GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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The Role of the Congress in Shaping US-Saudi Relations
Paper Proposal Text :

While the US Congress will not directly determine US policy toward Saudi Arabia in coming years, it wields more power in foreign affairs than most legislative bodies. Congressional action – or inaction – can constrain US options and capabilities both with regard to Saudi Arabia and the anticipated pivot to Asia.

Congress also has the power to drive policy by shaping public opinion. For example, as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Senator Robert Graham (Democrat of Florida) advocated the theory that the Saudi government was directly behind the attacks of 9/11. In his retirement he has been even more vocal on this topic. While the George W. Bush administration pushed back on this notion, his views made somewhat respectable a controversial and inflammatory idea.

My paper will examine congressional views on Saudi Arabia through the lens of hearings, testimony and legislation introduced, considered and passed. I will look at congressional delegations that have visited Saudi Arabia. To supplement this analysis I will interview current and previous members of congress and their staff as well as outside advocates on matters pertaining to Saudi Arabia.

The American Constitution divides power among three branches of government: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. While many extol this example of divided government it also poses some complications not presented by parliamentary or authoritarian systems.

Under the Constitution the President is the Commander-in-Chief. Consequently, Congress cannot direct strategy and tactics in a military conflict. On the other hand, the Constitution vests the power to declare war in the Congress. While Congress has not exercised that right since World War II, the constitutional provision and the ambiguity as to what constitutes β€œwar” have led to tension between the legislative and executive branches on national security matters.

Congress also has the power of the purse. No money can be disbursed from the treasury without authorization by congress. Under this authority congress can restrict funding for programs such as foreign aid. In more subtle ways, it can restrict certain government actions by barring funding.

The United States Senate exercises power in foreign policy through its role in ratifying treaties and approving the appointment of ambassadors. Policy concessions are often required from the administration as the price for securing the necessary votes.

Saudi Arabia, with a tiny immigrant population within the US, lacks the power that a number of other immigrant communities possess to influence American foreign policy. From Cuban-Americans to Armenian-Americans, groups identify with the interest of their nation of origin and attempt to impact policy through lobbying efforts and financial support. No group, however, exercises as much sway as the constellation of pro-Israel organizations led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. From time to time the power of these organizations has been directed against Saudi Arabia. Consequently, the interests of Israel and the views of the Israeli government provide one of four elements that shape congressional views on Saudi Arabia.

The second and third elements are the defense and energy industries. Both sectors are strongly invested in Saudi Arabia and are politically potent in US domestic politics and congress.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 added another element to the politics of Saudi Arabia in congress: the notion that Saudi Arabia, either directly or indirectly, supported al-Qaeda and its attacks on America.

This last element will be the primary focus of my study. Other elements such as national security and Israel will be intertwined with the post 9/11 reaction. I will examine how congressional policy and rhetoric shaped the debate on US policy toward Saudi Arabia and how congress may impact policy and capabilities going forward.