Marco Rubio Op-Ed: A Path Forward on US-Saudi Relationship Following The Murder Of Jamal Khashoggi

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke on the Senate floor on Thursday to outline the path forward on the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia following the murder of Washington Post Columnist Jamal Khashoggi. A full transcript of Rubio’s remarks is below: 

Madam President, as we saw yesterday, this vote on the Yemen War Powers Resolution has brought to light the broader issue of our alliance with Saudi Arabia. And this is an issue that people have heard a lot about, obviously, in the last few weeks with the murder of a journalist, and this Yemen resolution vote has become a proxy over that matter. And I have been outspoken in the past about why it matters that we speak out strongly about, and against the murder of this journalist, Khashoggi, but also that we talk more broadly about what we need to do about it, and how it applies to our alliance with Saudi Arabia. So I want to tailor my comments here today briefly by talking about exactly what the implications are based on the questions I get from people.

So, first of all, why does it matter? Why does the murder of Khashoggi matter and why should we care about it? The first is that, I would tell you is that this is part of a pattern. The Crown Prince who is effectively governing Saudi Arabia now has been continuously testing the limits of the world’s patience but also the limits of our alliance. There’s a pattern here. We saw it, he kidnapped for over two weeks the Prime Minister of Lebanon. He has fractured an alliance that once existed with the Gulf Kingdoms. All of it has implications on U.S. national security. So this is just one more escalation in a pattern of testing the limits of our alliance.

Then there’s human rights. And why do human rights matter? Well, for a practical reason, human rights matter. From a practical perspective, when human rights are violated, the result is a humanitarian crisis, as we have seen often around the world, which often leads to mass migration. Let me tell you something else a violation of human rights leads to — radicalization. When you violate a group of people, when you mistreat them and abusive them, you have left them ripe for radicalization, for a radical group to come in and basically pull them in and say we’re the ones with the power, the weapons, and the willingness to fight. Join us to go after your oppressors. In fact, if you look at what’s happening in Yemen, much of it and the Houthis comes from years of abuses against the Shia. It doesn’t justify the radicalization, but it explains that, as it does what we have seen in Iraq and Syria. Here’s one other thing that happens with human rights abuses. The abusers often get overthrown and here’s the problem. When an abusive government that violates human rights gets overthrown, the people who take over hate us, because we have been supporting their abusers. These are practical reasons why human rights matter.

And there’s a moral one. Perhaps in the ranking and order, that’s the most important one, the moral one. And it’s because that’s what makes us different from China and Russia and other countries around the world. This is what makes America different. In fact, I would say that the murder of Mr. Khashoggi is more about us, when it comes to our debate, it’s about us. It’s not just about him. It’s about us and who who we are and about whether we as a nation are prepared to excuse, overlook, or sort of brush away this horrifying incident because somebody buys a lot of things from us or produces a lot of oil. Assuming we can mostly agree on that, the question is what do we do about it? There’s this false choice that has been presented to us, and this false choice is there’s only two choices—we either ignore it or we abandon and fracture the Saudi alliance. That’s not true. There are other choices. It’s not just either/or those two. That’s a false choice.

What I do believe is the wrong thing to do about it is to pull and yank away our support for Saudi operations in Yemen, and let me explain why. The first is, right now the only hope of ending that is not winning an armed conflict. It is a peace negotiation. And the people that have to be at that table aren’t just the Houthis, but the deposed Yemeni president who is in Saudi Arabia. If we yank our support, the chances of that peace happening, diminish significantly. In fact the Houthis probably say that Saudis no longer have U.S. support, they’re not as strong as they used to be, I think we can beat them. We don’t need a peace deal. So it actually makes peace less likely.

The second thing from a practical perspective is we will have less influence over how the Saudis conduct the war. Meaning we’ll have no understanding whatsoever to influence on who they bomb, how often they bomb or who they target. Now some people argue they will not have the weapons to do it with. That’s not true. If you don’t think you can buy weapons from immoral and amoral regimes around the world, you’re wrong. They can. They can. If you think somehow this will end their engagement, you’re wrong. The reason why they are involved in Yemen is because they feel it’s an effort by Iran, and rightfully so, they feel this way, to encircle them. If you look at it today, where Iran is their enemy, Iran now controls large parts of Syria and is probably the closest government in the world to the Syrian regime. That’s to their northwest, Iraq is closer to Iran than it’s ever been in the last 20 years to their north. Of course Iran is to their east. Now Yemen would be to the South with the Houthis operating there. They feel like they’re being encircled by Iran, and they’re not going to let that happen. They are going to fight whether we help them or not. We lose our influence over how they do it.

