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Don’t Count on Republicans to Punish Saudi Arabia

They've been capitulating to Trump for two years now. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi isn't likely to change that.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump has stuck by Saudi Arabia through every twist of the saga of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist and Virginia resident who was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Turkey earlier this month. He seemingly was the only person in Washington who believed the country’s initial denials of any involvement. When Saudi Arabia followed two weeks of lies with an admission and a bizarre defense—that Khashoggi had been killed after an “accidental fistfight”—Trump accepted that, too. The president has made it clear that all that really matters is the preservation of a $110 billion arms deal reached last year, which he falsely claims will create a million jobs.

“I would prefer that we don’t use, as retribution, canceling $110 billion worth of work,” he said on Friday, later adding, “You know, I’d rather keep the million jobs, and I’d rather find another solution.”

This has put Senate Republicans, particularly the self-appointed torch-bearers of the party’s foreign policy, in a familiar bind. Bob Corker told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday that the Senate had invoked the Magnitsky Act, which could lead to sanctions being placed against Saudi Arabia. Ben Sasse told Tapper, “You don’t bring a bonesaw to an accidental fistfight,” referring to the implement allegedly used to dismember Khashoggi’s corpse. Peter King went even further, telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that he thinks the Saudis are “the most immoral government we’ve ever had to deal with.”

But with the exception of the usual exceptions, like the war skeptic Rand Paul, the calls for action have been relatively muted. Some Senate Republicans have even acted as though they’re the real victims of Khashoggi’s murder. Lindsey Graham told reporters, “I’ve been the leading supporter along with John McCain of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. I feel completely betrayed.” And Marco Rubio tweeted this unfortunate formulation:

It’s becoming increasingly clear that, for all their outrage (or mere disappointment) at Saudi Arabia, Senate Republicans have no intention of doing anything about the Kingdom’s murder of Khashoggi. And if that turns out to be true, it will be for same reason that the Senate has backed down time and again since the beginning of 2017. Over the past two years, Trump has systematically demolished one Republican principle after another. The party’s foreign policy moralism would simply be the last one to die.

Despite all the talk of possible rapprochement with Russia, this administration’s most successful foreign policy reset has been with Saudi Arabia. When Trump took office, the long relationship between United States and Saudi Arabia, built on oil and a desire to contain Iran, was in its worst shape in decades. Engaged in proxy wars across the Middle East, the Saudis were opposed both the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, on the grounds that both empowered their enemy.

But a visit from Trump in early 2017 ended in the $110 billion arms deal and, a couple of months later, the renunciation of the Iran deal. After Trump’s visit, CNN reported the “Saudis have begun to view Trump as a like-minded partner—one who put Iran ‘on notice’ early in his presidency and has vowed to take a tougher line on the Saudi nemesis than his predecessor. His team also seems less likely to chide the kingdom on human rights issues, a perennial thorn in the US-Saudi relationship.”

Bin Salman’s successful 2018 visit to the U.S.—and cultivation of elites in American media, business, and, most of all, politics—allowed some skeptics to see what they wanted to see in Saudi Arabia. Promising to remake his country’s oil-based economy, Bin Salman presented himself as a reformer, ending his country’s ban on female drivers in 2017. This image glossed over the Kingdom’s numerous human rights abuses both at home and abroad. The country is deeply engaged in two brutal wars in Syria and Yemen, which is in the midst of one of the worst famines in recent history thanks in large part to a Saudi blockade.

Nevertheless, that famine and Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing (of a bus filled with 50 schoolchildren, among other horrors), were largely ignored until Khashoggi’s brazen murder. Now, Republicans are having to answer for their support of an authoritarian country, and to figure out how far they can go in sanctioning it without provoking the wrath of a president who would “rather find another solution.” If history is any guide, they won’t go very far at all.

Ever since Trump took office, Senate Republicans have made a big show of pushing back against Trump whenever his foreign policy deviated from the party establishment. But true action has been rare. After Trump accepted Vladimir Putin’s promise that Russia didn’t interfere in the 2016 election, the “outcry, including from Republicans, was instant,” The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos noted. “More remarkable, though, was what didn’t happen. No one resigned from the Cabinet. No Republican senators took concrete steps to restrain or contain or censure the President.”

And even when the Republican-led Senate has taken concrete steps, they have often been symbolic. In response to Trump’s repeated criticism of NATO, the Senate “passed a non-binding measure, 97-2, that expresses support for NATO, its mutual self-defense clause and calls on the administration to rush its whole-of-government strategy to counter Russia’s meddling in the U.S. and other democracies,” DefenseNews reported in July. The Senate passed another non-binding resolution after Trump briefly flirted with the idea of handing over U.S. officials to Russia for questioning. Senate Republicans have also tried strongly worded committee reports and letters to the president.

As long as Trump is the most popular Republican politician in America, and he’s taking the arms deal off the table, it’s unclear what Senate Republicans could do to send a meaningful message to Bin Salman and Saudi Arabia. It’s also unclear that they even want to. From senators Graham and Rubio, there’s the sense that Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses are better left ignored—that what matters is that they are allies in the fight against Iran. Surely others agree with Trump that one man’s murder does not warrant reneging on a $100 billion arms deal, which might explain why talk of blocking the deal appears not to have nearly the necessary support in the Senate.

The New York Times reported on Saturday that Trump is “betting he can stand by his Saudi allies and not suffer any significant damage with voters.” He’s probably right, and some Senate Republicans probably are making the same wager. The midterms have revolved almost entirely around health care and immigration for weeks now, and that’s not likely to change. Some on the right, notably evangelical leader Pat Robertson, are shrugging off Khashoggi’s murder, which only gives them further cover.

If the Republican Senate ultimately does nothing meaningful to punish Saudi Arabia, it will represent the party establishment’s final capitulation to Trump. This was perhaps inevitable after Senator John McCain’s death in August. Though his own foreign policy views were deeply flawed, there’s little doubt that McCain would have been the most morally righteous Republican voice in this moment, chastising Trump and calling on the Senate to punish Saudi Arabia. “We are not the president’s subordinates,” McCain said upon his triumphant return to the Senate last year, after being diagnosed with brain cancer. “We are his equals.” It’s not clear that any of his surviving Republican colleagues feel the same way.