Lawmakers in both parties are growing more skeptical of the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia.
This week, 27 senators — three Republicans and 24 Democrats — voted against a $1.15 billion arms sale to the country. That wasn’t enough to block it, but it was more votes against the deal than observers expected.
“You are seeing more willingness to challenge the nature of the relationship, and I think that’s positive,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of the leaders of the effort to block the arms sale. “Alliances go both ways. If you’re partner is doing things that aren’t in your interest, then you need to reserve the ability to start questioning your participation in that alliance.”
Before now, President Obama had been seen as taking a lonely stance as the Saudi skeptic-in-chief.
Obama angered Saudi Arabia earlier this year in an interview with The Atlantic when he referred to the country as “free riders” and suggested it is too focused on its rivalry with Iran at the expense of broader regional stability.
Lawmakers repeatedly slammed Obama for turning his back on Saudi Arabia as he pursued the nuclear deal with Iran, the country’s traditional foe.
But the roles have now reversed. Obama on Friday vetoed a bill that would allow families of the 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government in court. Obama argued the bill undermine sovereign immunity and open up U.S. diplomats and military service members to legal action overseas.
Congress is expected to override the veto next week — something that has never before happened in Obama’s tenure.
Cole Bockenfeld, deputy director for policy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, said Congress is more willing to question the U.S.-Saudi relationship for a few reasons.
First, there was Saudi Arabia’s crackdown after the Arab Spring in 2011. Then, there was a growing unease about the Kingdom’s global spread of Wahhabism, an ultraconservative Islam that is said to have inspired terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Now there are growing worries about the civilian death toll in Yemen, where a Saudi-led, U.S.-supported coalition is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
“I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a shift against the relationship as a whole, but it’s an open questioning,” Bockenfeld said. “I think those questions have been there for some time. Now it’s just much more in the open.”
Bockenfeld compared the arms sale vote to one earlier this year to block a military aircraft sale to Pakistan, which garnered 24 votes in opposition. The Saudi vote being on par with, and even slightly edging out, the Pakistan vote might indicate Congress is beginning to view the two countries similarly — with “discomfort and ambiguity,” he said.
Bockenfeld anticipates congressional antipathy toward Saudi Arabia will continue to grow as the war in Yemen drags on.
“Some lawmakers will start looking at, are there other ways to try to influence the conduct of the Saudis,” he said. “The main component of U.S. support [for the coalition in Yemen] has been refueling Saudi bombers. I think there are some voices that will want to look into that.”
While voices of skepticism are growing louder, many lawmakers have remained steadfast in support of Saudi Arabia.
“Although we face challenges, Saudi Arabia is a critical U.S. partner as we deal with shared threats from Iran and ISIS,” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said in statement.
The war in Yemen was the chief issue raised by those who were pushing to block the arms sale to Saudi Arabia. In addition to civilian casualties, lawmakers fear the chaos has allowed for the growth of ISIS and al Qaeda, and that Saudi Arabia’s strikes are targeting neither group.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who led the effort to block the sale with Murphy, described the 27 senators who supported the effort as a “growing coalition.”
“A growing coalition of legislators refused to sit idly by while the president inserts America into another war and an escalating arms race in an unstable region without congressional authorization or debate,” Paul said in a statement after the vote. “As violent jihadists attack the West, the Saudis continue to fund madrassas that preach hatred and violence against the West.”
A bipartisan resolution was also introduced in the House to block the arms sale, though it’s unlikely to get a vote. Still, 64 House members recently signed a letter that expressed reservations about the deal.
“Saudi Arabia continues to spend billions of dollars funding the spread of the Wahhabi Salafist ideology that fuels groups like ISIS, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups around the world,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), one of the House resolution’s cosponsors and a letter signatory, said in a statement this week. “The U.S. must stop arming Saudi Arabia, stop fueling this fire and hold Saudi Arabia accountable for their actions.”
Lawmakers also have lingering suspicions about Saudi Arabia’s role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack. There was no smoking gun linking the Saudi government to the terrorists in 28 declassified pages released this summer, but many think the Saudis were at least complicit in al Qaeda’s rise. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia.
Even some who support Saudi Arabia and argued against blocking the arms sale acknowledged there are times that U.S.-Saudi interests do not align.
Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn (Texas) made such an argument when defending the seeming contradiction of supporting both the arms sale and the 9/11 bill.
“Some might say, well, how can you agree to maintain the relationship with Saudi Arabia when it comes to providing them with the necessary arms that they need in order to fight this proxy war by Iran against the Gulf State allies, and how can you at the same time support this Justice Against … Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which some say may be focused on the Saudis,” Cornyn said.
“When our interests are aligned with countries like Saudi Arabia, we will stand with them, and we hope they would stand with us. When they diverge, we’re going to take a little different approach.”