Volume 11, Issue 1, January 15, 2019
In December, the Senate issued a stunning rebuke of President Donald Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia and its actions in the bloody war in Yemen, which are exacerbating a massive humanitarian crisis. A bipartisan group of 56 Senators took the extraordinary step of invoking the 1973 War Powers Resolution to direct the president to cease direct U.S. military engagement in the war, including through any aerial refueling of Saudi coalition aircraft fighting there–a step that had garnered steam since nearly winning approval in March 2018.
In a separate measure, the Senate said by voice vote that it “believes Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder” of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi—a finding the president has not fully supported. Trump’s refusal to hold the prince accountable and to consider suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to the grisly murder further underscores his retreat from common-sense U.S. and international norms regarding international arms sales.
Trump’s lack of concern about human rights and harm to civilians caused by U.S. arms trade partners is not, however, surprising. The conventional arms transfer policy his administration issued in April 2018 dangerously elevated economic arguments as a driving motive for arms transfer approvals. A November 2018 update on implementing that plan and a related factsheet on sales agreements again stress his administration’s desire to expedite the sale of increasingly more weapons, citing as success agreements to supply American arms to repressive regimes in not just Saudi Arabia, but also Bahrain and Nigeria.
Options to Encourage a More Responsible Approach
As the new Congress develops its agenda, both chambers can be expected to pass another resolution that seeks to restrict the role of U.S. military support for the war in Yemen. Members of Congress should also more fully utilize their oversight powers to ensure U.S. arms trade is more responsible. The first opportunity to do so typically comes when the administration delivers customary pre-notifications of potential arms sales to the Senate Foreign Relations (SFRC) and the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), where the chair and ranking members tend to lead any review.
In June 2018, Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking SFRC member, properly placed a hold on tens of thousands of precision-guided munitions kits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Other members of these key committees should, as necessary, consider supporting and initiating such efforts during this pre-notification period in order to hold or amend dangerous potential sales.
Once officially notified, Congress typically has 30 days to pass a joint resolution of disapproval that bars the president from going forward with unwise sales. Over the past few years, the full Senate has publicly debated controversial arms sales to places such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia during this notification period—positive examples of what a functioning Congress should do—but House procedures make it very difficult to get such measures to the full floor.
Legislation introduced late in the 115th Congress under the Arms Sales Oversight Act should be revisited as one possible avenue for better empowering Representatives to assert oversight, while properly keeping HFAC as the first committee of review. Other measures, such as an amendment offered on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in 2018 to strengthen oversight as relates to human rights deserve reconsideration. So too does a resolution proposing a comprehensive approach to the conflict in Yemen, especially if it were expanded to incorporate arms suspensions to all Saudi partners, including the critical UAE.
While the public can raise its voice against irresponsible Foreign Military Sales (FMS) because such government-to-government negotiated sales are quickly added to a public website, the increasingly important business-led Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) are not as transparent, in part because any public notification is obscure or functionally comes after the initial review period has passed. Earlier this month, news broke with this exact scenario on a missile defense sale to Saudi Arabia. Members of Congress could insist that, or possibly take it upon themselves to make, these potential DCS transactions more transparent. Proposed sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia via the more opaque DCS process came to light because concerned members of Congress took the initiative to reveal them.
While the notification period garners the most attention, Congress also can block a sale up until weapons are delivered. Given how security, geopolitical, and humanitarian realities can change between the time of notifications and often years-later deliveries, members should follow the entire process. In 2014, Congress gave itself the authority (see Section 201) to receive from the State Department notification of an arms shipment at least 30 days before its delivery. It is currently limited to joint requests by the chair and ranking members of the SFRC or HFAC and may have only been used once. Those leaders should exercise it much more diligently and Congress should consider making it much easier to use by allowing all committee members to request pre-delivery notifications.
In general, transparency around arms deliveries remains too obscure as a New Hampshire NPR reporter recently discovered. When U.S. census export data showed weapons worth more than $61 million had been sold from his state to Saudi Arabia in August 2018, he could not uncover what was in the sales nor which companies provided the weapons. Annual reports on U.S. arms transfers have grown increasingly opaque. Congress should mandate a change demanding much greater transparency on the specifics of what is in U.S. weapons deliveries.
Finally, sometime in the first quarter of 2019, the administration is expected to publish final rules transferring export authority on select firearms from the State Department to the Commerce Department, despite a large number of negative public comments and a great deal of concern. Members of Congress have raised an alarm that they will lose notifications about these sales, which in the past two years has enabled them to forestall small arms sales to Turkey and the Philippines. Last year, legislation was introduced to stop these changes and should again be considered. As with Trump’s broad approach to arms sales, these changes risk making it easier for weapons to end up in the hands of terrorists, international criminals, and abusive regimes.
Just before the December 2018 vote on direct U.S. military engagement in the war, Sen. Menendez expressed concern that the Trump administration believed “selling weapons to the Saudis was more important than America’s enduring commitment to human rights, democratic values, and international norms.” Congress has the tools and must now use its authority to ensure U.S. arms sales strengthen, rather than undermine, those enduring values and norms. —JEFF ABRAMSON, nonresident senior fellow