On travel bans: Instead of refugees coming out, look at weapons going in

This op-ed originally appeared in The Hill.

The Trump administration's new executive order on immigration, replacing the currently-blocked “Muslim ban,” will be top-line news. Likely lost in the conversation will be the vast amount of weaponry the United States has supplied in and around the conflict zones from which refugees are fleeing.

The United States remains the world’s top major arms dealer at a time when the volume of global arms transfers has reached its highest point since the Cold War, according to a report released Monday by the well-respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Washington’s top arms purchaser, Saudi Arabia, has increased its arms imports by 212 percent over the past five years. The Saudis are using those weapons in Yemen, the plight of which drew brief national attention when the first U.S. soldier died under the Trump administration in a covert operation that also killed many civilians.

In general, however, the horrific conflict in Yemen has gone underreported. Earlier this month, the United Nations launched a new appeal, noting that after two years of fighting 18.8 million people need assistance -- more than two-thirds of the country’s population. Warning of a possible famine, 3.3 million people are acutely malnourished – including more than 2 million children – and millions are internally displaced.

Since the Yemeni rebel movement, the Houthi, seized the capital Sanaa in 2015 and President Hadi fled into exile, the United States has backed a Saudi-led coalition seeking to return Hadi that has reclaimed significant portions of the country, but not Sanaa. Horribly along the way, Saudi Arabia has targeted hospitals, civilian areas, and funerals, the latest such attack to earn international attention occurred Feb. 15 when six women and a girl were killed in the Sanaa region.

No side in the conflict is blameless, and the stalemate today indicates that no military solution is possible. Dangerously, however, the war in Yemen is repeatedly being seen as a proxy war with Iran to such an extent that on Feb. 2, White House press secretary Sean Spicer incorrectly labelled a Houthi attack on a Saudi ship as an Iranian attack on the United States. While Iran provides some support, the Houthi practice a form of Shia Islam nearly entirely indigenous to Yemen, and are not controlled from Tehran. As long as the United States provides weaponry and refueling assistance to Saudis planes, the Saudis appear to have no incentive to offer a political solution.

It would be unfair, of course, to say that Americans simply don’t care. A recent report indicates that the United States is the top donor to the UN’s emergency appeal for Yemen, contributing $316 million in 2016. That is laudable in itself, but dwarfed by the more than $5 billion in potential major arms sales to Saudi Arabia notified to Congress in 2016, as well as $12 billion to Kuwait and $22 billion to Qatar – all countries that are part of the Saudi-led coalition that has flown warplanes over Yemen.

Another recent study found that the United States received approximately 50 times as much money via weapons sales to countries that arm Syrian rebels as it spent on care for Syrian refugees.  While those numbers are worth closer attention, the underlying finding that our priorities are out of balance is telling.

The Trump administration has already notified Congress of more than $1 billion in arms sales to Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and is now rumored to be ready to proceed with billions more. Rather than continuing down the path of the previous administration, and possibly supporting even more controversial deals to repressive Middle Eastern regimes (including Bahrain), U.S. weapons sales and related assistance deserve much greater scrutiny.

If this administration believes introducing more deadly devices will ramp down conflict and address urgent humanitarian needs, it should make that logic clear. Just as travel bans seen to unfairly target Muslims can aid those seeking to radicalize people against the United States, so too can U.S.-supplied weapons used in those countries. What may instead be much more effective would be a temporary weapons ban, not a Muslim ban.

Jeff Abramson is a non-resident senior fellow at the Arms Control Association