WASHINGTON ― Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., has stepped down as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee following his indictment over an Egypt-linked bribe scandal, but the panel’s new leader could still hinder Saudi attempts to strike a defense pact with the U.S. and Turkey’s bid to procure F-16 fighter jets.
After his staff distributed a picture and flyer of Saudi political prisoner Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan to reporters at a press conference on Thursday, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., stressed that he’ll make human rights concerns a key factor in approving arms sales to other countries, a privilege he now enjoys as committee chairman.
“It’s interesting, we have certain relationships right now in regards to Saudi Arabia,” said Cardin. “I will be mentioning this person [Al-Sadhan] during these discussions. It gets personal, but we won’t see policy changes in these countries.”
As chairman, Cardin will also have considerable influence in whether to advance any security treaty with Saudi Arabia requiring Senate ratification. He will also need to make a quick decision on whether to hold $235 million in Egypt military aid following the Menendez indictment by the end of the week.
The Biden administration had been in close contact with Menendez on both its negotiations with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, though Cardin is still waiting to receive those briefings in the weeks ahead after assuming the chairmanship on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia has asked the U.S. for a mutual defense pact and a civilian nuclear agreement as conditions to normalize ties with Israel. Cardin said he’s “very excited” about a Saudi-Israel normalization deal, calling it “a game changer in the region” but cautioned he would demand human rights accountability and security cooperation safeguards as part of any U.S. commitments to Riyadh.
Cardin highlighted Saudi Arabia’s 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, noting “There’s still not been fully accountability with regards to those responsible.”
“These issues need to be talked about and we have to have it included as we talk about a security agreement in the United States and Saudi Arabia,” he said. “And there’s got to be guardrails because any security agreement the United States commits to help defend another country to make sure that it’s always in our national security interest to get engaged.”
But he added that a successful security agreement, with safeguards, could “open up more opportunities for arms sales with the Saudis.”
“If we don’t have an agreement, then there’s a great concern as to the use of American military on the Saudis that we’ve seen in the previous campaigns, and I know there’s a great deal of interest among my colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” he told Defense News.
Before backtracking and entering defense pact negotiations with the Saudis, President Joe Biden announced shortly after taking office that he would ban offensive arms sales to Riyadh – including an $8 billion deal for precision-guided missiles agreed to in the Trump administration – because of the Khashoggi murder and U.S.-backed bombing campaign in Yemen that killed close to 9,000 civilians.
Last week, the State Department approved a $500 million arms sale in repairs and spare parts for U.S. tanks and armored vehicles owned by the Saudis. This includes equipment that Saudi border guards used to kill hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross into the kingdom from Yemen, as documented in an August Human Rights Watch report.
Menendez would have had to greenlight this sale, despite announcing a hold on Saudi arms sales last year “beyond what is absolutely necessary to defend U.S. personnel and interests” amid Democratic outrage over Riyadh’s agreement to increase oil output with Russia.
Turkey and Egypt
Cardin also said that he talked with Turkish representatives at the NATO ambassadors meeting on Wednesday.
“I reminded them to stay on track to get the accession of Sweden into NATO,” said Cardin. “They claim that’ll be done first part of next month. If that is true, then we should have the NATO issue resolved, but there are other issues in addition to just NATO accession that needs to be part of our discussions going forward.”
He said he had not made a decision on whether he would allow the F-16 sale to proceed.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan explicitly linked the two issues this month, stating that Ankara would ratify Sweden’s accession if the U.S. moves forward on the F-16 sale. The Turkish parliament could take up Sweden’s accession bid when it returns from a months-long recess in October.
Menendez’s former position as Foreign Relations chairman proved to be Turkey’s chief obstacle in inking the roughly $20 billion sale for 40 Block 70 F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits. He had repeatedly said Sweden’s NATO accession would not be enough for him to approve the sale, at times pointing to a range of other concerns like border tensions with Greece and Ankara’s jailing of journalists and political opponents.
The Justice Department’s indictment against Menendez alleges that he ghost wrote a letter for an Egyptian official lobbying his Senate colleagues not to hold $300 million of Egypt’s annual $1.3 billion in military aid in exchange for bribes in cash and gold bars.
Cardin is also deliberating whether to block $235 million of Egypt military aid that the Biden administration approved via a national security waiver this month. He would need to do this by the end of the month.
“The allegations against Senator Menendez are horrific, and they also involve allegations concerning his role as chairman of the committee,” said Cardin. “So, that is extremely challenging to all of us here.”
However, he stressed that the indictment did not implicate any Foreign Relations Committee staffers.
Cardin last took Menendez’s place as lead Democrat on the committee during the New Jersey senator’s first federal indictment in 2015. However, that indictment did not implicate Menendez’s work on the committee.
While Menendez was required to step down as chairman per Senate rules, he currently remains on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.