Pom­peo, Mat­tis stand by U.S. re­la­tion­ship with Saudi Ara­bia

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY CAROL MORELLO AND MISSY RYAN [email protected]­post.com [email protected]­post.com Karen DeYoung and Karoun Demir­jian con­trib­uted to this ar­ti­cle.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to main­tain warm ties with the Saudi royal fam­ily came into clear fo­cus this week when Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo and De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis showed up at the Se­nate.

Se­na­tors wanted to know more about the mur­der of Saudi jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi and U.S. sup­port for Saudi airstrikes in Ye­men.

In­stead, Pom­peo and Mat­tis kept piv­ot­ing to the threat posed by Iran.

A smile frozen on his face, Pom­peo de­flected a re­porter’s ques­tion on why the CIA di­rec­tor had not appeared to brief se­na­tors on in­tel­li­gence im­pli­cat­ing Saudi Ara­bia’s crown prince in Khashoggi’s killing.

“I was asked to be here, and here I am,” Pom­peo replied. When pressed again, he re­peated the sen­tence al­most verbatim: “I was asked to be here, and I’m here.”

Pom­peo’s un­will­ing­ness to pro­vide a smoother, more di­rect an­swer crys­tal­lized how awk­ward it has be­come to main­tain a solid U.S.-Saudi re­la­tion­ship as Con­gress threat­ens to cut off mil­i­tary fund­ing for the coun­try.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion con­sid­ers Saudi Ara­bia an im­por­tant and in­flu­en­tial ally needed to push back against Iran, keep oil prices low and sup­port the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s still-un­veiled peace plan for Is­raelis and Pales­tini­ans.

But the ex­pla­na­tions did not sit well with many se­na­tors seek­ing straight­for­ward an­swers to their con­cerns about the slay­ing of the jour­nal­ist and the cri­sis in Ye­men, which the United Na­tions has called the world’s worst hu­man­i­tar­ian dis­as­ter.

One se­na­tor sum­ma­rized the hour with Pom­peo and Mat­tis be­hind closed doors as “that hor­ri­ble meet­ing.”

Both men sum­ma­rized po­si­tions al­ready laid down by Pres­i­dent Trump. But their de­fense of Saudi Ara­bia’s “strate­gic im­por­tance” to U.S. in­ter­ests turned a harsh light on them.

The dif­fer­ent em­pha­sis they placed on the re­la­tion­ship shielded Mat­tis from crit­i­cism more than Pom­peo. In his pre­pared re­marks, the Pen­tagon chief cited the “twin re­quire­ments” of hold­ing Khashoggi’s killers ac­count­able and “the re­al­ity of Saudi Ara­bia as a nec­es­sary strate­gic part­ner.” In his open­ing state­ment, as re­leased by the State Depart­ment, Pom­peo did not men­tion Khashoggi, whose killing, he wrote, has in­ten­si­fied “Capi­tol Hill cat­er­waul­ing and me­dia pile-on.”

Richard Fon­taine, a for­mer U.S. of­fi­cial and ad­viser to late Repub­li­can se­na­tor John McCain, said Mat­tis had ar­tic­u­lated a more nu­anced position than Pom­peo.

Mat­tis “has made clear which end he comes down on, but it seems to me he’s also made clear that he’s for more tough love with the Saudis,” Fon­taine said, “whereas Pom­peo’s mes­sage is just love.”

The Khashoggi case has prompted some of the tough­est crit­i­cism Pom­peo has re­ceived since step­ping down as CIA di­rec­tor to be­come sec­re­tary of state in April. When Trump sud­denly dis­patched him to Riyadh in Oc­to­ber two weeks af­ter Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Con­sulate in Is­tan­bul, cam­eras caught him smil­ing broadly while shak­ing hands with Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man.

Nancy McEl­downey, a for­mer head of the State Depart­ment’s For­eign Ser­vice In­sti­tute that trains diplo­mats, com­pared Pom­peo to a man walk­ing be­hind an ele­phant with a shovel to clean up the mess.

“He had no an­swer to give,” she said. “He couldn’t or wouldn’t speak the truth.”

The ten­sion be­tween the Se­nate and the White House will re­turn to Capi­tol Hill in com­ing days af­ter the Se­nate voted 63 to 37 to ad­vance a res­o­lu­tion ter­mi­nat­ing U.S. mil­i­tary sup­port for the war in Ye­men. Trump op­poses the mea­sure, and many leg­isla­tive hur­dles lie ahead, but it rep­re­sents a di­rect chal­lenge to the White House’s am­bi­tion to keep do­ing busi­ness as usual with the Saudis.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion is un­likely to pun­ish Mo­hammed per­son­ally with sanc­tions, as some law­mak­ers have pro­posed.

“There’s no White House green light to take any sanc­tions against the crown prince him­self,” said Bruce Riedel, a Mid­dle East an­a­lyst with the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. “So Pom­peo is stuck. They’re all stuck. We’re now en­gaged in a coverup of a coverup.”

Riedel said the war in Ye­men hurts Saudi Ara­bia more than it does Iran, the king­dom’s pri­mary ri­val in the re­gion. Iran’s cost is min­i­mal com­pared with the $50 bil­lion Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates spend each year on airstrikes against Ira­ni­an­backed Houthi rebels.

Thou­sands of Ye­me­nis, in­clud­ing many civil­ians, have died in the war. Ye­men is in the midst of a cholera epi­demic, and the United Na­tions has said the coun­try is on the verge of famine.

Trump has cited arms sales to the Saudis as one rea­son to main­tain close ties. The ad­min­is­tra­tion re­ceived a boost to the pres­i­dent’s claim of ma­jor U.S. prof­its from arms sales to Saudi Ara­bia. Last week, af­ter a nearly twom­onth de­lay, Saudi Ara­bia signed ac­cep­tance doc­u­ments for a $15 bil­lion pur­chase of a mis­sile de­fense sys­tem, the largest com­po­nent of what Trump has claimed were $110 bil­lion worth of sales ne­go­ti­ated dur­ing his 2017 visit to Riyadh. The deal brings the to­tal of deals ac­tu­ally signed un­der the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion to about $30 bil­lion, al­though most were ini­ti­ated un­der for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

The new­est agree­ment for 44 Ter­mi­nal High Al­ti­tude Area De­fense (THAAD) launch­ers, mis­siles and re­lated equip­ment follows ear­lier sales of anti-bal­lis­tic mis­siles, he­li­copters, tanks, ships, weapons and train­ing.

Ni­cholas Burns, a for­mer U.S. diplo­mat, said the ad­min­is­tra­tion should tell Mo­hammed, the coun­try’s de facto ruler, to seek a cease-fire with Iran and the Houthi rebels, per­haps of­fer­ing Pom­peo as a bro­ker.

Mo­hammed “is caus­ing a lot of trou­ble for the U.S.,” Burns said, re­fer­ring to Khashoggi, Ye­men and Qatar, which Saudi Ara­bia is lead­ing an em­bargo against and where it is threat­en­ing to dig a canal that would turn the penin­sula na­tion into an is­land. “Trump should lean on him to stop the dam­age he is do­ing to us,” he said.

ZACH GIBSON/GETTY IMAGES

Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo faced back­lash from law­mak­ers af­ter de­flect­ing ques­tions about Ja­mal Khashoggi’s killing.

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