The Jamal Khashoggi Affair: A Rare Glimpse of a United Congress


Introduction

To say that Washington D.C. and the United States as a whole are divided on political and partisan lines does not seem to properly address our nation’s current state of affairs. Possibly existing in the afterglow of a contentious 2016 presidential election, such a tense feeling of partisanship has only been exacerbated by a consequential midterm election that is now less than a month away. Additionally, occasions such as the ongoing investigation into President Trump by Bob Mueller, or the scandal-plagued Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh seems to have instilled clear fault-lines amongst congresspersons on the hill. However, for those who continue to hold optimism regarding congress’s ability to cooperate across party lines, over the past two weeks a source of hope has arisen over an unexpected topic: Saudi Arabia. The now unequivocally confirmed death of Saudi Journalist, Washington Post contributor and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi has emerged as a flashpoint for senators and members of Congress (MC) from across the political spectrum to echo one another in their calls for President Donald Trump to consider rethinking the supposed special-relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. With foreign affairs being a policy-area largely agreed to be outside of Congress’ traditional purview, the cacophony of calls from politically disparate congresspersons shows that bipartisanship is not dead, and that an unprecedented occupant of the executive branch may once-again be encouraging Congress to challenge the President’s authority in the foreign policy process.  Such a move could have ramifications beyond the free-speech questions raised by the death of Mr. Khashoggi, but also as it relates to wider causes of concern amidst the US-Saudi relationship, such as the ongoing war in Yemen.

The Death of a Journalist

Reports surfaced on October 2, 2018 that Mr. Khashoggi vanished after having entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. That Mr. Khashoggi was a Saudi journalist living in self-imposed exile in Virginia after having fallen out of favor with members of the Saudi monarchy already cast shadows of suspicion over the entire situation. Days later, leaks from Turkish sources declared that Mr. Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate. Still, without any extensive proof, many remained hopeful that Mr. Khashoggi’s supposed death was simply a rumor circulating amidst a war of posturing between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Such optimism however was unequivocally shattered on October 19, 2018 when Saudi officials admitted that Jamal Khashoggi died at the consulate in a supposed interrogation gone wrong. While the circumstances of Khashoggi’s death remain disputed by all actors involved, it is clear the Saudi leadership greatly underestimated the attention that would arise if anything should happen to Khashoggi, who resided in Virginia and was a contributor to the Washington Post.

A United Congress

Already, upon reports that Mr. Khashoggi was missing and perhaps dead, elected American officials in Washington began to voice concern. Beginning on October on October 5, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CN) sent a tweet demanding answers from the Saudi leadership as to the whereabouts of Khashoggi.[1] That Senator Murphy was leading the charge concerning the issues is largely unsurprising, as he is one of few politicians who has made the US-Saudi relationship a linchpin of his platform dating back to his first years in Congress when he began drawing attention to Saudi actions, (and American Weapons), in Yemen.[2] Other expected voices soon joined the raising of questions concerning Jamal’s disappearance. On October 8 Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator Bob Corker (R-TE) also used Twitter to raise concerns over Jamal’s unknown whereabouts.[3] Senator Corker was soon followed by other members of the Foreign Affairs committee who took to the digital platform to speak on the Khashoggi question. Also drawn into the Khashoggi advocacy were members of the Virginia congressional delegation, including Representative Gerry Connolly, (VA11-D) and Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), who began to function as Khashoggi’s supposed elected officials, despite the journalist not actually having US citizenship. The former first expressed his concerns on Twitter on October 4th, the latter following suite on October 7th.[4][5]

On October 10th, the Senate Foreign Relations committee took its most concrete step forward, when all members of the committee, (sans isolationist stalwart Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) ) sent a letter to President Trump invoking the Global Magnitsky Act, which if resulting in evidence of any extrajudicial killing would almost necessarily result in sanctions.[6] However, despite Senator Paul’s lack of signature on the letter, he too has raised concerns over the Khashoggi case, calling the Saudi explanation that the journalist mistakenly died in a fistfight “insulting.”[7] Like Senator Paul, another congressperson with a unique foreign policy outlook, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (HI02-D) has also raised concerns forcefully declaring, “Saudi Arabia is not our ally.” However, unlike Senator Paul and like Senator Murphy, her highlighting of the issue fits within a larger history of commenting on the US-Saudi Relationship.[8]