But I want to tell you one more thing that’s going to happen. If we pull our support, the chances of a broader catastrophic conflict increase dramatically. And I’ll lay one scenario out for you. We pull our support, the Houthis get confident, they start launching rockets into Saudi Arabia, targeting civilian populations and even members of the royal family and killing people. The Saudis respond with disproportionate force or even the same level of force, and we begin to escalate. And they won’t just respond against the Houthis. They may respond against the Iranian interests elsewhere. And suddenly you have a real live shooting war that extends beyond this proxy fight that we see now. In response to that the Houthis and the Iranians use their presence on the coast and in that port city to close off an important choke point, the el-Mandeb, the Bab-el-Mandeb, which is that choke point in the Red Rea that connects it, the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean where over 4.8 million barrels a day go through. They start bombing oil tankers, they start hitting those, and all of a sudden the world has to get engaged to open that up. And so this holds the real potential for a rapid escalation that could involve a much broader conflict than what we’re seeing right now.

I know that many of my colleagues yesterday voted for this resolution out of deep frustration. It was a message to the administration that the way they have handled this Khashoggi incident is unacceptable. I hope that message has been received, but I don’t think that — this is the wrong way to do the right thing, and that is to ensure that we re-calibrate our alliance with Saudi Arabia into one where they understand that they can’t just do whatever they want. The Crown Prince cannot just do whatever they want, and we have leverage in that regard. There’s legislation that the Senator from New Jersey, Senator Menendez and others have offered, and in addition to that, there are things we can do. The leadership of the Foreign Relations Committee has already asked for the imposition of Magnitsky sanctions. That’s a powerful tool.

I assure you that there are people in Saudi Arabia, around the royal family, around the government who deeply enjoy being able to invest and spend their wealth in the United States and around the world, and they are going to care a lot if as a result of this murder they lose access to their money, to their property, to their visas. That’s a real, real leverage point that we have. We have additional tools, religious freedom sanctions and visa bans against other individuals that may not have been involved in the Khashoggi incident. But again another leverage point. We have leverage points in restricting U.S. investment. One of the biggest proposals that the Crown Prince is making, is he wants to diversify their economy and encourage U.S. and Western investment into their economy, placing restrictions on that investment is a significant leverage point. And we should use this opportunity to use those leverage points to achieve real changes in our alliance and real changes in their behavior.

For example, the release of Mr. Badawi, an activist in Saudi Arabia who has been repeatedly flogged in the past and is unjustly held in prison, he should be released. The release of Saudi women activists who have been tortured and sexually harassed while in custody, they should be released. Education reforms that finally Saudi Arabia stops publishing these textbooks that are encouraging and teaching anti-semitism and radicalization and dangerous religious notions and theologies that encourage violence against others. We should require them to restore the Gulf Alliance and restore their relationship with Qatar, and if they don’t, we will. We should force them to stop funding these Wahhabi schools around the world in which they are exporting radicalization. All of these things need to happen. And there may be other conditions we haven’t thought of. These are real consequences that begin to realign this alliance and make very clear that this is an important alliance, but it is not one that’s unlimited or without restrictions or expectations on our part.

If we fail to do this, the Crown Prince will take further escalatory and outrageous actions in the future. He will keep pushing the envelope. This is a young man who has never lived anywhere else in the world. He is a Crown Prince, which tells you, not only is he wealthy, he has rarely faced disappointment in his life or ever not had something he wanted. Has never lived abroad, I think he’s largely naive about foreign policy. And thinks he can get away with whatever he wants because at home he can. We have to make clear that with us he can’t. You don’t have to blow up the alliance to make the message clear. But if we don’t make that message clear, he’s going to do more of this in the future, and one day he may pull us into a war. One day he may fracture the alliance himself because he goes too far. He needs to be stopped now. He needs to understand there are limits or he will keep testing those limits. If we fail to do that at this moment, we will live to regret it, and its implications will be extraordinary.

It will be a gift to Iran. That’s my last point. What’s happened has been a gift to Iran. What they have done has been a gift. Instead of weakening their enemy, they have empowered them. We do need to take positive action on this. We do need to do things that change and re-calibrate this relationship. But yanking support at this moment from the Yemen campaign is the wrong way to do the right thing.

I hope that many of my colleagues who yesterday voted to discharge this bill onto the floor to send a clear message to the administration that they are unhappy with the response so far, I hope that they will reconsider an alternative way forward that doesn’t lead to these consequences I’ve outlined but allows us in the Senate to lead the way with the administration to reset this relationship in a way that avoids these problems in the future and lives up to our heritage as a nation whose foreign policy is infused and supports the defense of human rights all over the world.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was first elected to the Senate in 2010. 

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News Talk Florida Staff