WASHINGTON: As President Donald Trump discovered after he cobbled together all those arms sales when he visited Saudi Arabia, selling weapons to foreigners is a complex business, fraught with congressional oversight and an intricate interagency process.
As he has with so many other government issues, Trump appears eager to reduce interference from other branches of government, revoke the rules passed by previous administrations and please his former business colleagues. To that end I’ve confirmed he has launched a vigorous review of the entire process, following in the footsteps of the Obama, Clinton and Bush administrations, all of whom sought to make fundamental changes.
The Obama administration already culled many items from the US Munitions List, allowing more weapons to be considered dual use or controlled commercial items so they could be reviewed by the Commerce Department. The interagency review process involves the Intelligence Community, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) and the Political-Military Bureau of the State Department.
Every arms sales is considered a foreign policy decision. “When we transfer a system or a capability to a foreign partner, we are affecting regional – or foreign internal – balances of power; we are sending a signal of support; and we are establishing or sustaining relationships that may last for generations and provide benefits for an extended period of time,” Tina Kaidanow, the acting head of the Pol-Mil shop, told the House Foreign Affairs terrorism, nonproliferation and trade subcommittee in mid-June.
Arms sales are also governed by the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), which gives Congress the power to, in theory, block any arms sales it believes is ill considered. Combine the administration reviews required to ensure arms sales don’t upset balances of power, harm our nonproliferation interests or otherwise harm our national interests with the prospect of Congressional review, and a sale can percolate for years.
As someone who’s covered this set of issues for more than 15 years, I’m not sure what the administration can do unilaterally, beyond further scrubbing the Munitions List, trying to speed the interagency review and, perhaps, simplifying the Commerce Department process. Of course, they could try to amend the Arms Export Control Act, but I think that’s highly unlikely to happen given how reluctant Congress historically has been to loosen its leverage over the system.