WASHINGTON: In a bipartisan effort, the Senate voted to block the sale of billions of dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia by a 53-45 margin today. But the win for critics of the Saudi-led war in Yemen may be short-lived however, as the total falls well short of the 67 votes needed to override the veto the White House has promised to deliver.
So today’s vote amounts to a bipartisan slap on the wrist for the White House and its unwavering support for the regime of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It’s the second time this year Republicans and Democrats have come together to oppose President Trump’s policy towards Riyadh. In April, both the House and Senate approved legislation to cut off military assistance to Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, only to see it vetoed in April when the Senate couldn’t muster the 67 votes needed to override Trump’s veto.
Many lawmakers bristled at the White House’s end run around traditional Congressional assent for arms deals last month, when the administration declared an emergency and announced $8.1 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. The administration claimed Iran was posed an immediate threat to the region, and the weapons would provide a deterrent to Iranian adventurism.
Belying those claims, however, is the reality that most of the precision-guided munitions and other weapons won’t be delivered for years.
Speaking on the Senate floor before the vote, Republican Rand Paul called on voters to expel politicians eager to continue selling arms to the Kingdom, citing the hundreds of civilians Saudi warplanes have killed in Yemen over the past four years and the royal family’s track record of support for violent Islamist movements throughout the Middle East.
“This is a big deal and it is my hope the American people will watch how people vote and decide, is this who I want representing me?” Paul said. “Do I want someone representing me to someone who is selling arms to people who hate our country? Do I want to have people representing me who continue to flood the Middle East with arms?”
Saudi Arabia is already one of the top weapons buyers in the world, Paul pointed out, and its defense budget dwarfs that of Iran: “Is there no stopping? Is there no limitation to what we will do? Do we not believe that any of our arms sales should be conditioned on behavior?”
Taking the Senate floor, Democrat Robert Menendez added, “this vote is a vote for the powers of this institution to be able to continue to have a say on one of the most critical elements of U.S. foreign policy and national security.” The ability of Congress to have a voice in where the United States sells arms should not “be undermined by some false emergency.”
When it comes to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, “it is our bombs that are dropping on those civilians. We cannot morally continue to support such sales,” Menendez said.
The Saudi part of the arms package includes F-15 engines, Paveway Precision Guided Munitions, mortars, and parts for Apache helicopters, all of which are critical to meet the Iranian threat, the White House argues.
Thursday’s disapproval resolutions passed in three votes. They’re part of 22 measures put forward by Democrats and Republicans in an effort to block the weapons sales to the Kingdom due to Saudi mismanagement of its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as the murder of journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul’s Saudi consulate.
Trump ally Lindsey Graham, who supported the measures, addressed the Saudi leadership. “I’m trying to deliver the strongest message I know how to deliver: Don’t take this relationship for granted, and obviously you have.”
Graham also expressed concern for the precedent the sales would set. “Now is not the time to do business as usual with Saudi Arabia. I am also very concerned about the precedent these arms sales would set by having the administration go around legitimate concerns of the Congress.”