Two members of President Donald Trump's Cabinet strongly defended continuing US backing for Saudi Arabia in the war it is leading in Yemen, despite the brutal murder of a Saudi journalist and a humanitarian crisis that has pushed Yemen to the brink of famine.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis appeared in a closed-door meeting with senators before an anticipated vote on whether to dramatically scale back US military support for the kingdom.

Their opening remarks, released by the State Department and the Pentagon, were a case study in the difficult challenge of balancing perceived US security needs against a partnership with a government that has engaged in behaviour that has drawn international condemnation.

Pompeo struck an unapologetic tone, arguing that without US involvement, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the threat posed to US interests and Americans "would be a hell of a lot worse".


Among the outcomes Pompeo predicted are more civilian deaths without US training for targeting, more safe havens for terrorists and more danger for oil tankers in the Red Sea and Americans landing at the Riyadh airport, which has been a target of missiles fired by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

"All we would achieve from an American drawdown is a stronger Iran and a reinvigorated Isis and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula," according to the excerpt. "Try defending that outcome back home."

Pompeo's remarks echoed points he made in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, in which he characterised the reaction to the October murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi as heightening "Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile on". Pompeo did not mention Khashoggi in his prepared remarks to senators.

Mattis lamented the journalist's killing while underscoring the need to continue a partnership with Saudi Arabia even as the airstrikes have killed tens of thousands of people, both civilians and rebels.

"We are seldom free to work with unblemished partners," Mattis said in prepared remarks released by the Pentagon. "Long-standing relationships guide but do not blind us. Saudi Arabia, due to geography and the Iranian threat, is fundamental to maintaining regional and Israeli security, and to our interest in Mideast stability."

Mattis contended it is necessary and possible to demand accountability from the Saudi Government, which has told several, shifting versions of Khashoggi's fate at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul, "while recognising the reality of Saudi Arabia as a necessary partner."

Pompeo said it would be "misguided" to pull back what he characterised as limited US military support and weapons sales to the Saudis on the eve of potentially promising peace negotiations led by the United Nations.

In addition to Saudi Arabia's "strategic" importance in the Middle East, Trump has repeatedly cited its purchase of US weapons and help in keeping oil prices low as important to the US economy.


As pressure to reduce US military ties with the Saudis has increased, however, Riyadh has emphasised that it has other options, including with Russia. Relations with Moscow have tightened markedly in recent months, with Saudi Arabia continuing to express interest in the purchase of a sophisticated Russian missile defence system and indicating that, despite Trump's entreaties, it may cut oil production to boost world prices.

Oil is among the subjects Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who US intelligence has concluded likely ordered Khashoggi's killing, is expected to discuss with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Argentina later this week, the Kremlin said today in confirming that Mohammed and Putin will hold a bilateral meeting there.

Trump, who will also attend the summit, will meet Putin as well. He has said he would be willing to meet with Mohammed but currently has no meeting scheduled. Mohammed, following a tour of Arab countries over the past week, arrived in Buenos Aires today.

Many senators had predicted today's meeting with Pompeo and Mattis would be unsatisfactory, as the Administration did not send CIA Director Gina Haspel to speak about the CIA assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi's killing.

Trump has dismissed the CIA's assessment as inconclusive "feelings" - prompting backlash from the Republicans' most senior ranks.

"What obviously happened is basically certified by the CIA," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R, told reporters yesterday. "It is completely abhorrent to everything the United States holds dear and stands for in the world, so some kind of response certainly would be in order."

But lawmakers have yet to agree to what the response is.

A bipartisan group of senators has proposed a spectrum of sanctions focused against the Saudi-led coalition and any other entity fomenting unrest in Yemen. Their bill would also curtail most weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia until the coalition pulls back from its Yemen campaign. But senior GOP leaders have yet to embrace the legislation, which stands little chance of passing Congress unless it's inserted into a must-pass spending bill, due December 7.

Another bipartisan group is hoping to deliver a more immediate rebuke of Saudi Arabia's methods with a resolution to invoke the War Powers Act and force the United States to end its military, intelligence and air support for the Saudi-led coalition.

A similar effort in March failed to garner enough votes to proceed, but sponsors believe the Khashoggi slaying inspired several more senators to stop prioritising the strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia over its human rights record.

Senator Cory Gardner, R, said "it would be nice" had Haspel been included in the briefing for lawmakers. "There are certainly members who are weighing the absence of the CIA director in how they will vote," he said.

Senator Christopher Coons , D, voted against the resolution to curtail US support for the Saudi coalition when it was raised in March. But he said today that he would be voting yes on the resolution this time, because "it's time for us to send a clear and strong signal to our close ally Saudi Arabia that actions that violate core values . . . have consequences."

Coons called Haspel's absence "very unusual."

Senator Jeff Flake, R, said he went into the briefing planning to change his vote to support the resolution, and that he "remain convinced, there was nothing that's going to change my mind".

"I don't think the Administration won any votes, won over any troubled Republicans in that briefing," Senator Chris Murphy, D, said. He also said he was "more confident" after the briefing that the resolution would have enough votes to pass.

Murphy added that he thinks the GOP is eager to get onto the resolution, as once it has been taken up, it can be amended by a simple majority.