Trump administration tries to defend its Saudi policy in face of congressional opposition

Pompeo pointed to the risk that Russian and Chinese influence could grow if the United States withdrew support for Riyadh.
Sunday 02/12/2018
Standing firm. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters after a closed-door meeting with senators about Saudi Arabia, November 28. (AP)
Standing firm. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters after a closed-door meeting with senators about Saudi Arabia, November 28. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Defending Saudi Arabia and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz despite growing dissent in the US Senate, senior Trump administration officials pointed to Riyadh’s strategic importance in a region unsettled by Iranian aggression.

Outlining a policy that puts the perceived threat by Iran in the centre of deliberations, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence James Mattis, appearing before senators November 28, said downgrading ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia would run counter to the United States’ security interests.

“Degrading ties with Saudi Arabia would be a grave mistake for US national security, and that of our allies,” Pompeo told senators in prepared remarks. “The kingdom is a powerful force for stability in an otherwise fraught Middle East.

“Saudi Arabia is working to stabilise Iraq’s fragile democracy and keep Baghdad tethered to Western interests, not Tehran. Riyadh has helped manage the flood of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war by working closely with host countries, cooperates closely with our ally Egypt and is establishing closer ties with Israel.”

Pompeo pointed to the risk that Russian and Chinese influence could grow if the United States withdrew support for Riyadh. “We want to keep Saudi Arabia in America’s column because the alternative is co-optation by China and Russia,” he said, adding that US arms sales to Riyadh played an important role as well. “Supporting Saudi Arabia’s ability to defend itself and contribute to Middle East stability is central to US interests and those of our allies around the world,” he said.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal before briefing the Senate, Pompeo highlighted what he said were dangers posed by Iran. Saudi Arabia “recognises the immense threat the Islamic Republic of Iran poses to the world,” he wrote.

“Modern-day Iran is, in Henry Kissinger’s term, a cause, not a nation. Its objectives are to spread the Islamic revolution from Tehran to Damascus, to destroy Israel and to subjugate anyone who refuses to submit, starting with the Iranian people. An emboldened Iran would spread even more death and destruction in the Middle East, spark a regional nuclear-arms race, threaten trade routes and foment terrorism around the world.”

Mattis made it clear in the meeting with senators that accusations against Crown Prince Mohammed in connection with the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi should not cool relations between Washington and Riyadh.

“Our security interests cannot be dismissed, even as we seek accountability for what President [Donald] Trump described as the ‘unacceptable and horrible crime’ of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder,” he said at a Pentagon news briefing.

“We must maintain our twin requirements of holding those responsible for the murder to account while recognising the reality of Saudi Arabia as a necessary strategic partner,” Mattis added. “Saudi Arabia, due to geography and the Iranian threat, is fundamental to maintaining regional and Israeli security and to our interest in Mideast stability.”

Mattis conceded “the difficulty in reconciling human aspirations with war’s grim reality” but he warned that the chances for success of peace talks for Yemen this month in Sweden would not be increased by “disengaging” from Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

“Pulling back our limited US military support, our weapons sales to our partners and our protection of the Saudi and Emirati populations would be misguided on the eve of the promising initial negotiations,” Mattis said.

“We cannot be deflected from using all our influence to end this war [in Yemen] for the good of innocent people in trouble and ultimately the safety of our own people and this includes our military engagement.”

Mattis insisted that there was “no smoking gun” tying Crown Prince Mohammed to Khashoggi’s death. He said the United States was “seldom free to work with unblemished partners.”

Pompeo’s and Mattis’s statements justifying the administration’s policy vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia were not sufficient to sway the Senate, which later that day voted 63-37 with rare bipartisan support to advance legislation calling for an end to US involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The result opens the way for the Senate to pass Joint Resolution 54, which would direct “the removal of United States Armed Forces from hostilities in the Republic of Yemen that have not been authorised by Congress.”

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