WASHINGTON — Senators from both parties on Wednesday challenged President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia to take a tough line with the kingdom on human rights and other abuses.
During a nomination hearing with retired four-star general John Abizaid, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ticked through their grievances with the Saudi government: the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegations of torture, detentions of activists and the mounting humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where the kingdom is waging a protracted war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the panel, asked Abizaid if he would seek to challenge Saudi Arabia or if he would “accept what they have done in order to pursue our greater national security goals.”
Abizaid said the U.S. “should not accept” actions like the killing of Khashoggi and said he would press Riyadh for more information.
“It requires forceful discussions on the behalf of the United States with the government of Saudi Arabia and I am prepared to have those discussions if you confirm me,” Abizaid said.
Sen. Jim Risch, the Republican chairman, warned the U.S. “cannot look the other way” for the sake of strategic interests.
“When we have an ally, we try to support those allies as best we can, but the kinds of things that have been happening lately make it very, very difficult,” Risch said.
Khashoggi, a writer for The Washington Post, was killed in a Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul last year by Saudi agents. The Saudi government said the slaying was carried out by rogue operatives and denied Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had any involvement.
Lawmakers have said they believe the Saudi crown prince ordered the killing, but Trump has been reluctant to place blame.
On Monday, senators received a closed-door briefing from Trump administration officials on the investigation into Khashoggi’s killing. Afterward, they told reporters they were frustrated by the lack of new information, and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers said the Senate may consider imposing its own penalties on Saudi Arabia if the White House doesn’t act.
If confirmed, Abizaid would be the first U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia in over two years. The last ambassador, Joseph Westphal, left in January 2017.