by Thomas W. Lippman
What is President Trump waiting for?
Amid the international uproar over the disappearance of a dissident Saudi Arabian journalist and his apparent murder by Saudi security agents, Trump has refrained from passing judgment on the Saudi government or criticizing the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
On Thursday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin cancelled his scheduled appearance at an upcoming international investment conference in Riyadh, joining scores of business executives and news organizations that have pulled out. The president himself, however, has remained cautious.
After reports from Turkey on Thursday of possible new clues about Jamal Khashoggi’s fate, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that he has recommended that Trump wait “a few more days” to see the results of an investigation that the Saudi rulers have promised to conduct, but that investigation is hardly the only thing that is holding the president back.
Trump has said several times that he does not want to jeopardize the $110 billion worth of weapons purchase agreements that he claims to have obtained during his visit to Riyadh last year.
If the Saudis cannot obtain the weapons they want from the United States, the president has said, they will buy them elsewhere, perhaps Russia or China, taking jobs from American workers.
Trump’s reasoning is flawed and his argument is based on fallacies.
First, there no $110 billion package of commitments. The purported package includes sales negotiated during the Obama administration, a Saudi wish list, weapons and equipment for which no contracts have been signed, and weapons that are in the pipeline but will not be delivered for years, if ever.
From last October through this week, the State Department has approved five transactions posted in the Federal Register by the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency. They have a combined estimated value of $17.78 billion, of which $15 billion would cover missiles and launchers for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD). There have also been two “Letters of Offer” this year for small deals with a total value of about $607 million.
That does not mean that those are the only pending deals. Those are the ones that have survived the review process at the State Department and of which notice has been sent to Congress. A list compiled by the Congressional Research Service last month included those plus sales for which the Saudis have sent “Letters of Intent” that the Trump administration “intends to develop further in consultation with Saudi officials and then propose to Congress.” That list includes four Littoral Combat Ships for the growing Saudi Navy, 115 heavy tanks, and an unspecified number of Chinook and UH-60 helicopters. If Washington and Riyadh come to agreement on every item, and if the proposed sales survive congressional scrutiny and reach the point of delivery, they “may have an approximate value of more than $110 billion,” spread over several years, the CRS report said.
Direct sales of military equipment from the U.S. armed forces to foreign militaries are processed by the Pentagon. Sales by defense contractors, including most of the big-ticket items, are reviewed by the State Department, which by law applies 13 criteria to determine military suitability, impact on U.S. foreign policy, and “the human rights, democratization, counterterrorism, counter proliferation, and nonproliferation record of the recipient.”
On that basis, the State Department could make a credible case for turning down some Saudi purchases because of the Khashoggi case. But in the 75 years of U.S.-Saudi strategic relations, the United States has rarely allowed human rights issues to interfere with economic or strategic objectives.
Congress could reject some or all of the proposed transactions but is unlikely to do so because rejection requires a veto-proof two-thirds vote. Individual senators can block some sales temporarily, as Sen. Robert Menendez, senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, did in June because he wanted more information about the U.S. role in Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen. But such holds do not constitute permanent rejection of any given deal.
Knowing that the Saudis are intent on building up their already-extensive defense capabilities, President Trump has expressed fear that if they can’t buy what they want from the United States, they will buy from other countries, possibly including Russia or China.
That, too, is unlikely, because much of what the Saudis want consists of upgrades and spare parts for U.S.-made weapons they already have. Moreover, the Saudi purchases of modern weapons systems usually come with a training component, by which the manufacturer and the U.S. military teach the Saudis how to operate and maintain the equipment. So deeply is the United States embedded in the Saudi military and domestic security forces, whose officers are largely American-trained, that a defection from U.S. supply lines would represent a major disruption.
In addition, commanders of the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations all across the Middle East and South Asia, have spent most of the past decade trying to get Saudi Arabia and its fractious neighbors to integrate their operations and weapons systems with each other’s and with those of the United States.
In his 2018 annual report to Congress the current CENTCOM commander, Gen. Joseph Votel, emphasized a strategy of “operations by, with, and through our partners…The ‘total package’ approach with which we pursue equipment support and long-term sustainment ensures that maintenance support and training are part of the FMS [Foreign Military Sales] plan from the outset.” There is not much room for Russian or Chinese weaponry in that “total package.”
President Trump no doubt has many reasons for his unwillingness to punish Saudi Arabia or cut off his close relationship with the crown prince. The prospect of losing out on lucrative military sales should not be among them.