The Foreign Policy Reform That We Needed
In 1973, while beset by public exhaustion and criticism from the Vietnam War, the United States Congress took the unprecedented action of limiting the President’s capacity to unilaterally make war by passing the War Powers Resolution. It remains to this day the most significant pendulum swing in the question of who gets to decide on matters of American foreign policy. Congress flexed its capacity to exercise authority over this country’s interactions with other nations. However, many of these constraints have been eroded during the post-Cold War era, and for the past several presidencies the executive branch once again controlled foreign policy. After the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush’s approval ratings shot to 90%, and the authorization to use military force against Iraq passed with a 69% majority in the House. The White House was galvanized by this popular support to reinstate control over foreign policy.
But today — in the midst of another apparent moment of reckoning for America — President Trump’s most recent foreign policy disaster is forcing U.S. legislators to harken back to 1973 and reevaluate the way in which foreign policy is negotiated (and who gets to negotiate it). Trump’s persistent defense of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has pushed a long divided Congress to work together. The relinquishment of congressional checks on presidential foreign policy may be beginning to be reversed by a recent course of action in the Senate: the December vote to end US military assistance for the Saudi war in Yemen.
It has been over three months since Jamal Khashoggi was murdered. From the time of his disappearance inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the world has been shaken by the almost undeniable prospect that Khashoggi was killed on the orders of the Crown Prince, of whom the journalist was a vocal critic. MbS has been the de-facto leader of Saudi Arabia since 2015. Initially viewed as a reformer who would bring sweeping changes, he has amassed a disturbing record of human rights violations since his predecessor, Muhammad bin Nayef, was deposed. The CIA’s conclusion that he authorized Khashoggi’s murder was bolstered by the revelations that MbS was in contact with a senior aide who oversaw the killing during the time immediately before and after Khashoggi’s death.
Although President Trump has not yet commented on this particular development, the statement he issued on November 20 made it clear that he accepted Khashoggi’s murder as the price of doing business with a wealthy, strategically important state. Trump wrote that Saudi Arabia is “leading the fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism”, then subsequently entertained the Saudi state narrative that Khashoggi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization publicly regarded by the Saudi government as a terrorist group. Not only does the President refuse to accept the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies concerning MbS (“maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”), but he suggests that the assassination of Khashoggi may have aided the fight against terrorism - as the Saudi government deems it.
On November 28, the Senate voted 63-37 for the advancement of a resolution seeking to end the sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia by the United States. This bipartisan resolution, sponsored by Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), was voted on in March but missed majority approval by six votes. On December 4, CIA Director Gina Haspel was finally able to brief Senate leaders on Khashoggi’s murder. Some of Trump’s most ardent supporters in the upper chamber of Congress, such as Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), were among those who expressed strong confidence in MbS’s culpability following the briefing.
Drafted in response to reports of severe human rights violations and possible war crimes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the resolution was tabled to the Senate once again, on December 13, as a result of the Trump Administration’s shamefully reluctant response in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s killing. The resolution was passed in a 56-41 vote, sending a rare admonishment from a Senate that has done little to politically check Trump since his election, let alone on matters of foreign policy. The House of Representatives, however, could not break away from its long streak of aiding and abetting the president; Speaker Paul Ryan kept the resolution from a vote before the end of the 115th Congress. It is now a waiting game to see if there is an effort from the new Congress to rebuke the Trump Administration’s policies in regard to Saudi Arabia. Since Democrats now hold a majority in the House, it is possible that both chambers of Congress may be able to come to a consensus on the immorality of excusing murder, supporting a despot, and prolonging the starvation of millions in Yemen.
Congress’s increasing worry about American involvement the brutal Yemeni war, in tandem with Trump’s blatant dismissal of CIA evidence about Khashoggi’s murder, has unified the Senate to take a historic jab at his Administration’s foreign policy powers. The resolution to end sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia invokes the War Powers Resolution and resembles the events of 1973. The Trump Administration released a statement on November 28 declaring that if the resolution passed, it would likely be vetoed, arguing that the United States’ current involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen as ancillary support does not “implicate” the War Powers Resolution. If prolonging and exacerbating a war that has caused 85,000 children to starve to death and currently threatens half the country with the same fate is not prohibited by the War Powers Act, then the President needs more limits on his power.
Although the resolution passed by the Senate is not as monumental as the War Powers Act of 1973, it still represents a significant and much needed shift away from the manner in which U.S. foreign policy has been conducted for the past several decades. Congress has shown the President that they can and will check his traditional power to shape the United States’ policies towards the rest of the world. However, the question that remains is whether these changes are merely a reaction to a hectic Trump Administration or if they will apply to future presidents as well. While this cannot be answered today, the recent actions of Congress have the potential to shape the dynamics between the legislative and the executive for years to come. In the meantime, perhaps the current occupant of the White House will learn that not all Americans support our country going about business as usual with murderous, unstable autocrats.