The Saudi government spends tens of millions of dollars every year on lobbying in Washington and has, to a large extent, gotten a good return on its investment. President Trump made the kingdom his first foreign visit as president last year, he repeatedly touts his friendship with the royal family, and he singled out Saudi Arabia as part of a “beautiful constellation” of like-minded nations in his speech to the United Nations last month. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman got a warm welcome from Washington, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood during his trip to the U.S. last spring. And the U.S. has mostly looked the other way as the crown prince has continued to lock up his critics, carried on bizarre feuds with U.S. allies, detained the prime minister of a sovereign state, and, most egregiously, continued a brutal war with a sickening civilian toll in impoverished Yemen. But the surprisingly strong reaction to the disappearance and likely murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi indicates that the Saudi government overestimated its popularity in the U.S.
While few can match Trump for sycophancy, he’s certainly not the first president to stick up for the Saudis. The U.S. political divide over the relationship with Saudi Arabia has long been less between Republicans and Democrats than between Congress and the executive branch. The George W. Bush administration defended the sale of precision-guided munitions equipment from critics in Congress who worried Saudi Arabia could pose a security threat to Israel. (This was a very different time; today, Saudi Arabia and Israel are essentially unofficial allies against Iran.) In 2016, Congress overturned Barack Obama’s veto of a bill to allow families of 9/11 victims to sue the kingdom over its alleged role in the attacks.
Under Trump, congressional criticism over U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen has been growing, and a resolution blocking a sale of precision-guided munitions to the kingdom was narrowly defeated last summer.
Saudi Arabia is not popular with the U.S. public, either. Only 31 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the kingdom, just behind China and just ahead of Russia, according to a Gallup poll from last year. So members of Congress generally feel safe expressing grave concerns about the kingdom. (Trump himself used to refer to the Saudis as “the world’s biggest funders of terrorism” back when he was running for president.) Presidents, meanwhile, have generally found the U.S.-Saudi partnership too valuable to cut loose, no doubt on the advice of the Pentagon.
This dynamic is in play once again in the wake of the Khashoggi affair, but the Saudis’ critics do appear to have a stronger position this time. Sen. Bob Menendez, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, who has sided with the administration on Saudi issues in the past, is pausing a proposed sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, and Congress would likely reject any proposed arms deal with the Saudis right now. What’s more, 22 senators have triggered a provision in the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to force an investigation to determine whether sanctions should be applied on Saudi officials in response to Khashoggi’s probable killing. While the strongest criticism of Saudi Arabia has typically come from liberals as well as libertarian-leaning Republicans like Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee, in the past week Iran hawks like Sens. Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham have spoken out too.
Critics have, fairly, asked how these leaders can be so outraged about one death when Saudi Arabia has killed thousands of people in Yemen. But the death of a journalist and well-known Washington figure has had an impact in the U.S. Capitol that a murky, faraway war, with atrocities committed on both sides, has not.
Multiple presidents have made the case that for all their many flaws, the Saudis are necessary to broader U.S. priorities in the Middle East. But Crown Prince Mohammed’s erratic and violent behavior, which has now struck someone at the heart of the Beltway, has made it harder to argue that Saudi Arabia is some sort of bulwark of stability in a sea of conflict and radicalism. Judging by Trump’s remarks Monday and on 60 Minutes Sunday night, the Saudis don’t have anything to worry about when it comes to the president’s unwavering support. But they may have miscalculated how deep the support is outside the White House.