Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that the United States faces a stark choice on Saudi Arabia: continue to embrace Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, despite his apparent role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or sacrifice the benefits of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, including countering terrorism and checking Iran.  That’s a false choice that the Senate initially rejected on Thursday by condemning MBS and voting to end U.S. military support for Riyadh’s war in Yemen.

Scaling back U.S. support for Riyadh’s disastrous operations in Yemen is overdue, but Thursday’s vote doesn’t respond sufficiently to the reprehensible killing of Khashoggi.  Both votes are, at least for now, essentially symbolic: the House of Representatives has made clear it won’t even vote on the Senate’s effort to end U.S. military support to the Saudis, and the condemnation of MBS is purely rhetorical.  The real question now is how to make clear to the Saudis and especially MBS that Washington won’t accept Riyadh’s brutal murder of a journalist, all without losing the real benefits of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. That’s not a new challenge for U.S. foreign policy; and Washington has powerful tools that can transcend the false choice Pompeo presented.

The Trump administration’s current appeasement of MBS is dangerously emboldening Riyadh and other authoritarians abroad.  America should be sending precisely the opposite message: that, whether friend, foe, or something in between, engaging in brutal human rights violations will prompt serious repercussions from Washington.  It’s become clear, however, that the Trump administration has no interest in sending that message, with President Trump intent on ignoring his own intelligence agencies’ assessments and his son-in-law eager to help MBS to avoid consequences, not face them.

Pompeo’s testimony suggested that indulging Riyadh’s brutality is Washington’s only alternative to losing the benefit of U.S.-Saudi relations; but the challenge of punishing reprehensible behavior without abandoning an entire relationship isn’t new.  Washington has faced this dilemma before; and, as a consequence, Washington has developed an effective tool kit that Congress now should demand be used to respond to Riyadh.

That tool kit involves the targeted use of sanctions.  Notably, the Trump administration has invoked a human rights authority known as the Global Magnitsky Act to impose sanctions against 17 individuals reportedly involved in Khashoggi’s murder.  But, strikingly, MBS isn’t among them.  A bipartisan group of Senators has rightly asked the administration to consider such sanctions against all Saudi officials responsible for Khashoggi’s death.  Every sign from President Trump, however, suggests he won’t act against MBS.  So Congress should do what it did when the Trump administration made clear it had no intention of holding Russia accountable for interfering in America’s 2016 presidential election: pass legislation requiring the executive branch to act.

To be sure, Congress’s mandate for targeted sanctions against Moscow has been less than a total success, partly because of the Trump administration’s patent effort to make implementation as slow and minimal as politically feasible.  But it’s still yielded some overdue sanctions against key Russian architects of election interference while sending a message that at least one branch of the U.S. Government is outraged.  Congress should demand through legislation the same approach be employed toward Riyadh to punish those specifically responsible for Khashoggi’s murder—even if it must do so over Trump’s veto.

Specifically, Congress should pass legislation requiring the administration to impose “sectoral” sanctions on Saudi Arabia focused on the defense and intelligence elements of the country’s economy.  Washington has used similar sectoral sanctions when traditional, less targeted “blocking” sanctions appeared too disruptive in the course of complicated, multifaceted American foreign relations with countries like Russia and Venezuela.  Here, the congressional mandate would be to identify the Saudi defense and intelligence entities that participated in Khashoggi’s murder and other gross human rights violations and to impose appropriate sanctions, which could range from a complete cut-off from U.S. transactions to narrower limits on access to U.S. capital, equipment, technology, or intellectual property.  Such sanctions would be lifted if (and only if) the administration certifies to Congress that Riyadh has provided assurances that it won’t engage in extrajudicial killings and that the U.S. Intelligence Community has deemed those assurances credible.  Similar sectoral sanctions were authorized by President Obama against Russia for its activities in Ukraine and later codified as federal law by Congress when President Trump showed himself disinclined to act against Moscow; and these measures have contributed to the mounting pressure on the Kremlin.  An approach this targeted would allow diplomats, intelligence professionals, military officers, and others in both Washington and Riyadh to continue dialogue and some forms of collaboration on issues of mutual concern, while restricting other interactions in ways that impose a price for misbehavior on those responsible for it.  Handled properly by American diplomats, it’s an approach that could impose real costs without escalating into the sort of wholesale deterioration of U.S.-Saudi relations that Pompeo warned could be detrimental for certain very real U.S. interests.

Passing a law requiring targeted sanctions shouldn’t be Congress’s last word on how the executive branch must hold Riyadh—and, in particular, MBS—responsible for Khashoggi’s most gruesome murder.  For example, given that aspects of the planning or conspiring for the crime appear to have occurred on U.S. soil, federal prosecutors should consider criminal charges under the federal law that criminalizes conspiring to kill victims in a foreign country.  While criminal investigation and prosecution are properly left to the executive branch, Congress can urge that such work begin promptly.  But passing a law requiring sectoral sanctions against those responsible would be a critical first step in doing what Trump and Pompeo insist can’t be done: imposing accountability without sacrificing the benefits of U.S.-Saudi relations.


Joshua Geltzer is Founding Executive Director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and Visiting Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center. Former Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council, former Deputy Legal Advisor to the National Security Council, and former Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Department of Justice. Member of the editorial board of Just Security.