A significant shift in the political and public perception of Saudi Arabia — and its proxy war against Iran in Yemen that has created the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian catastrophe — is occurring in Congress and across America.
Journalists, of course, are covering the story.
But they’re also part of the story — starting with the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident who moved to America to avoid the rising repression of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often called MBS), Saudi Arabia’s de facto day-to-day ruler.
The issue has incensed U.S. senators, who on Thursday condemned the crown prince for Khashoggi’s murder. That action, passed unanimously on a voice vote, rejected the rhetorical cover (if not coverup) provided by President Donald Trump, who lamely labeled MBS’s alleged involvement inconclusive.
As to whether MBS “had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did, maybe he didn’t!” Trump said previously in a statement.
“There is no smoking gun,” echoed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the president — and, by extension, the crown prince.
“There’s not a smoking gun, there’s a smoking saw,” countered South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, referring to the bone saw allegedly used in Khashoggi’s grisly killing at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Graham’s GOP colleague, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, added that “if the crown prince went in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes.”
The jury of lawmakers in the House won’t have a chance to vote on the crown prince’s complicity, since Republicans (as well as five Democrats, including Minnesota’s Collin Peterson) used unrelated agricultural legislation to block action. That dodge won’t endure, however. Early next year, a bill similar to the Senate’s will find a home in a Democratic-led House.
The Senate didn’t just hold MBS accountable. For the first time it invoked the War Powers Act to pass a resolution urging an end to American support for Saudi Arabia’s incursion into Yemen. Unlike most votes in the deeply divided chamber, this one won on a bipartisan basis, 56-41 (a margin that should be sustainable in the next Senate as well).
While much would still have to happen to hamper American aid to the Saudi war effort, “the political statement would be the most impactful,” Simon Henderson, director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an e-mail exchange. “Congress,” continued Henderson, “was already concerned because of Yemen. The Khashoggi murder has added horror to the equation.”
Unlike too many human-rights horrors, this one hasn’t faded from view. And in fact the revulsion over the repulsive slaughter of an American resident seems to be rising. Some of this is due to the congressional consternation. And some is no doubt due to the work of Khashoggi’s colleagues at the Washington Post, who have been unflinching in calling for justice. Just this week the paper ran a full-page ad with Khashoggi’s image along with this caption: “A life is gone. The principles of free expression endure.”
Time magazine added to the story’s durability by naming “The Guardians” its Person of the Year. The cover story, subtitled “The War On Truth,” focused on four journalists, including Khashoggi, of whom it wrote: “The stout man with the gray goatee and the gentle demeanor dared to disagree with his country’s government. He told the world the truth about its brutality toward those who would speak out. And he was murdered for it.”
The brutality didn’t start, and sadly hasn’t stopped, with Khashoggi. (And it hasn’t stopped with Saudi Arabia, either, according to a Committee to Protect Journalists report released on Thursday headlined: “Hundreds of journalists jailed globally becomes the new normal.”) Saudi Arabia “stepped up its repression of journalists at home, with at least 16 journalists behind bars on December 1,” the report stated. (Scores of other Saudis from fields beyond journalism have been rounded up and allegedly tortured during detention, according to Amnesty International.)
“There’s an evolution not only in the number of journalists detained, but the scope of the repression, as well,” said Justin Shilad, CPJ’s Middle East and North African research associate. “It had moved firmly into the mainstream from the margins.”
So has the concern — over Khashoggi, and Yemen. “I don’t know if it’s human psychology, but there’s something really fascinating about how hearing about this brutal murder of one person has galvanized American public interest in the conflict in Yemen and the way it’s affecting civilians, families and children,” said Alexandra Stark, a predoctoral research fellow at Harvard’s Middle East Initiative. Stark, a scholar of civil wars in the Middle East and North Africa, put particular focus on the optics of the conflict, including the devastating New York Times photograph of Amal Hussain, a starving 7-year-old Yemeni girl.
The paper hasn’t blinked. Columnist Nicholas Kristoff, upholding the “guardian” ethos, dedicated most of his recent column space to show another startling image, this time of Abrar Ibrahim, a 28-pound, 12-year-old girl, who is just one individual in a country where half are at risk of famine. “Nothing I write can be as searing or persuasive or true as Abrar is in this photo,” Kristoff wrote in a column headlined “End This Shameful War.”
The war, however shameful, isn’t ending anytime soon. But a U.N.-negotiated cease-fire in the port city of Hudayah, where much of the desperately needed humanitarian aid arrives, offers hope that peace is possible.
The congressional and public pressure may have had “a strong impact in terms of how the intervening countries the United States supports” view the issue, Stark said.
For now, the royals in Riyadh “are trying to weather the storm,” Shilad said. And according to the New York Times, administration aide Jared Kushner is helping MBS do just that by offering his friend the crown prince advice on how to “weather the storm.”
The U.S. should be the storm, not protect the crown prince from it. If the president won’t endorse American values, lawmakers must fill the void.
After all, members of Congress should be “guardians,” too.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.