Convincing Trump to break up with Saudi Arabia

Congress must convince Trump to break up with Saudi Arabia. Here's how
6 min read
14 Dec, 2018
Comment: The only way the White House would willingly change tack on Riyadh is if the president thinks he looks bad, writes Marcus Montgomery.
A Democratically controlled House may be more willing to reshape US-Saudi relations [AFP]
Much is being made about the Senate's vote to invoke the War Powers Resolution this week in an effort to end US involvement in the war in Yemen, and for good reason. 

In Washington, this manoeuver has never been done before and the fact that it passed a GOP-held Senate when a fellow Republican occupies the Oval Office is something of a miracle.

But, at the end of the day, the vote is largely meaningless for those in Yemen. The suffering continues and millions remain at risk of starvation. More potential good 
came from Sweden this week, than anything that happened in Washington. Indeed, a one-chamber vote in Congress does little to alleviate the real troubles facing the Yemeni people.

That said, Senate's vote should have moved the bar for the new Congress that will be seated in January 2019. At a minimum S.J. Res. 54 should pass both chambers next year when Democrats control the House of Representatives.

In the coming year, the conversation among elected officials will no longer be "Should the US be involved in Yemen?" but instead it will shift to how best to extricate Washington from the carnage happening there, and what ways the United States can use its leverage over the Saudis to facilitate a quicker political resolution to the war.

But, unfortunately for those members of Congress who want to see the war in Yemen come to an end, and who want to see a recalibration of the US posture towards Saudi Arabia, there is remarkably little they can do on their own.

Trump understands branding and I'm sure he would hate to be branded the junior partner in the US-Saudi relationship

The sad fact is they simply do not have a veto-proof majority in both the Senate and House necessary to pass a War Powers Resolution into law, or to levy other kinds of punishment, such as the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act offered by a bipartisan group of Senators.

Lawmakers can stick provisions that punish the Saudis in must-pass spending bills, and dare Trump to shut down the government over Saudi Arabia, but it is doubtful congressional leadership will take a gamble like that.

There are also some procedural manoeuvers that members of the Senate can use to shutdown arms sales, but those are only useful as long as the administration respects the tradition and defers to Senators on that point, which is no guarantee.  

If Congress wants to seriously change US policy towards Saudi Arabia, it has to take the Trump adminstration to war in the arena that the president understands best: public relations.

Chairman Corker understood this point well when he offered 
S.J. Res. 69 as a possible vehicle for both shaming MbS and for furthering along an end to the fighting in Yemen.

Joint resolutions, like regular bills, must go to the president's desk for his signature or a veto after passing both Houses, setting the president up for an awkward choice.

S.J. Res. 69 says a lot of things, but most notably it says that Congress believes that MbS "is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi".

If it were to pass the House, President Trump would have to decide whether to sign it, making it a law saying that the US Congress thinks the ruler-to-be of a strategic partner had a journalist murdered in cold blood, or he would have to veto it and explain why.

Trump will likely be spared the choice this year thanks to the feckless GOP majority in the House, but that will not be the case next year. If S.J. Res. 69 can make it through the Senate again next year (a possibility, seeing as it passed unanimously with McConnell as a cosponsor), Trump will almost certainly have to make that decision.

If he signs it, all the better, but if he vetoes it then the real PR battle begins.

Lawmakers should go on the president's favourite news station and talk about the nature of US-Saudi relations

He will likely dress his veto decision up in terms of how Congress cannot dictate how the US handles affairs with security partners as that is left to the president. But, any social media-savvy member of Congress could, and should make the argument that the president looks weak and is doing the bidding of MbS.

President Trump understands branding and I'm sure he would hate to be branded the junior partner in the US-Saudi relationship.

This is just one example of the approach Congress should take, but the underlying strategy remains that, if US policy towards Saudi Arabia is really going to change, it is going to have to come from within the Executive Branch; I just don't think enough Republicans will join Democrats and Independents in forcing Trump's hand on Saudi Arabia.

That said, the only way that the White House would willingly change tack on Riyadh is if the president thinks he looks bad maintaining the status quo.

So, Congress can continue trying to pass bills and joint resolutions like the War Powers Resolution or S.J. Res. 69 and dare the president veto them.

But the House should also undertake investigations into Trump-Saudi business ties, and lawmakers - including Democrats and Independents - should go on the president's favorite news station and talk about the nature of US-Saudi relations.

Imagine a senator on Fox News hammering points like, "America is getting ripped off, paying 
$331 million to protect Saudi Arabia and what do the Saudis do? They raise oil prices!" and "The Saudis think they can walk all over this administration because they think they have them in their pockets."

If there is anything that can turn the president against someone he likes, it's the thought of someone making him look weak or him being taken advantage of.

In the meantime, however, Congress' PR game could have tangible effects with the Saudis themselves.

Despite MbS' seeming irrationality, he, like the current king and the rest of the royal family, is conscious of the global opinion about Riyadh, especially in Washington.

The Khashoggi affair illustrates how the Saudis will calculate their moves based on what they think will satisfy Washington. After calls for justice, the Saudis relented and 
said they would investigate (never mind the absurdity of that idea) and, after continuing pressure, eventually arrested 18 individuals in connection with the murder (sacrificial lambs, most likely).

Even Senator Chris Murphy noticed how the conversation in Washington seemed to, in part, drive Saudi behaviour, saying on Twitter, "make no mistake, it's no coincidence that the success of these negotiations is occurring at the same time Congress is ending the blank check to the Saudi side of the war."

If he signs it, all the better, but if he vetoes it then the real PR battle begins

Continued legislative efforts combined with a robust PR strategy might allow Congress to indirectly influence a change in Riyadh's behaviour.

Congress will start anew in January with a Democratic-controlled House that will be more willing to reshape US-Saudi relations, but an influx of votes is not enough to unilaterally change the status-quo, especially with a stubborn and recalcitrant administration like the current one.

So, while Congress continues to try and legislate changes to Washington's policy towards Riyadh, it needs a sharp, savvy, and robust public relations strategy in order to change the president's mind about MbS and Saudi Arabia.  

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst for Congressional Affairs at Arab Center Washington DC.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.