Americans are waking up to a peculiar political position. War and violence in the Middle East again are top national concerns, after spending years in the back of our collective mind.
Saudi Arabia long has enjoyed strong bipartisan political support from U.S. policymakers, despite a terrible humanitarian record and credible evidence of Saudi involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The monarchy’s human rights violations have been common knowledge for years, but Washington, D.C., has remained nearly unified in supporting strong economic and political ties to Saudi Arabia. We buy their oil and sell them weapons, while the Saudis get a powerful ally willing to look the other way.
Now, the federal government’s small group of Saudi critics is gaining new followers following news this month of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, which apparently
involved Saudi officials.
Sadly, governments slaying journalists is not uncommon. The Committee to Protect Journalists counts 70 journalists reported as murdered by government officials worldwide in the past 10 years. Many of those cases come from other countries where the U.S. government has strong relationships.
However, Khashoggi’s death represents a dangerous escalation for one of the United States’ closest Arab allies.
Neither the Committee to Protect Journalists nor the United Nations previously has recorded the Saudi government killing reporters. Additionally, U.S. weapons sales across the globe are getting new scrutiny in light of the Saudis’ role in Yemen’s brutal civil war.
In 2016, under former President Barack Obama, the Senate easily approved a weapons deal with Saudi Arabia, drawing only 27 votes against, mostly from Democrats. But last year — with growing public concern over the crisis in Yemen, and Democrats vowing to resist the new president — the Senate barely reached the threshold to approve the sale of precision guided missiles to Saudi Arabia. A resolution to block the deal drew 47 detractors, mostly Democrats again.
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Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst voted to support the arms deals in both cases. Ernst, a military veteran, released a statement after Khashoggi was reported missing to say the United States “must get to the bottom of this and take appropriate action.”
Foreign policy is but a small blip in most surveys of Americans’ top issues. So if you’re concerned with where American weapons end up, make it known to your senators and representatives. If you’re an Iowa Democrat, you also have the ability to make peace into a national issue by pressing the politicians who come around looking for your support in the caucuses.
Several potential 2020 presidential candidates have raised concern with the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren all voted against approving sales in 2016 and 2017. Even though I don’t agree with the those politicians on much else, our country long is overdue for a bipartisan alliance promoting peace.
Will anger over Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations swell to policy change, or simply blow over in a week or two? The answer is up to us.
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