WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s nominee to serve as ambassador to Saudi Arabia said the U.S. must engage and partner with the kingdom to counter threats from Sunni-Muslim extremism and Iran despite the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi and frustration over the war in Yemen.
“This is not to say that I am unaware of the challenges facing the U.S.-Saudi partnership today,” retired Army Gen. John Abizaid told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing Wednesday. “War in Yemen, the senseless killing of Jamal Khashoggi, rifts in the Gulf alliance, alleged abuses of innocent people — to include an American citizen and female activists — all present immediate challenges.
“Yet in the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia,” Abizaid, 67, added.
Trump nominated Abizaid, the former head of U.S. Central Command, in November to be the next ambassador to Saudi Arabia as ties with the kingdom began to crumble over the murder of Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. That killing, at the hands of Saudi officials and possibly with the knowledge of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, drew bipartisan criticism on Capitol Hill and calls for tougher measures against the Saudi government.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said in the hearing that the crown prince had gone “full gangster” and was increasingly making it “untenable” to work with Saudi Arabia because of his missteps. He mentioned past incidents, including the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, barring the Canadian ambassador from Riyadh and a continuing dispute with Qatar.
“He is reckless, he is ruthless,” Rubio said. “Anyone who thinks that’s an unfair assessment of the young man should look at what he’s done in the last two years. It seems like something out of a James Bond movie.”
While Trump administration officials including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have said they will hold anyone behind Khashoggi’s killing responsible, they’ve also said the importance of the U.S. alliance with Riyadh outweighs an outright break with the kingdom. They’ve declined to say publicly whether they think Prince Mohammed knew about or ordered the killing, a possibility U.S. intelligence agencies consider likely. “Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t,” Trump has said.
The crown prince has denied any involvement in the killing of Khashoggi, who died after entering the Saudi Consulate in October to get paperwork for his marriage.
Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the panel, said two closed briefings on Saudi Arabia by the administration so far were “unsatisfactory,” and lawmakers from both parties say the White House has failed to respond to a 120-day deadline for a report on Khashoggi’s killing requested by the Foreign Relations committee.
“The administration’s attempt to explain its failure to provide a legally mandated determination about the murder of American resident Jamal Khashoggi was insulting,” the senator from New Jersey said.
The U.S. hasn’t had an ambassador to Riyadh since Trump took office, even as the president made ties with the kingdom a central part of his foreign policy strategy. His first trip abroad as president was to Saudi Arabia, and he has counted on the kingdom to aid in his efforts to isolate Iran.
In addition to his role overseeing Central Command, Abizaid’s career included tours as a commandant of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He’s now a security consultant and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Concerning support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, Abizaid said the U.S. “can’t afford” to withdraw its backing despite concern over civilian casualties. “If we want them to fight right, we need to continue to give them that expertise,” he said.
Abizaid also warned that if a rogue Iranian-linked Hezbollah force forms in Yemen, it would be a “lethal threat” to the region and one that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia couldn’t ignore.