Intel: How Democratic 2020 hopefuls are making the most of anti-Saudi backlash

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Fresh off the midterm elections, Democratic politicians hoping to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020 are starting to hone their foreign policy credentials. And Saudi Arabia makes for ideal target practice.

In a foreign policy address today, Massachusetts senator and potential 2020 contender Elizabeth Warren criticized Trump for his close-knit relationship with the Saudis despite the growing backlash against Riyadh in the wake of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

“The president of the United States has refused to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia in part because he is more interested in appeasing US defense contractors than holding the Saudis accountable for the murder of a Washington Post journalist or for the thousands of Yemeni civilians killed by those weapons,” Warren said in a speech at American University.

Why it matters: Warren’s speech comes after another high-profile 2020 hopeful, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., delivered his own foreign policy address last month. Sanders was equally critical of Trump’s relationship with the Saudis, repeatedly zeroing in on Khashoggi’s murder as an example of Trump’s proclivity for foreign dictators.

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Fast-forward to Wednesday, the Senate voted 63-37 to move ahead with Sanders’ resolution to force Trump to end US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. That same day, the Trump administration confirmed that Riyadh had inked a $15 billion deal with defense contractor Lockheed Martin for a missile defense system earlier in the week.

Drain the swamp: The bipartisan backlash against Riyadh has made it easy for left-wing Democrats to use Saudi Arabia as a stand-in for their campaign against defense contractors and lobbyists working for foreign dictators — longtime fixtures in Washington’s foreign policy establishment.

Warren, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, used Trump’s determination to preserve Saudi arms sales as an example of the “stranglehold of defense contractors on our military policy.” The Massachusetts Democrat also sent letters to 23 current and former Saudi lobbyists asking them to detail their dealings with the Trump administration. Earlier this year, she introduced legislation that would ban lobbyists from receiving compensation from foreign governments, but it’s unlikely to pass in a Republican-held Senate.

What’s next? It remains to be seen how Warren and Sanders, two prominent left-wing senators, will differentiate themselves on Middle East policy if they seek to secure the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. In the meantime, the endless stream of anti-Saudi outrage on Capitol Hill will allow other potential challengers to assail Trump for his unapologetic defense of the increasingly scrutinized relationship.

Know More: Read Pentagon Correspondent Jack Detsch’s take on Riyadh’s new contract with Lockheed Martin and how Trump trumps up the benefits of Saudi arms sales. Then read congressional correspondent Bryant Harris’ report on the Senate’s historic vote rebuking Saudi Arabia and the Yemen war.

- Bryant Harris

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Found in: MBS, US elections

Al-Monitor Staff

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