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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Conventional Arms Control and Trade

Fight Brewing on Saudi Arms Sales

Yemenis wrap in shrouds the bodies of members of the same family during their funeral on October 8, 2016, a day after they were killed in a reported airstrike by Saudi-led coalition airplanes that hit their house in Bajil. (Photo credit: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)As Donald Trump began his first international trip as president, the State Department notified Congress of its intent to sell more than $500 million in precision-guided munition components and related services to Saudi Arabia. The Obama administration had put the deal on hold in December, in part due to independent reports that Saudi forces have repeatedly struck civilian areas in Yemen, including locations the United States asked be placed off-limits. Legal analysis provided to the American Bar Association and shared with senators May 19 indicated that such a sale should not occur “until Saudi Arabia had ceased violating international law.”

Many of the same members of Congress who opposed a controversial tank deal with Riyadh in September 2016 are now leading efforts to block the sale. (See ACT, October 2016.) At least one vote is expected this month on a resolution against the sale as Congress considers exercising its ability to prohibit the administration from concluding an official agreement during the first 30 days after notification. In co-sponsoring a resolution of disapproval on May 25 with Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said, “Given Saudi Arabia’s past support of terror, poor human rights record, and questionable tactics in its war in Yemen, Congress must carefully consider and thoroughly debate if selling them billions of dollars of arms is in our best national security interest at this time.” The deal promises to be the first test of Trump’s ability to deliver on a broader $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia announced May 20. Writing in the Huffington Post on May 20, Murphy called the arms sale “a terrible idea.”—JEFF ABRAMSON

Fight Brewing on Saudi Arms Sales

Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain Should be Rejected

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Volume 9, Issue 3, May 2017

President Donald Trump is set to make his first foreign trip as president to the troubled Middle East region. He will meet with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, as well as the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the Saudi-led coalition’s war there will certainly be key topics. So too will pending U.S. arms sales to Riyadh and Manama that the Obama administration put on hold but the Trump administration is now pushing through Congress.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis meets with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 19, 2017. DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. BrantleyThe potentially massive Saudi arms sale, involving precision-guided munitions (PGM) worth hundreds of millions of dollars, was suspended by Obama in December, in part due to independent reports that Saudi forces have repeatedly struck civilian areas, including locations the United States asked be off-limits.

The new Saudi arms deal has not yet been formally notified, but it has been sent to the chairs and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee for review. A multi-billion dollar sale of 19 F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain is in a similar pre-notification status and does not include human rights preconditions that the President Barack Obama administration had mandated. Reports suggest an even larger Saudi arms deal, ranging in value from $100-300 billion, may be in the works and discussed while Trump is in the region.

The Trump administration initiative ignores Saudi Arabia’s repeated failure to avoid civilian targets and would compound the growing humanitarian crisis in Yemen that is largely the consequence of the devastating conflict there.

Unfortunately, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson devalued promotion of human rights in an address to his State Department staff on May 3, suggesting that placing an emphasis on others upholding American values “creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), among others, has delivered a passionate rebuttal of this argument.

In addition, there are strong national security and legal reasons why these proposed sales are unwise.

A Deteriorating Disaster in Yemen

The Yemeni rebel movement, the Houthi, seized the capital Sanaa in 2014. Since 2015, the United States has backed a Saudi-led coalition fighting nominally on behalf of exiled president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, often providing refueling for war planes and other support. The coalition has retaken portions of Yemen, including Aden, which Hadi ostensibly uses as a base for his government. But many Yemenis still live in areas outside of Hadi’s control, including in the capital Sanaa. All sides in the conflict have been implicated for violations of international humanitarian law, including the Saudis who have ignored U.S. “no target” lists and bombed hospitals, civilian areas, and funerals in attacks that may amount to war crimes.

The war has also fueled a humanitarian disaster. After two years of fighting, the United Nations launched an appeal early this year on behalf of 18.8 million people who it found needed assistance in Yemen—more than two-thirds of the country’s population. At that time, it warned of a possible famine with 3.3 million people being acutely malnourished.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres painted a chilling picture April 25 of what he called “a tragedy of immense proportions,” noting that “On average, a child under the age of five dies of preventable causes in Yemen every ten minutes.” Now, Houthi leaders in Sanaa have declared a state of emergency after a cholera outbreak that has killed more than 100 people.