Aside from the instances of advocacy from these expected voices, the death of Jamal Khashoggi has sparked a litany of statements and concerns from Senators and Congresspersons who traditionally do not have reason to delve into these foreign policy issues. Right on the heels of being in the spotlight of the Kavanaugh hearings, Senator (and potential 2020 candidate) Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) has on multiple occasions tweeted her Khashoggi concerns.[9] So too did Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who seemed to indicate her willingness to pursue a top-to-bottom rethinking of the US Saudi Relations.[10] Such an admission is especially noteworthy given that Boeing, a recipient of lucrative weapons-contracts from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Nations has a major production facility in St. Louis where her comments could potentially impact voters ahead of a tight reelection campaign.[11] However, unlike McCaskill, for most of her colleagues’ criticisms of Saudi Arabia will rarely be an electoral risk, as recent polling shows that despite over 75 years of a US-Saudi relationship marked by massive weapons sales over half of all Americans view the Kingdom unfavorably.[12] Also noteworthy amongst these individuals has been Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who once known for a cozy relationship with the Saudis did a complete 180 and called for a mix-up of the Saudi leadership saying, “This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey, and to expect me to ignore it – I feel used and abused.”[13]

A Slippery Partisan Slope

Despite this apparent Democratic and Republican consensus, what now stands as a bipartisan issue already shows signs that it could easily become a partisan one. As Democrats and many Republicans rushed to condemn Saudi Arabia, a certain segment of the Republican Party has reportedly been building a case against Khashoggi due to this views on the Israel-Palestine Conflict, as well as a demonstrated tolerance of the Muslim Brotherhood.[14] While the two authors making this claim offer no direct quotes from the supposed, “cadre of Conservative House Republicans allied with Trump…privately exchanging articles from right-wing outlets that fuel suspicion of Khashoggi,” such a sentiment was espoused by Republican Senate Candidate Corey Stewart who on a radio show declared that Khashoggi, “was not a good guy himself.”[15] Given that the production facilities of the various weapons manufactures that retain deals with the Saudi government are dispersed widely throughout the United States, even if the proof has yet to come forward, there certainly is a contingent of representatives whose districts would indeed stand to lose if the Khashoggi dilemma resulted in a termination of these contracts.

Additional cracks in the façade of bipartisanship can be seen in the ways the varying parties have been deploying attacks on the President for making claims counter to official US intelligence. Such moves, while not breaking with unified voices in Congress, dredge similar arguments that have been made regarding US intelligences’ findings on Russian interference in the US elections. Adam Schiff, (D-CA) the ranking Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee has called attention to the President’s breaking with US intelligence saying, “The Kingdom and All involved must be held accountable, and if the Trump Administration will not lead, Congress Must.”[16] Additionally, influential Democrats not currently holding official posting within the Congress, such as lawyer and potential 2020 presidential candidate Michael Avenatti have criticized the president for his handling of the situation, calling Trump’s response to Saudi Arabia an “outrage.”[17] Former Vice President Joe Biden has also jumped into the fray, calling Trump’s response to the Khashoggi murder as, “embarrassing” and “dangerous.”[18] Such attempts to leverage Khashoggi against the President may also reflect that this international relations outrage is occurring immediately prior to a consequential midterm election that is undoubtedly influencing how elected officials are responding.

Dollar Diplomacy

In all cases, whether such criticisms are coming from the minority party or members of his own, President Trump has maintained that Saudi money tied up in American weapons sales, as well as the much less commented upon Saudi investments in Silicon Valley, are too valuable to significantly alter the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia.[19] Such a sentiment seems to resonate with his traditional “dollar diplomacy,” a natural bent that commentators argue will embolden human rights violations worldwide.

Perhaps such a shift is taking place. While President Trump continues to tout a supposed $110 USD Arms deal, there are signs that Jamal Khashoggi’s killings may have financial consequences for Saudi investments in the United States. The so-called annual “Davos in the Desert,” meeting organized by the Saudi Public Investment (PIF). The meeting is supposed to bring together international business persons and Saudi officials similar to a meeting that takes place each year in Davos Switzerland. This year however, dozens of high-profile businesspersons and political officials, including Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi have dropped the conference from their itinerary.[20] Only time will tell if these absences will be followed by legitimate changes to Saudi funds, or if they are simply a public image posturing move amidst the Khashoggi stories domination in the headlines. This question is especially paramount for San Francisco-based Uber, which received a $3.5 billion investment from Saudi Arabia and whose company board membership includes a representative from the Saudi PIF.[21] If these financial factors do ultimately convince President Trump to take no, or minimal actions against the Saudis, he will further distance himself from his own party, as well as the United States’ European Allies who have already produced a European Parliamentary resolution to put an embargo on Saudi arms sales.[22]

