Trump takes on congress to protect US-Saudi ties

Trump’s Middle East policy, as many analysts have noted, has been largely Saudi-centric.
Saturday 03/08/2019
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (R) shakes hands with US President Donald Trump during their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Japan, June 29. (AFP)
Transactional partnership. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz (R) shakes hands with US President Donald Trump during their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Japan, June 29. (AFP)

US President Donald Trump has used his constitutional powers to veto several congressional measures designed to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

This presidential action will have the effect of keeping US ties to Riyadh intact but will contribute to more tensions between the White House and Congress, even among some Republicans.

Trump’s Middle East policy, as many analysts have noted, has been largely Saudi-centric. From the beginning of his presidency, Trump sought to cultivate the Saudi leadership, including making Riyadh the first foreign capital that he visited as president.

Part of this policy was transactional: large arms sales to the kingdom, in Trump’s view, helped to create good-paying manufacturing jobs in the United States, which was one of his key campaign pledges in 2016.

Another part of the policy was to enhance Saudi Arabia’s military posture to counter Iran and its activities in the wider region, such as the war in Yemen.

In addition, the Trump team saw close relations with Saudi Arabia as helping to build Arab support for its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, which has yet to be revealed in full. This was demonstrated by the friendship that developed between Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is in charge of the peace plan, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

The US Congress, however, took a much different view of the relationship. The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul led to loud condemnations by many members of Congress. Also, the war in Yemen, which created a severe humanitarian crisis in that country and led members to criticise the United States’ role in assisting the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthi rebels.

Indeed, the latter issue became so controversial that Congress invoked the War Powers Resolution, legislation that was enacted in the last years of the Vietnam War, aiming to halt US military assistance to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.

Trump vetoed that bill in April and there was not enough support in Congress to override it. Under the US Constitution, there needs to be a two-thirds majority vote in Congress to override a presidential veto.

This use of veto power came up again in recent days. This past spring, the Trump administration attempted to short circuit the normal congressional review process for foreign arms sales by declaring an “emergency” in the Gulf region, which would have the effect of bypassing Congress under a seldom-used provision in the Arms Export Control Act.

Many members of Congress, even Republicans, objected to the administration running roughshod over “congressional prerogatives,” while others emphasised that the “emergency” was concocted by the White House for political purposes.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo justified invoking the emergency provision because of what he described as Iran’s “malign” influence “throughout the Middle East region.” The arms sales in question, mostly to Saudi Arabia and the United Arad Emirates, amounted to approximately $8 billion.

Congress, with the support of some Republican members, passed three resolutions of disapproval on the large arms sale package but they were all vetoed by Trump on July 24. In his message justifying his action, he said the resolutions were “ill-conceived” because they failed to address “the root causes” of the Yemen conflict.

When members of the US Senate attempted to override the vetoes, the vote fell far short of the two-thirds majority. Only six Republicans joined the Democrats in voting for the override legislation to move forward.

Even though this was a victory for Trump, some prominent Republican voices were not happy with the state of US-Saudi relations. A few Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including Trump ally Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined the ranking Democratic member on the committee, Robert Menendez, in writing a bill that would suspend all non-defensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, which would encompass much of the aforementioned arms sale items.

The Washington Post reported that the Republican chairman of that committee, Jim Risch of Idaho, said that such a resolution would “get vetoed” by Trump and said he would prefer his own bill that would have a better chance of being signed by the president.

After a bruising fight in the committee in late July, Risch withdrew his bill and the committee voted in favour of the Menendez measure but Risch said he and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell would not allow the bill to go to the floor for a full Senate vote.

On July 31, Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, and Graham introduced legislation called the “Saudi Arabia Human Rights and Accountability Act.”

The introduction of such legislation indicates that Trump’s uncritical support of Riyadh remains highly contentious in Congress.