Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018. AP Photo/Amr Nabil

'Extraordinarily Important': Top US General Defends Saudi Relationship, Yemen War

‘I think it is better if we are engaged,” CENTCOM commander Gen. Joseph Votel says in an interview.

The top U.S. general in charge of troops in the Middle East defended America’s ties to Saudi Arabia and said on Monday that military relations between Washington and the kingdom are not changing, as public outrage over the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen recedes from recent headlines.

“There’s no change with any military relationship we have with Saudi Arabia. From the military perspective, I characterize the relationship as strong, deep, and I think a beneficial one for us. They have been a – they’re an extraordinarily important security partner in the region,” said Gen. Joseph Votel, the top commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East, told Defense One on Monday.

Saudi Arabia, and particularly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been accused of orchestrating Khashoggi’s gruesome dismemberment inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Outraged members of Congress and public critics have called for President Trump to respond to the murder by ending or curbing U.S. arms sales to the kingdom, cutting off relations, enacting sanctions, or withdrawing U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. Commentary pages have been flooded by a cacophony of hoped-for retributions and declaratory statements that the U.S.-Saudi relationship would never be the same. Punishment should happen, they say, if not for Khashoggi’s murder, then for the regime’s inaccurate air-war in Yemen that has caused civilian casualties.

For the military, that doesn’t appear to be the case — at least, not yet.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Sunday that U.S. support for Saudi Arabia would continue unabated. “We do not accept that there is any reason for a slow-down in the effort to bring this to a negotiated end,” he said, one day after meeting Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Jubeir at the Manama Dialogue, an annual gathering of Persian Gulf country security leaders.  

Votel, speaking to Defense One by phone from his military aircraft shortly after departing Afghanistan, said, “I’ve been given no particular instructions on this particular point and so from my perspective, steady as she goes here, continuing to maintain our relationship — our military relationship — with Saudi Arabia, and when something changes then that’ll be the case, but I don’t have any indications of that at this point.”

“Obviously, we’re well aware of some of the concerns that have been expressed by the Saudi-led coalition’s conduct in how they’ve conducted operations in Yemen,” Votel said.

He added that the U.S. will continue to work with the Saudis to improve their performance by sharing best practices and experiences. Votel was careful to say the U.S. military’s level of support for Saudi Arabia was for civilian policymakers to decide and the military to execute, but that it was critical to American interests and security.

"Saudi Arabia is an extraordinarily influential and important leader of the Arab world within the region," he said. "And for that particular reason, other partners in the region often look to Saudi Arabia for a lead, for leadership, direction, and how they approach broader security concerns. So, a nation that plays that role in the region is important to us because it contributes to the interests that we have in the region: of addressing terrorism and preventing it from coming to our shores, of promoting stability in the area, of promoting freedom of navigation."

"And so having a relationship with them and as well as with others in the region is important. And this isn’t a new relationship. This goes all the way back to 1945 when President Roosevelt met with the Saudi king at the time," said Votel.

“From a security standpoint, I always think it’s better to be engaged than to not be engaged. And that’s kinda what I think we’re doing here,” he said.

“I understand why our members of Congress are expressing concerns about all of this. That’s a natural aspect of this, and that will also be part of the ongoing policy debate on all of this. But for us, I am exercising the military component of what the president’s policy is and [if] that policy changes, then we’ll change and respond to it.”

Khashoggi’s killing has also drawn greater attention to Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemen conflict. The civil war is frequently being cited as “Saudi Arabia’s war,” but senior U.S. officials this year have sought to blame Iran for prolonging the conflict, while others have tried to persuade Washington to devote more effort to solving the crisis.

Related: Yemen is Not a Sideshow

“This threat that has been posed by the Iranian support to the Houthis,” Votel said, “is viewed as unacceptable by the Saudi-led coalition.”

Earlier this year, Votel told Congress that Iran has provided Houthis with ballistic missiles and other weapons capable of striking Saudi Arabia and U.S. targets in the region. He said on Monday that America should continue its “indirect” support for the Saudi-led fighting in Yemen and its aid in preventing civilian casualties.

“I think it is better if we are engaged in this than if we step away from this. And, I think, my personal view is we have a better chance of trying to influence them in the conduct of this by staying engaged than we do by walking away.”