Last week, a bipartisan quarter of senators — Rand Paul, Chris Murphy, Al Franken, and Mike Lee — introduced a joint resolution to block the $1.15 billion sale of Abrams tanks and other major defense articles to Saudi Arabia in light of concerns about the kingdom’s actions in Yemen.
In the House, more than 60 representatives signed a letter by Rep. Ted Lieu to President Obama requesting a delay in U.S. arms sales to Riyadh. With opposition to arms sales to Saudi Arabia growing, the administration should use its leverage to encourage the Saudi government to cease its indiscriminate bombing campaign and delay future U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia until such change occurs.
The 18-month Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is believed to have resulted in over 3,800 civilian deaths and more than 6,700 injuries. US-manufactured weapons are being used to carry out the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, and strikes have hit civilian targets, destroying schools, markets, hospitals, and factories.
The United States is Saudi Arabia’s largest weapons supplier and it has provided logistical and intelligence support to the kingdom, along with billions of dollars in heavy conventional weapons. The Obama administration has prioritized Saudi Arabia’s special relationship with the United States and has requested a nominal $10,000 per year for International Military Education and Training (IMET) assistance so that Saudi Arabia can remain eligible for discounts on Foreign Military Sales. Since 2009 alone, the administration has authorized over $115 billion in sales of major conventional weapons to the Kingdom –including munitions, tanks, and fighter jets.
While proponents of continued sales to Saudi Arabia provide numerous justifications, many of those do not hold up. Indeed, the oft-heard refrain, “if we don’t sell, someone else will” is used repeatedly – but just because we can doesn’t mean we should. Complicity in contributing to human rights abuses and a massive humanitarian crisis is not in the U.S. interest, even if the U.S. could lose sales (itself a specious argument). If the Chinese or Russians want to sell weapons that they know will be used to kill civilians, let them. The United States holds an estimable position and a certain moral authority when it comes to the global arms trade – in both its robust (and restrictive) arms transfer control system and its attentiveness to potential risks – and should not negate its core principles when confronted with potential competition.
Congress rarely offers such a public critique of potential U.S. arms transfers, particularly to a close ally. The last time Congress successfully stopped an arms sale to Saudi Arabia was in the early 1990s, when fallout from the Gulf War led lawmakers to oppose a $20 billion arms package to the kingdom (the sale was eventually broken into smaller pieces; the transfer of some systems was postponed indefinitely).
The administration already has the tools it needs to encourage the Saudis to act. The use of U.S. weapons in Yemen runs counter to the laws and regulations that underpin U.S. arms transfers – such as the Arms Export Control Act and Foreign Assistance Act, Presidential Policy Directive 27, and its obligations as a signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty.
Congressional opposition shines a bright light on Riyadh’s conduct and increases pressure on the Obama administration not to accept “business-as-usual” for U.S. arms sales. The public display of disapproval takes important steps toward condemning and shaming the Saudi government’s behavior and encouraging a change to the air campaign.
Moreover, if given the choice, governments want to purchase U.S. weapons and systems, as they are better and more effective systems. It’s also possible that munitions manufactured by other countries may not work in U.S. systems – as they were not designed for interoperability. Saudi forces have historically relied upon U.S. systems and are not trained on systems from other countries.
Concerns that delayed U.S. weapons may impede Saudi Arabia’s ability to defend itself also fall short. The United States has sold billions of dollars in weapons to the Kingdom and has a long record of working with the Saudis to ensure security for the Kingdom and the region. That friendship and cooperation should not justify continued U.S. complicity in prosecuting a war that is harming civilians indiscriminately.
As President Obama and his advisors consider their legacy, it is time to stand up to those that violate human rights with impunity. Without a concerted and public effort to delay future sales, the United States effectively legitimizes the Saudi government’s actions. Ultimately, the administration will need to make a political decision to utilize its leverage to influence Saudi behavior and better adhere to its own values and principles.
Rachel Stohl is director and Shannon Dick is research associate of the Conventional Defense program at the Stimson Center.