The flow of new weapons to states involved in the conflict will only worsen the humanitarian situation. Ignoring UN findings that a military solution is not possible and pleas to unblock access to ports to help address the “largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” the port city of Hodeida is identified as a next target for the Saudi-led coalition. Despite being crippled by earlier strikes and blocked from receiving new cranes for unloading supplies, a significant portion of humanitarian assistance enters the country through the port. An attack there would likely further cut supplies and significantly escalate human suffering.

News of the potential sale of precision-guided munitions as well as an attack on Hodeida have swirled in Congress since at least March, with many members wisely engaging to express concerns about addressing the humanitarian situation, Saudi behavior, and authority for U.S. military action.

Notionally, precision-guided munitions would better enable Saudi forces to avoid civilian casualties, but evidence suggests that munition accuracy is not the primary reason why Saudi forces are hitting civilian targets. During a March 9 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Yemen, Dafna Rand, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the Obama administration, testified that despite hopes in 2015 that the Saudi-led coalition would use precision-guided munitions for better targeting, “what we’ve seen since is not an improvement in the targeting and the issue itself is the target selection.

At that same hearing, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) criticized Saudi actions. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) described as “questionable” Saudi commitment to strictly targeting combatants and legitimate military targets.

The two senators led efforts that won the support of 27 senators in a vote against a $1.1 billion tank deal to Riyadh in September 2016. They also drafted legislation last year to suspend certain munitions sales until the U.S. president certifies that the Saudis show commitment to fighting terrorism and to protecting civilians in Yemen. Last month, they introduced similar legislation on air-to-ground munitions, now as S.J.Res 40, with co-sponsors Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.), who were joined in May by Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Todd Young (R-Ind.).

In a press release associated with the bill’s introduction, Murphy said, “The United States has no business supplying a military that targets civilians or enables terrorist groups to thrive, but that’s exactly what we’re doing right now in Yemen.”

“The Saudis are important partners in the Middle East, but they have continued to disregard our advice when it comes to target selection and civilian protection. We have an obligation to ensure U.S. military support is not being used to kill innocent civilians, and requiring Saudi Arabia to meet these basic conditions should be a no brainer,” Murphy added.

Young has also pressed the administration and the Saudis to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. On May 5, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met with Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al Jubeir. Afterward, Young issued a statement urging “the Saudi government to renounce any intention to conduct a military operation against the port of Hodeidah, redouble efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution, and end any delays to the delivery of humanitarian aid caused by the Saudi-led coalition.”

Their efforts followed upon a March 23 letter Marco Rubio (R-Flor.), Todd Young (R-Ind.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) sent to Tillerson urging action to address humanitarian crises in four countries, including Yemen. Cardin and Young also introduced a resolution calling for such action.

This week Murphy and Young took the Senate floor May 17 to again highlight the urgency of addressing the crisis in Yemen.

In the House, Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) led 53 members in signing a March 13 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, urging him to use “diplomatic clout” to open the port of Hodeida. Lieu and Conyers were among a bipartisan group of 64 House members who had asked Obama to withdraw the tank deal last year.

The two representatives were also among a bipartisan group of 31 House members who sent an April 6 letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Tillerson requesting an assessment of Saudi capabilities before any new precision-guided munition sale is approved. In the letter, they argued, “It is in our national security interest–as well as that of our Saudi partners–to ensure that the [Royal Saudi Air Force] has the ability to avoid civilian casualties before the United States sells them any additional air-to-ground munitions.”

At a more fundamental level, these members of Congress are challenging the authority for this administration to support the Saudi coalition and possibly engage more directly in the conflict. On April 10, a bipartisan group of 55 representatives, led by Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Justin Amash (D-Mich.), sent a letter to Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking for the legal justification for U.S. involvement in Yemen's war and urging the administration to receive congressional authorization before launching any direct hostilities against the Houthis.

On May 2, they led in sending a follow-up letter from a bipartisan group of 16 representatives to Mattis inviting him to brief Congress of the administration’s plans for Yemen. They wrote: “Should the administration remain unresponsive to our repeated inquiries into the nature of U.S. engagement in a potentially catastrophic Saudi attack on Hodeida, we will pursue legislation to explicitly prohibit U.S. involvement in any such an assault.”

Such a measure would follow up on a new Authorization of Military Use of Force proposed April 27 by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and nine other Democratic representatives that grants authority to combat the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and the Afghanistan Taliban—by logic excluding the Houthi, who are not affiliated with these groups.

