Rep. Justin Amash (R–Mich.) wants to hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the disappearance and possible death of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist critical of his country’s government. On Twitter today, Amash said he’s cosponsoring legislation that would block U.S. military assistance and arms sales to Saudi Arabia unless the kingdom is found to have had no involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
I’ve joined as an original cosponsor of @RepMcGovern‘s bill to prohibit military assistance and arms sales to Saudi Arabia unless @SecPompeo certifies that the Saudi government was not responsible for #JamalKhashoggi‘s disappearance, imprisonment, or death. pic.twitter.com/jM5uSBDRUS
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) October 17, 2018
Khashoggi hadn’t lived in Saudi Arabia since he moved to the U.S. earlier this year. He visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month to get a document for his upcoming wedding, but never came out and has been missing ever since. As Reason‘s Elizabeth Nolan Brown explained this morning, “a mounting body of evidence” links the Saudi government to his disappearance.
The legislation cosponsored by Amash would prohibit the Defense Department from providing the Saudi government with “any United States assistance, including security assistance, intelligence, training, equipment, or services relating to maintenance, testing, or technical data.” It would also stop U.S. companies from selling any “defense article, defense service, or design and construction service” to the Saudi government. Security assistance and arms sales can only resume, the bill says, if the secretary of state “determines and certifies” that the Saudi government did not carry out or order the kidnapping and/or death of Khashoggi.
The bill was introduced yesterday by Rep. Jim McGovern, the ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee. It’s cosponsored by six other Democrats and two Republicans: Amash and Rep. Thomas Massie (R–Ky.).
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday he met with Saudi King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Both men, according to Pompeo, have denied involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance. Pompeo said he can sense a “serious commitment” from top Saudi leaders “to determine all the facts and ensure accountability.”
But criticism of Saudi Arabia is nothing new for Amash. As the Michigan representative pointed out earlier today, he’s repeatedly called for the U.S. to halt arms sales to the Saudis, in part due to the Saudi government’s involvement in the Yemeni Civil War. In fiscal year 2017, the U.S. sold $5.5 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.
Amash is not the only libertarian-leaning Republican to call for Saudi Arabia to be held accountable. Reason‘s Brian Doherty reported last week that Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) said he would try again to block U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Paul, like Amash, has been calling for U.S. government action regarding this the issue for some time.
In a Fox News op-ed published yesterday, Paul said “it’s time to rethink America’s relationship with the Saudi Kingdom.” The Kentucky Republican cited the “killing” of Khashoggi, as well as Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen, its terrorist ties, and its dismal record of human rights abuses.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s history of repression probably doesn’t get enough attention. While bin Salman has tried to highlight some of his country’s recent reforms—like allowing women to drive and work outside the home—the government has also overseen a renewed crackdown on free speech and dissent. The Saudi government put at least 100 people to death last year, according to Amnesty International.
I noted last week that the situation is particularly bad for reporters like Khashoggi, as Saudi Arabia is ranked 169th out of 180 in the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index.
So what should the U.S. do? Defense Priorities fellow Daniel DePetris was absolutely correct when he argued yesterday, in a piece for Reason, that the U.S. shouldn’t let Saudi threats dictate our foreign policy.
But does that mean Amash and Paul are right in calling for the U.S. to cut off all arms sales to Saudi Arabia? Not necessarily. On the one hand, selling weapons to foreign governments with checkered pasts presents an ethical dilemma. At the same time, private companies are private companies. The Reason editors discussed this issue in detail on Monday’s podcast.