2 Michigan reps back bill seeking halt in Saudi arms sales amid Khashoggi affair

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
An undated recent file photo shows prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who resigned suddenly on May 16, 2010 in Riyadh from the helm of Al-Watan days after the newspaper published a controversial column criticising Salafism. Turkish officials have an audio recording of the alleged killing of Khashoggi from the Apple Watch he wore when he walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul over a week ago, a pro-government Turkish newspaper reported Saturday.

Washington — Two Michigan members of Congress are sponsoring a bipartisan bill that would prohibit military assistance and arms sales to Saudi Arabia unless the U.S. certifies that the Saudi government was not responsible for journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance or death. 

U.S. Reps. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, signed on this week as original co-sponsors of the legislation, which was introduced by Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat.

Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and columnist for the Washington Post, was last seen while entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul more than two weeks ago. 

Under the bill, if the Saudi government is found to be complicit in Khashoggi’s "disappearance imprisonment or death," the U.S. government would be blocked from providing military aid or sales to Saudi Arabia until Congress passes a resolution approving such transactions.

The bill is unlikely to be taken up in the next couple of weeks because the House is in recess until after the Nov. 6 midterm elections. 

But it's a signal to the White House that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are outraged by Khashoggi's apparent death and unhappy with Trump administration efforts to protect the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

President Donald Trump said Monday he had talked with the Saudi king, who denied the kingdom’s involvement in Khashoggi's disappearance.

Amash has long called for an end to the sale of U.S. weapons to the Saudis and for the U.S. to "stop propping up" the regime. He says Saudi Arabia is neither moderate nor a U.S. ally, and that "coddling" of the regime "aids the spread of extremism." 

Amash laments the Saudis' human rights record. He previously sponsored a resolution to block arms sales to the Saudi government over their escalation of the war in Yemen.

"This is just the latest atrocity by that government," Amash wrote after news that Turkey had informed U.S. officials about audio and video recordings suggesting Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. 

The American public deserve answers to the questions surrounding Khashoggi's disappearance, Dingell said.

"Congress must make clear that human rights and freedom of expression are a priority for the United States of America," she said. "It is imperative the Saudi government provides a full and fair accounting of the facts surrounding Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, and we must continue to push for transparency in this regard.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters at the White House on Thursday that he's advised Trump to give the Saudis more time to investigate.

"I told President Trump this morning that we ought to give them a few more days to complete that, so we can get a complete understanding the facts surrounding that, at which point we can make a decision about how the United States should respond to the issues surrounding Mr. Khashoggi," Pompeo said. 

When asked, Pompeo refused to say what happened to Khashoggi or whether he's dead.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with reporters about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, after meeting with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House, Oct. 18, 2018, in Washington.

"I’m going to allow the process to move forward and allow the facts to unfold," Pompeo said.

"And as they unfold, we will make a determination for ourselves about what happened there, based on the facts that are presented."

Fay Beydoun, executive director of American Arab Chamber of Commerce in Dearborn, said many members of the community have been alarmed by the Khashoggi affair.

"He was very vocal about the royal family, and the community strongly believes that because he had the courage to be vocal and to voice his opinion, that this happened to him," Beydoun said. 

"I commend our lawmakers in Washington for taking action on this issue. I strongly believe that there needs to be answers because this is more than just a civil rights issue."

The United States needed to have a strong response "so Saudi Arabia knows there’s some accountability to their actions," she added. 

Saeed A. Khan, who teaches at Wayne State University's Department of Near East & Asian Studies, said while the "brazenness" of Khashoggi situation has given many pause, he doubted it will ultimately have long-term implications for the eight-decades-long U.S.-Saudi relationship. 

"We may see a delay or postponement of this arms deal of 90 or 180 days, but ultimately it will go through," Khan predicted. 

"The defense contracts are simply too lucrative, and the kind of manufacturing and work behind these purchase orders permeates several states," he added.

"As a result, many members of Congress who otherwise may be inclined to be more vocal in their criticism of Saudi Arabia will be tempered by the reminder that seems to be constantly coming from the Oval Office that these are deals that put and keep Americans at work."

That doesn't mean the Amash-Dingell bill won't send a strong message, Khan noted. 

"I daresay though that ultimately it’s not probably going to amount to much more than something that’s symbolic but at least it shows a moral counterweight to an egregious action that’s been taken," he said. 

"And at the very least either an impotence or unwillingness on the part of the administration to issue a more public rebuke of what happened."