WASHINGTON, DC — Retired General John Abizaid, President Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Saudi Arabia, defended the U.S.-Saudi relationship on Wednesday as lawmakers accused the kingdom of a litany of misdeeds and criticized its crown prince as going “full gangster.”
Both Republican and Democratic Senators at Abizaid’s confirmation hearing condemned the kingdom’s conduct in the civil war in Yemen, heavy-handed diplomacy and rights abuses. Among those were the torturing of women’s activists and a U.S. citizen and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Abizaid called for accountability for the murder of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, and support for human rights, but repeatedly stressed the strategic importance of Washington-Riyadh ties.
Despite increasing tension between the two countries, the U.S. has not had an ambassador to Saudi Arabia since Trump became president in January 2017.
“In the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia,” Abizaid told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It is in our interests to make sure that the relationship is sound.”
Abizaid, a retired four-star Army general who led the U.S. Central Command during the Iraq war, is expected to easily win Senate confirmation.
The Senate and House of Representatives have passed resolutions that would end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in the war against Yemen, an important rebuke of Riyadh. But Abizaid said the Trump administration believes strongly that U.S. support should continue.
“Doing so bolsters the self-defense capabilities of our partners and reduces the risk of harm to civilians,” he said.
It was also the confirmation hearing for Matthew Tueller, the current U.S. ambassador to Yemen and Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to Iraq. He also defended U.S. support for the coalition.
Lawmakers sharply criticized Mohammed bin Salman, calling him reckless, ruthless and a full gangster
Lawmakers have been sharply critical of Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince. Some blame him for Khashoggi’s killing and other human rights abuses.
Eleven suspects have been indicted in Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder and Riyadh has denied the crown prince ordered the killing.
“Saudi Arabia has engaged in acts that are simply not acceptable,” said Republican Senator Jim Risch, the committee chairman. Risch has held two classified briefings in the past two weeks for the panel to discuss Saudi Arabia.
Senator Bob Menendez, the committee’s ranking Democrat, acknowledged the strategic importance of Saudi ties, amid threats from Iran.
“But we cannot let these interests blind us to our values or to our long term interests in stability,” Menendez said.
Menendez did not mention by name Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who has met with Saudi leaders, rankling some in Congress. But he asked Abizaid if he would insist on being fully informed about all White House interactions with the Saudis. Abizaid said he would.
As the hearing continued, Republican Senator Marco Rubio said bin Salman had gone “full gangster”, an assertion repeated by another Republican, Senator Ron Johnson.
“He is reckless, he’s ruthless, he has a penchant for escalation, for taking high risks, confrontational in his foreign policy approach and I think increasingly willing to test the limits of what he can get away with the United States,” Rubio said.