The U.S. military should stop refueling Saudi Arabian aircraft fighting in Yemen and Congress should not approve any new offensive arms sales to Riyadh, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee told reporters Wednesday.
Jack Reed of Rhode Island also told a Defense Writers Group breakfast that a multinational, independent criminal probe should be launched to investigate the disappearance and alleged murder earlier this month of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Reed’s assertive stance on Saudi Arabia shows the hardening of congressional views on the country in the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance. In March, Reed joined with most Senate Republicans on a procedural vote that killed an attempt to bring up a joint resolution that would end U.S. involvement in hostilities in Yemen, where the U.S. has provided limited aid to Saudi Arabia.
Referring to Khashoggi’s disappearance, Reed said: “It appears this was a grotesque and obscene act committed by elements within Saudi Arabia,” a reference to Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s crown prince and de facto leader, who is known as MBS.
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Reed suggested that President Donald Trump’s often cozy relationship with brutal rulers such as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin has sent a message across the world about U.S. acquiescence to barbarity.
“That message, I don’t think was lost on MBS,” Reed said.
In contrast to his March vote, Reed on Wednesday called for a halt to U.S. military refueling operations in Yemen, one of the key ways that American armed forces support the Saudi war effort against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, a country nestled against Saudi Arabia’s southern border.
The Saudis have incurred global criticism for not taking sufficient care to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen.
“Regardless of what is determined about Khashoggi, I think we should terminate the aerial refueling,” Reed said. “I don’t think it provides any control over their behavior.”
Reed said he would not support any new arms sales to Saudi Arabia any time soon, except for defensive weapons such as anti-missile systems.
“The mood of the the Congress is: this outrageous act can’t be followed by a business-as-usual arms deal,” he said.
On Wednesday, Trump rejected suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia from the U.S., though he said members of Congress have been pushing him to take action on that front. The weapons sales are worth a potential $110 billion — a number Trump frequently cites, but that figure includes sales proposed and developed by the Obama administration.
“Every country in the world wanted a piece of that order. We got all of it,” Trump said in an interview on the Fox Business Network. “I’ve said some senators come up and some congressmen, they’ve said, ‘Well you know sir, I think what we should do is we should not take that order.’ I said, ‘Who are we hurting?’”
No arms sales are pending before Congress at this time, but the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has held up formal consideration of a new sale of precision guided munitions, or smart bombs, to Riyadh.
Reed joined 46 other senators in voting last June for an unsuccessful legislative effort to block an earlier proposed sale of American-made precision guided munitions to Saudi Arabia.
Reed sought on Wednesday to rebut the contention by Trump and others that Saudi Arabia would just turn to Russia and China for its weapons if the U.S. slowed or halted American sales to the kingdom. Reed said switching suppliers is not simple, and Russian and Chinese arms are inferior to American ones.
America, not Saudi Arabia, “has the leverage” on arms sales, Reed said, adding: “That’s why it is so surprising that the president is so accommodating to their point of view.”
Rachel Oswald and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.