Upholding the Law, Security, and Rights

Members of Congress identified above are raising the right concerns. Looking just at arms sales, Congress may block agreement to a deal if both houses pass a resolution of disapproval in the first 30 days after being notified of a potential arms sale. Strong opposition is rare because notifications typically happen only after interagency approval and consultations with congressional leaders. In this case, however, opposition is clearly lined up and a messy fight is in the offing if (and when) the Trump administration decides to move forward.

Congress should first look to the law and recognize that the provision of arms is generally prohibited when a country engages in a “consistent pattern of gross violations” of recognized human rights. Until it is satisfied that Saudi behavior can and will improve, it should not authorize new sales to the country.

S.J.Res 40 underscores this point on air-to-ground munitions and deserves Congressional support. That bill, if approved, would impact not only the anticipated precision-guided missile sale but also a $1.3 billion deal that went through Congress in November 2015. For the first and only time, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) invoked a new authority that requires the State Department to notify Congress at least 30 days prior to the delivery of an arms shipment. Congress should continue to monitor possible delivery of munitions from that deal as it looks ahead to a new notification.

As the Hadi government appears to fracture and evidence mounts of it working alongside Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), congressional leaders must also ask themselves if supporting that regime and doubling-down on U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign makes sense for U.S. security goals. It is difficult to see how it does.

Capturing Hodeida will not, as some claim, force the warring parties to the table to negotiate a political settlement. While Iran provides some support, the Houthi are their own masters and practice a form of Shia Islam nearly entirely indigenous to Yemen, but an attack on Hodeida would more likely drive the Houthi closer to Tehran. Furthermore, as long as the United States provides weaponry and assistance to Saudi war-fighting, the Saudis appear to have no incentive to offer a political solution.

In revising U.S. conventional arms transfer policy in January 2014, Obama included the goal of “Ensuring that arms transfers do not contribute to human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law.” The United States is also a signatory to the landmark Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which requires consideration of whether transferred arms would be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law—measures consistent with U.S. law.

The Trump administration has not yet issued a new arms transfer policy or made a compelling case for abandoning the humanitarian principles of U.S. law and policy.

It would be counterproductive, in fact, to abandon these humanitarian concerns because doing so would only encourage other states to supply arms to groups and countries that support abuse and actions counter to U.S. goals. U.S. actions themselves, even if indirectly through the support of others, help to radicalize individuals against Washington when they are seen as targeting civilians.

Applying Same Standards to Bahrain and UAE

Garnering less attention in Congress thus far has been the pending notification to sell F-16s to Bahrain, a Saudi-coalition partner. In considering such a sale in 2016, the Obama administration attached an undisclosed set of preconditions to encourage the Bahraini government to improve its human rights record. Those conditions likely included the release of human-rights activist Nabeel Rajab and other measures to reverse suppression of nonviolent opposition after the forced closure of the al-Wefaq political party.

Those and many other steps have not been taken. Instead, on Friday the United Nations Committee Against Torture warned of continued ill-treatment of detainees and called on Bahraini authorities to release Rajab, who had been held in solitary confinement for more than nine months. Just as a deal to arm Saudi Arabia with offensive weapons would signal that the United States is unconcerned with how a country addresses human rights, so too would a new F-16 sale to the repressive Bahraini regime.

The national security goals are also unclear. F-16s appear to have little relevance in combating AQAP or the Islamic State. Nor do they further efforts that might resolve problematic Iranian activity.

Further complicating the situation, just last week, Congress was notified of a potential $2 billion sale of Patriot missiles to the United Arab Emirates, whose forces are expected to be in the vanguard of any offensive on Hodeida. Even though that sale would not be of “offensive” weapons, serious concerns about detainee abuse should also give Congress pause as to whether to reward Abu Dhabi.

While there are certainly many challenges in the Middle East, agreeing to arms deals with regimes in Riyadh and Manama that have a record of impunity when conducting airstrikes or suppressing their citizenry runs counter to long-standing U.S. principles and goals.

—JEFF ABRAMSON, nonresident senior fellow 

NOTE: This Issue Brief has been updated to reflect the fact that Houthi fighters seized the capital Sanaa in 2014, not 2015.

