Critics have wrongly assailed Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, for comments he made on November 29 on my 1690 KDMT radio show concerning Saudi Arabia. Some will similarly disparage his “No” vote last Thursday against the Senate’s resolution to withdraw U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s incursion into Yemen. But Gardner made the right call – and he did vote to condemn the Saudi crown prince for murdering Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi.
His KDMT interview was the morning after the Senate first voted to advance the Yemen resolution to the next stage. Unlike Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, Gardner voted nay. His vote then was influenced by a briefing of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis on Khashoggi’s murder, the Yemen war and broader Saudi/Mideast policy.
When Gardner urged caution over media reports about CIA conclusions regarding the Khashoggi murder, he directly referenced that briefing, in which Pompeo asserted clearly that “no direct evidence” implicates Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and heir to the throne, Muhammad bin Salman, in the killing.
That was beforeCIA Director Gina Haspel’s Senate briefing, which persuaded Gardner of bin Salman’s guilt. Consequently, he cosponsored and voted for the resolution of Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, impugning bin Salman for Khashoggi’s murder.
In explaining his vote against Thursday’s final Yemen resolution, Gardner rightly touted America’s “vital security interests” and the need to counter “the malign activities of the Iranian regime.” He declared he couldn’t back a proposal that will “jeopardize the safety and security of the American people from those who wish to do us harm.” Thus, he voted no, preferring that “Secretary Mattis and our military leaders” decide the timing of ending America’s Yemen mission.
Gardner is spot-on. This resolution was clearly a rebuke of Saudi Arabia for the murder, not about America’s national interests. Unfortunately, the Senate passed the measure, which would, as Gardner stated, “only serve to embolden our enemies” and risks allowing Iran and ISIS “a foothold in Saudi Arabia.”
He’s also right not to insist that Saudi Arabia remove bin Salman from power. Instead, as the second resolution states, it’s more reasonable to demand the Saudis “ensure appropriate accountability for all those responsible for Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.” This leaves the door open to any number of alternative punishments.
It’s patently wrong for any government to assassinate a journalist – especiallya U.S. resident – and stiff sanctions may be appropriate. But the reality of the Middle East is stark and critical to understand. As former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain Sam Zakhem of Colorado often notes, with the exceptions of Israel and arguably Lebanon, regional regimes there will be either “bad” or “worse.” That’s it.
There will almost always be dictatorial regimes (Iran, Saudi Arabia) – not shining examples of liberal democracy – or shaky democracies that are vulnerable to terrorists (ISIS) and struggles to maintain their affairs (Iraq, Afghanistan). Truthfully, Iran’s pre-1979 Shah was better than the Ayatollahs. Egypt’s el-Sisi is superior to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi. And bin Salman – an advocate for the most substantial Saudi Arabian social reforms ever, including the right of women to drive – is probably the “best” leader we’ll get.
As Gardner put it on KDMT, “We’re not dealing with a bunch of sweethearts here. [They] don’t share the same values as we do.” While the U.S. should affirm our principles and “hold accountable those people who carry out atrocious acts that violate human rights,” it’s essential that “we are not putting Americans in harm’s way by abandoning our fight against terror [nor] yielding the region to Iran, Russia or China.”
The author is a talk show host on 1690 KDMT and 710 KNUS and president and CEO of the Millennial Policy Center in Denver.