Congress is Trump’s enabler on Saudi vices

By ROB BERSCHINSKI | Special to The Washington Post | Published: December 17, 2019

The president and his political allies continue to do serious damage to America’s global reputation. Now, in a stunning abdication, Congress has used the annual National Defense Authorization Act to make clear that it will impose no meaningful penalty on Saudi Arabia or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for directing the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or for prosecuting the horrific war in Yemen.

Since a Saudi hit team killed and dismembered Washington Post contributing columnist Khashoggi in October 2018, Republican and Democratic members of Congress have waxed eloquent on the need to hold the crown prince responsible for the murder. They did so in opposition to a president who has sided with the Saudi dictator over his own diplomats, intelligence professionals and Congress at every available opportunity.

Almost one year ago, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution holding the Saudi crown prince responsible for the murder, and Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Todd Young, R-Ind.; and Susan Collins, R-Maine, joined Democrats in introducing tough legislation to punish the Saudi crown prince and others deemed responsible for the killing. In the House, bipartisan legislation introduced by Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., imposing visa restrictions on the culprits passed by the overwhelming number of 405 to 7. But Senate Republicans refused to put Malinowski’s bill up for a vote.

Similarly, bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate passed resolutions this year that would have blocked U.S. sales of bombs to Saudi Arabia and its partner, the United Arab Emirates. Both countries have used U.S. arms for their war in Yemen, which has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and pushed millions to the brink of starvation. Congress also passed a resolution that would have ended U.S. military support to the Saudi air war. The president issued four different vetoes to protect Saudi Arabia and block those measures from taking effect.

Given this political reality, House leaders included Malinowski’s bill requiring accountability for Khashoggi’s murder in the $738 billion NDAA. They also added measures on U.S. arms sales and other military support to Saudi Arabia and the UAE (as well as addressing many other high-profile issues).

But amid congressional horse-trading on matters as disparate as the Space Force, funding for the border wall and federal paid parental leave, it appears that Republicans, fearful as always of President Donald Trump’s wrath, made clear that they would refuse to agree to any meaningful accountability for Saudi Arabia through the defense bill.

This disheartening — if not entirely surprising — news comes less than a week after a Saudi military officer murdered three U.S. Navy sailors at a military facility in Florida. Our president responded by refusing to label the killing as an act of terrorism and by putting as positive a spin on the Saudi government’s reaction as possible.

To their credit, House and Senate negotiators left in the final NDAA a requirement for a formal determination by the intelligence community on whether the crown prince and other Saudi leaders directed Khashoggi’s killing and covered it up. They also demanded that the Defense Department report on whether the 20,000-plus airstrikes by Saudi Arabia and its partners in Yemen have violated the laws of war. (They have.) If performed credibly, these assessments might open the door for a future administration, one less in the pocket of the House of Saud, to take appropriate action. For now, however, Trump’s unyielding loyalty to a Saudi potentate appears to have carried the day over so much congressional bluster.

It’s a bitter coincidence that Congress unveiled the NDAA on Dec. 9, the eve of International Human Rights Day — a day invoking the U.S.-led project, in 1948, to adopt a global standard for how governments should treat their citizens. Despite this legacy, it’s clear the United States is led in 2019 by a man who admires leaders such as the Saudi crown prince, who rule — and kill the innocent — unchecked by law. For reasons both baffling and well understood, one of America’s great political parties remains in thrall to such a man.

By failing to stand up to Trump’s authoritarian sympathies by penalizing Saudi leaders, Congress has signaled to dictators that they’re free to assassinate journalists and dissidents, and to wantonly kill civilians in war, so long as they have convinced Trump that they are his friends. In so doing, Congress has given a heinous gift to human rights violators that will make the world less safe — and the United States less respected.

Rob Berschinski is the senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor.

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