US Democrats push Biden to take harder line on Saudi Arabia

Many Democrats expected that US President Joe Biden would be far more aggressive, negating the need for action by Congress.
Many Democrats expected that US President Joe Biden would be far more aggressive, negating the need for action by Congress.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - When Joe Biden pledged during his campaign to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" should he become President, congressional Democrats who had been pushing for months to impose sanctions on the kingdom for increasingly brazen, violent behaviour breathed a sigh of relief.

But nearly three months into his administration, his allies in Congress are pushing Biden and his team to take a harder line against the country, concerned that what the White House has called a careful re-calibration of the US-Saudi relationship has not gone far enough.

Under President Donald Trump, lawmakers in both parties mobilised to force a more confrontational stance. Horrified by the growing humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, the grisly killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and Trump's apparent indifference to it all, Republicans and Democrats voted to cut off military aid to the Saudis.

Many Democrats expected that Biden would be far more aggressive, negating the need for action by Congress. Instead, they have continued to press for harsher action and a wholesale rethinking of the American stance toward the Saudis.

"I don't think that they have been sufficiently attuned to the fundamental shift that members of Congress of both parties want in the US-Saudi relationship," said Democratic Representative of California Ro Khanna, who has been an outspoken voice on the issue.

"They're still stuck in an old paradigm where they're not willing to take the corrective, effective steps, and I don't understand what is the constraint."

The House Foreign Affairs Committee last month unanimously approved a Bill written by two former Obama-era State Department officials that would bar Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and officials involved in the killing of Khashoggi from entering the United States, going a step further than Biden had.

On Tuesday, a separate group of more than 75 lawmakers wrote to the administration urging it to "use the full weight of US influence to pressure Saudi Arabia to lift its naval and air blockade in Yemen that has left the nation grappling with both food and fuel crises."

The push underscores the impatience among liberals in Congress with Biden's foreign policy, a dynamic that is likely to fuel internal debates among Democrats as the administration approaches a May deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and begins the process of restarting nuclear talks with Iran. More than any other, the issue of how to readjust Washington's relationship with Riyadh has prompted a singularly broad coalition of Democrats to voice concerns, with both outspoken members on the party's left flank and his allies lobbying for additional action.

Administration officials insist that Biden has already moved decisively. He announced in February that he was ending US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and reversed the Trump administration's terrorist designation of the Houthis, revoking penalties that some worried would punish millions of starving civilians more than the rebels.

The administration in February released a long-anticipated intelligence report holding the crown prince responsible for Khashoggi's killing.

Most striking has been the change in tone between the administrations. Where Trump once brushed off the issue of the crown prince's possible involvement in the grisly killing - "maybe he did and maybe he didn't!" he said in an official statement - and suggested that punishing the kingdom would jeopardise billions of dollars in military sales to defence contractors, Biden has spoken out more forcefully against him.

"This war has to end," Biden said in February in his first major foreign policy speech since taking office, calling the conflict a "humanitarian and strategic catastrophe." But members of Congress were frustrated by Biden's refusal to directly penalise the crown prince for his role in the Khashoggi killing, which the President concluded was a move whose diplomatic cost was too high.

It prompted some of his closest and most powerful allies in Congress to call for additional action.

The release of the intelligence report on the killing "was a good step toward accountability," said Democratic Representative of New York Gregory Meeks, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. "But further steps need to be taken."

Democratic Representative of New Jersey Andy Kim, co-author of the measure to impose a travel ban on the crown prince, said he struggled to understand why the administration released a report focused on the crown prince but did not ultimately punish him. Another Democratic Representatitve of New Jersey Tom Malinowski, who was the top human rights diplomat in the Obama administration, led efforts to write the Bill.

"I don't want the US to keep falling into this trap of decision-making, where it is on us constantly to be weighing this decision of 'Is this action going to damage our relationship with X country?'" said Kim, a former State Department official in the Obama administration. "In this case, for instance, the crown prince did the damage already."

In addition to advancing the travel ban by Kim and Malinowski, the Foreign Affairs Committee voted unanimously to require American intelligence officials to release a report on the role that commercial entities controlled by the crown prince - such as shell companies or airlines - played in Khashoggi's murder. The amendment, led by Democratic Representative of Minnesota Ilhan Omar, sets up a process to eventually impose sanctions on those organisations under the Global Magnitsky Act.

Lawmakers have also become increasingly concerned with the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, as the nation faces rising rates of famine that aid groups warn are likely to rise, after an air and sea blockade by the Saudi-led coalition on Houthi-controlled territory has restricted imports of vital goods.

As part of cease-fire negotiations, Saudi officials offered last month to reopen the airport in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, and allow fuel and food to flow through a major Yemeni seaport, but a spokesman for the Houthis said that they would not agree to discuss a cease-fire until Saudi Arabia first lifted its blockade.

Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee were shaken after a closed-door briefing they received late last month from David Beasley, executive director of the United Nation's World Food Program and a former Republican governor. Beasley, who had just returned from a trip to Yemen, painted a dire situation of mass starvation and hospitals without fuel, and impressed upon lawmakers the urgency of lifting the blockade "immediately," according to two officials who attended.

"Ending US support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen alone isn't enough if we allow the blockade to continue," said Democratic Representative of Michigan Debbie Dingell, who led the letter to the Biden administration. "This blockade is causing immense suffering and starvation among Yemeni children and families, and it needs to be lifted now."

But pushing the administration to pressure the Saudis to do so may be an uphill battle, according to Peter Salisbury, a Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, who said in an interview that control of the ports amounted to "very important pieces of leverage in the negotiations from the Saudi perspective."

"When you look at it from the perspective of the administration, they are trying to deal with these things through existing negotiation mechanisms," Salisbury said. "On Yemen, and in many other cases, there is no profoundly simple way of ending the war."