambassador to Yemen, you have been responsible for securing U.S. interests there, for supporting an internationally-led effort to promote a political solution that offers legitimate security assurances for Saudis and Yemenis, while also ensuring that all Yemeni people have a political process to express their interests. One that equitably and adequately addresses all equities, and promotes our interests.

You will face somewhat similar challenges in Iraq. Unfortunately, the President’s lack of a coherent strategy for U.S. policy in Iraq has only increased some of the challenges we face. As we discussed yesterday, there is a growing movement within some political corners to oust American troops from the country. I believe we have invested too many American lives and national treasure, seen too many Iraqis perish under the brutality of terrorism, and risk critical alliances that we have built to do that precipitously.

We must work with the Iraqi people to continue to support building institutions, to promote an inclusive political process, and continue training Iraqi Security Forces so that Iraqis themselves can ultimately defend their country. 

We must support efforts to confront those seeking to continue destabilizing Iraq from a resurgent ISIS to Iranian political ambitions. I am particularly concerned about a proposal to permanently close the consulate in Basra. 

Your job will be to keep an open mind about the political process, finding a way to include Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish populations, with whom all of which the United States has important relationships. 

Thank you, I look forward to you testimony.”

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