Lindsey Graham and 13 other Republican senators were right to join Democrats in voting to allow debate on a bill that would order President Donald Trump to suspend assistance to the Arab coalition supporting the government of Yemen in its devastating war with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Debate on the measure has not been scheduled and may never happen. But the vote is a sign that Mr. Trump has failed to convince key Senate allies that he has taken appropriate measures against the government of Saudi Arabia following the killing of dissident Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul.
Mr. Trump sent Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to brief the Senate in closed session on the Khashoggi affair, the importance of the U.S.-Saudi alliance, and measures the United States is taking to steer the war in Yemen toward a peaceful settlement. But he initially refused to let the Senate hear from CIA Director Gina Haspel, who is now expected to brief leaders Tuesday. Her agency said the evidence suggests Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder. Mr. Trump has built his alliance with Saudi Arabia through negotiations with the crown prince and has taken great pains to avoid accusing him of being involved in Mr. Khashoggi’s death.
Sen. Graham correctly called the president’s response “inadequate.” He opposes the bill, sponsored by independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, but voted for debate on it because “the way the administration has handled Saudi Arabia is just not acceptable.”
The Russians have no such internal conflicts about Mr. Khashoggi’s demise. In a bizarre bit of international theater, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is believed to have ordered a number of political murders in foreign countries, gave the crown prince a high-five when they met Friday at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires.
The remedy proposed by the Sanders bill would harm the prospects for a reasonable political settlement in Yemen by strengthening the hand of the Houthi rebels and Iran. It also would undermine a critical U.S. alliance of necessity. But there are other options short of that which would demonstrate America’s opposition to the Saudis’ killing of Mr. Khashoggi.
The Trump administration has already announced suspension of U.S. aerial refueling for Arab coalition aircraft supporting the legitimate government of Yemen by attacking Houthi positions in the critical Red Sea port of Hodeida. This is a strong signal that the coalition of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the government of Yemen, should put aside their 6-month-old campaign to recapture Hodeida from the rebels. Instead, peace talks scheduled to begin soon in Stockholm offer a chance not only for a settlement but also could prevent an even worse humanitarian crisis affecting millions of Yemenis trapped by the civil war.
Cutting off all military assistance to the Arab coalition would be going too far. But Mr. Trump may face that demand from Congress unless he does a better job of satisfying Republican senators that he has taken steps to confront Saudi Arabia over Mr. Khashoggi’s death.