Conclusion

For all the congressional bluster being made over the Khashoggi case, there indeed are legitimate questions as to whether Congress even the ability has to answer Congressman Schiff’s calls to “lead.” As written in a Council on Foreign Relations report, “Foreign Policy experts say that Presidents have accumulated power at the expense of Congress…the executive branch tends to eclipse the legislature.”[23] Later the same report goes on to say, “The separation of powers has spawned a great deal of debate over the roles of the president and Congress in foreign affairs, as well as on the limits of their respective authorities.”[24] In fact, throughout US history, such debates have periodically arisen as Congress has attempted to rein in the President’s foreign policy supremacy. Notably, such a push occurred with the passing of the War Powers Resolution of 1973 amidst public and congressional questions over the President’s actions in Vietnam. The passage of the act made it so that the President could wage war only after getting congressional approval. Naturally, given the limits it would put on his power President Nixon vetoed the bill, only for the Congress to override the veto with the required two-thirds majority. On notable occasions since the bill’s passing, including American Interventions in Libya, as well as airstrikes in Syria, the President and his cabinet have exercised military actions abroad without obtaining this supposed approval. Could Congress once again be seeing the Khashoggi case as an avenue to assert authority in the realm of foreign policy? If this works and depending on who controls government next year, one could expect to see the Congress working to catalyze Khashoggi disgust into bipartisan congressional action concerning US support for the Saudi war in Yemen. However, until then we can all be unified in the sad fact that it took the killing of a Saudi journalist to get our elected officials to agree on anything in Washington.

 

References:

[1] Chris Murphy. Twitter Post. October 5, 2018, 5:28 AM.

[2] Chris Murphy, Brian Schatz, Martin Heinrich, “Principles for a Progressive Foreign Policy: What Congress Must Do,” Foreign Policy, June 8, 2015.

[3] Bob Corker, Twitter Post. October 8, 2018, 7:50 AM.

[4]Gerry Connolly. Twitter Post. October 4, 2018, 11:00 AM.

[5] Tim Kaine. Twitter Post. October 7, 2018, 5:28 AM.

[6] Senate Foreign Relations Committee

[7] Megan Keller, “Rand Paul: Saudi Explanation of Khashoggi’s Death ‘Insulting’” The Hill, October 21, 2018.

[8] “Rep. Gabbard On How US Should Respond to Khashoggi’s Death,” Fox Business, October 21, 2018.

[9] Amy Klobuchar. Twitter Post. October 22, 2018 1:17 PM.

[10] Elana Schor and Burgess Everett, “Bipartisan Hill Anger with Saudis Flares After Khashoggi,” Politico, October 12, 2018.

[11] Jacob Barker, “Concerns over Saudi Role in Dissident’s Appearance Could Affect Boeing Sales,” St. Louis Dispatch, October 12, 2018.

[12] Deborah Amos, “Saudi Arabia: The White House Loves It. Most Americans? Not so Much. National Public Radio, March 19, 2018.

[13] Tucker Higgins, “Lindsay Graham Says Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ‘has got to go,’ calls for Royal Power Shuffle,” CNBC, October 16, 2018.

[14] Robert Costa and Karoun Demirjian, “Conservatives Mount a Whisper Campaign Smearing Khashoggi in Defense of Trump” Washington Post, October 19th, 2018.

[15] Joshua Keating, “New Republican Talking Point: Jamal Khashoggi Was No Angel,” Slate, October 19, 2018.

[16] Mark Landler and Eric Schmitt, “In Break With U.S Intelligence, Trump Says Saudi Explanation of Journalist’s Death is Credible,” New York Times, October 19, 2018.

[17] Emily Birnbuam, “Avenatti: Trump’s Response to the Saudis is an ‘Outrage’” The Hill, October 21, 2018.

[18] Rebecca Leber, “Joe Biden Calls Trump’s Handling of Journalist’s Death ‘Embarrassing’ and ‘Dangerous,’” Mother Jones, October 20, 2018.

[19] Jamie McIntyre and Travis J. Tritten, “Trump Digs in on Weapons Sales, Even as Evidence Undercuts Saudi Claims on Khashoggi,” Washington Examiner, October 23, 2018.

[20] Issac Stanley-Becker, “’Davos in the Desert’ Once a Sign of Saudi Arabia’s Clout, the Spectacle Now Highlights its Isolation,” Washington Post, October 18, 2018.

[21] Grace Dobush, “Bite the Hand that Invests in You? Uber is Facing a Major Dilemma After Saudi Journalist’s Disappearance,” Fortune, October 12, 2018.

[22] Martin Banks, “Calls Grow Louder for European Arms Embargo Against Saudi Arabia,” Defense News, October 17, 2018.

[23] Jonathan Masters, “U.S Foreign Policy Powers: Congress and the President, “Council on Foreign Relations, March 2, 2017.

[24] Masters.


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