The Senate faced down Donald Trump on Thursday, demanding the withdrawal of U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen by a resounding bipartisan margin, then unanimously declaring the Saudi crown prince responsible for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It was a historic challenge not only to the president, but also to the nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which has spanned some seven decades.
Except that it won’t actually get the U.S. out of the war. So what was the point?
In short, it was more about politics than policy—and the political shift has been rapid and significant ever since Khashoggi’s death in October. Suddenly, even traditional stalwarts of the Saudi alliance in the Senate, such as the South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, were lining up to condemn what they called the Kingdom’s recklessness, demanding a change in its behavior. Lawmakers who declined to even debate the same Yemen measure earlier this year were now castigating the Saudi leadership from the Senate floor, citing Khashoggi and Yemen in the same speeches as symptoms of a young Saudi leader out of control.
And in the face of an administration that has repeatedly defended Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, from allegations that he was responsible for Khashoggi’s death, it was a rare moment of a Republican-held Senate trying to flex authority over two of the most important aspects of U.S. foreign policy: the nature of alliances and the decision to wage war. As Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, a co-sponsor of the resolution, vowed at a press conference on Wednesday: “If this administration doesn’t reorient our policy toward Saudi Arabia, then Congress is going to do it.”