Congress Questions Gulf Arms Sales

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Donald Trump discussing U.S.-Saudi arms sales (White House)

by Derek Davison

Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper on Wednesday told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the Trump administration’s decision to rush weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was necessary to counter the “urgent regional threat posed by Iran” and to ensure that U.S. allies do not buy their weapons from “near-peer competitors” like China and Russia.

Donald Trump decided on May 24 to declare an emergency under the Arms Export Control Act in order to push through 22 different arms sales, totaling over $8 billion, to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan. In so doing, he appears to have deliberately circumvented the normal Congressional review process for such sales.

Out of concern both for defending Congress’s traditional role in weapons sales and for selling arms to the Saudis while the kingdom is waging its destructive war in Yemen, several members of Congress have resisted Trump’s emergency declaration. Senators Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana, for example, are pushing new legislation that, under the Foreign Assistance Act, would require the administration to issue a report in 30 days on the kingdom’s human rights record, at which time Congress could vote to block the arms sales despite Trump’s alleged emergency.

Democratic Committee Chair Eliot Engel began the hearing with a sharp rebuke of the emergency declaration, which he termed a “fiasco” and “an abuse of authority”:

Let’s be clear: Congress’s ability to review arms exports is upheld by law and by longstanding tradition. In light of concerns in Congress, did the administration come to us to negotiate a path forward? No. Did they listen to members on both sides of the aisle who wanted greater assurances that American weapons would not be used in the slaughter of civilians [in Yemen]? No. Did they pay the least amount of respect to a co-equal branch of government and its legitimate and vital role? No. Instead, they employed an obscure and rarely used provision of the law to declare a phony emergency, ram these sales through, and undercut Congress’s ability to carry out its oversight role…Here’s the reality: there is no emergency.

In his testimony, Cooper sought to assure skeptical committee Democrats that the emergency declaration did not signal the administration’s intention to cut Congress out of the loop entirely when it comes to arms sales. On several occasions during the hearing, he talked about the “value” the administration places on the role Congress plays “in the review of the arms transfer process” and insisted that the declaration was an isolated incident that was in keeping with precedent. Cooper cited an “uptick” in “threat streams” from Iran that he said justified the emergency declaration, although he failed to offer any details about such threats that many critics have believe have been either overhyped or misunderstood by the administration since it first began raising the alarm early last month.

Committee Republicans, including ranking member Michael McCaul of Texas and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania , seized upon Congressionally-imposed delays in some recent sales as justification for the State Department’s decision to bypass oversight. Cooper contended that the normal review period for arms sales can reach “up to 30 days,” but that some of the sales in question have been under review for 18 months or even close to two years. The ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, for example, has placed the sale of precision-guided weapons to the Saudis and Emiratis on hold over concerns about civilian casualties in Yemen. Much of the questioning focused on the destruction the Saudi-Emirati coalition has wrought in Yemen using U.S.-made weapons as well as reports that the coalition has transferred U.S.-made weapons to local forces aligned with al-Qaeda. The administration has frequently defended supplying precision munitions to the Saudis on the grounds that they reduce civilian casualties, even though the Saudis have repeatedly used them to strike civilian targets, and the overall effect of their military effort has produced what the United Nations has termed the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The Armed Conflict and Location Event Data (ACLED) Project recently estimated that over 70,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed in the war since January 2016, with the Saudi-led coalition accounting for most of the over 7000 killed in direct attacks targeting civilians, and Save the Children says that over 100,000 Yemeni children have contracted cholera in 2019 alone. Cooper acknowledged that “there is room to improve the integrity of the targeting process” but said that this “does not preclude” continuing to arm the coalition with those weapons.

In the absence of any specific discussion of alleged new Iranian “threats” and the urgency they supposedly imparted to these arms sales, Cooper’s argument relied heavily on the idea that the emergency declaration was necessary to speed up the arms sales and prevent the Saudis and Emiratis—two of the world’s biggest arms buyers—from shopping elsewhere for their weapons. In defending his administration’s arms sales to the Saudis, President Trump has frequently cited the possibility that they might turn to China for weapons if the U.S. were to halt or even limit those sales, and that fear may have gained greater traction in light of a CNN report earlier this month that the Saudis have significantly expanded their ballistic missile program with assistance from China.

However, Trump significantly overstates both the economic impact such arms deals have on the U.S. economy and the degree to which the Saudis could quickly or easily shift the bulk of their arms purchases to China or Russia. The kingdom’s armed forces have relied for decades almost entirely on U.S. and British weapons systems that are manufactured to fire U.S. and British-made munitions. Shifting to Chinese-made weapons systems would be a lengthy and very costly step for Riyadh to take. Moreover, the frequently made claim, repeated Wednesday by Cooper, that the U.S. demands greater protections for civilians in its arms sales than do other weapons exporters like China and Russia rings hollow in light of the apparent lack of any such protections when it comes to civilians in Yemen.

As the hearing wore on, the focus shifted toward the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE more broadly. Perhaps the strongest criticism of that relationship came from freshman Congressperson Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, She described the Saudi and Emirati governments as “brutal regimes” that “crush democratic movements abroad” and “have been funders of terrorists.” The Trump administration’s virtually unconditional alignment with the two Gulf powers undermine long-term U.S. interests in the region, she argued:

I believe that our relationship with [Saudi Arabia and the UAE], in its current form, is immoral. But it’s not only immoral, it’s counterproductive to our national security. I believe that trusting them to protect our needs and protect us against terroristic threats is like trusting a thief to protect your shop. This administration selling them billions of dollars in weapons is dangerous, and it’s outrageous. Doing so shows open disregard for the will of Congress and the American people and is a slap in the face to our democracy and our values.

Cooper responded that U.S. alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE don’t “preclude us from holding partners accountable, not just on human rights, but also on protecting our interests.”

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Derek Davison

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.

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2 Comments

  1. Ali Mostofi, I’m very disappointed in you by NOT commenting about Trump arming one of the Iranians foes in the region! Are you on Mohammed-Butcher of- Saudi (MbS)’s payrolls? 3 strikes and you are out!

  2. Instead of working on international treaties to reduce and finally stop the conventional arms trade for the sake of humanity and the planet they compete for it! Do likes of France who pretend to advocate for the environment believe that they have less effect on the environment than the paper industry?!

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