Lindsey Graham is hopping mad at Saudi Arabia’s “crazy,” “dangerous” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and has been saying so into every camera and tape recorder that’s approached his face this week.
After a briefing Wednesday by CIA Director Gina Haspel about MBS’ alleged culpability in the killing of reporter Jamal Khashoggi, Graham told reporters, “Saudi Arabia is put on notice that business as usual has come to an end for me. I will not look at the kingdom the same way that I used to look at it.”
On Fox News on Tuesday night, Graham addressed President Trump directly, saying, “If you give this guy a pass, after he disrespected you, you will look weak and you don’t want to look weak. Right now, you’ve got to be strong. Everybody’s watching.”
One thing Graham is, notably, not doing is backing the resolution sponsored by Sens. Bernie Sanders, Mike Lee, and Chris Murphy, which would invoke the 1973 War Powers Resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen.
Instead, Graham introduced his own resolution Thursday, along with a bipartisan group of five other senators, that “holds Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman accountable” for various offenses including the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the killing of Khashoggi.
While the measure is notable in contradicting the president, who has insisted there’s no proof MBS was involved in Khashoggi’s death, it doesn’t actually change U.S. policy in any way. It certainly is not the “ton of bricks” that Graham vowed to bring down on MBS after Haspel’s briefing. Despite the performative outrage of the last few weeks, a cynic might say that Graham is actually running interference for Trump and the Saudis, giving Republicans and hawkish Democrats cover to not vote for the Sanders-Lee-Murphy resolution.
Still, some see a genuine shift from the senator who once was one of the Saudis’ staunchest backers on Capitol Hill, pointing to Graham’s vow not to approve any additional arms sales to Saudi Arabia until MBS is removed. But the mechanism by which the Senate would block arms sales is murky. Much of that authority is based on informal long-standing arrangements and norms.
By convention, the four ranking members from both parties on the House and Senate foreign relations committees can put a hold on a proposed sale during an informal review period to get information from the administration. Sen. Robert Menendez is currently doing this with the proposed sale of precision-guided munitions kits to Saudi Arabia. But these holds are meant as an information-gathering tool, not a permanent veto. And there’s also nothing legally stopping the administration from going ahead anyway. “Ignoring Congress to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia despite a hold or even a broader Senate action would violate a lot of norms, but norms are not what they used to be in this government,” Jonathan Caverley, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, told me via email.
Under the Arms Export Control Act, the Congress can pass a joint resolution of disapproval to block an arms sale, which in practice would require a two-thirds majority to overcome a presidential veto. This has never actually happened, although it nearly did in 1986, forcing President Ronald Reagan to amend a proposed sale of missiles to the Saudis. This Congress has defied Trump on foreign policy before—passing by a veto-proof majority the new Russia sanctions that he opposed—but members may be wobbly in their resolve to punish a longtime U.S. ally.
The Sanders-Lee-Murphy resolution is hardly a perfect solution either. The Trump administration could argue, as it’s done in the past, that U.S. involvement in the war, mostly aerial targeting assistance and intelligence sharing, does not constitute “hostilities” as defined by the War Powers Resolution. (Under congressional pressure, the administration announced a halt to the midair refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft last month.)* At the very least, the resolution is a new and untested application of the law. In the event of its passage, however, Saudi Arabia could just continue bombing Yemen without U.S. intelligence.
But the resolution is, at the very least, an attempt by Congress to use the leverage it has to force the administration to use the leverage it has to bring an end to a humanitarian catastrophe.
Graham may have a better idea. But we haven’t heard it yet.
Correction, Dec. 7, 2018: This post originally stated that the Trump administration had announced a halt to the refueling of Saudi-led coalition aircraft this month. It was announced in November.