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Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain Should be Rejected

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U.S. Eyes Resuming Saudi Arms Sales

April 2017

By Jeff Abramson

Yemenis gather on September 22 amid the rubble of buildings destroyed during Saudi-led air strikes on the rebel-held Yemeni port city of Hodeida the previous day. (Photo credit: String/AFP/Getty Images)Amid a worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the Trump administration may be ready to send weapons to Saudi Arabia that the Obama administration had put on hold due to concerns about civilian casualties from the Saudi-led military operations in the Yemeni civil war.

On March 8, The Washington Post reported that the State Department had approved selling precision-guided munitions worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the Saudis but was awaiting authorization from the White House to proceed. Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met with President Donald Trump at the White House on March 14, after which there was no immediate comment on the weapons deal. State Department spokesman Mark Toner declined on March 15 to comment on the prospective sale, citing departmental policy not to “confirm or deny arms transfers until they’re formally notified to Congress.”

The sale may run into headwinds in Congress due to Saudi military conduct and the increasingly dire impact of the Yemeni war on civilians. In December, President Barack Obama suspended such sales to Riyadh as the Saudi-led military coalition fought in Yemen on behalf of former President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was driven from power in early 2015 by rebel Houthi forces. (See ACT, January/February 2017.) Over the past two years, Yemen has become a humanitarian crisis, with almost 19 million people—two-thirds of the population—needing assistance and more than 7 million “who are hungry and do not know where their next meal will come from,” said Stephen O’Brien, UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, at a special UN Security Council meeting March 10. “That is three million people more than in January.”

Fighting over the port of Hodeida, where the majority of humanitarian supplies would normally enter the country, is particularly controversial. Aid groups such as Save the Children charged in March that Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners were preventing deliveries of food and medical supplies to the port, where ship-unloading cranes were destroyed by a coalition airstrike and aid groups said they were subsequently barred from delivering new cranes.

The situation was the focus of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing March 9, at which Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) criticized Saudi actions, including the recent use of cluster munitions that have killed and injured civilians. Murphy and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) drafted legislation last year to suspend certain munitions sales until the U.S. president certifies that the Saudis show commitment to fighting terrorism and to protecting civilians in Yemen. Paul described as “questionable” Saudi commitment to strictly targeting combatants and legitimate military targets. The two senators also led efforts that won the support of 27 senators in a vote against a $1.1 billion tank deal to Riyadh in September 2016, and they are expected to lead opposition to the prospective new sale. (See ACT, October 2016.)

In the House, Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) led 53 members in signing a March 13 letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, urging him to use “diplomatic clout” to open the port of Hodeida. Lieu and Conyers were among a bipartisan group of 64 House members who had asked Obama to withdraw the tank deal last year.

Once notified of a potential arms sale, Congress may block it if both houses pass a resolution of disapproval. Such strong opposition is rare because notifications happen only after interagency approval and consultations with congressional leaders. Precision-guided munitions have drawn extra scrutiny in part because they are not considered defensive weapons. In response to a $1.3 billion notification in November 2015 involving such weapons, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and ranking member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) invoked a new authority that requires the State Department to notify Congress at least 30 days prior to the delivery of an arms shipment. (See ACT, March 2016.)

In describing potential weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia in 2015, Dafna Rand, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the Obama administration, testified on March 9 that the hope had been that the Saudi-led coalition would use the precision-guided munitions for better targeting. Rand concluded, however, that “what we’ve seen since is not an improvement in the targeting and the issue itself is the target selection.

Some U.S. lawmakers, troubled by civilian casualties in the Yemen civil war, are wary of lifting Obama administration’s hold on shipments.

Cluster Munitions Used in Syria, Yemen

April 2017

Military forces in Syria and Yemen continue to use inter-nationally banned cluster munitions, according to international investigators. Aleppo is “contaminated with significant quantities of unexploded ordnance” from cluster munitions used during the Syrian-Russian joint offensive to retake governmental control of the city in 2016, according to a March 14 report by an investigative body established by the UN Human Rights Council.

In Yemen, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch cited continued cluster munition use by the Saudi-led military coalition, documenting at least four civilians were injured by Brazilian-made cluster munitions during separate attacks in February that hit residential areas and farmland. Despite U.S. efforts to convince the Saudi government to improve its conduct in Yemen, “we get flooded with reports” that they are “not getting better,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing March 9. In December 2016, a coalition spokesperson said it would stop using UK-made BL-755 cluster munitions, which had been supplied before London joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) in 2008. In May 2016, the United States suspended cluster munitions transfers to the Saudis.

Last year, CCM states-parties condemned any cluster munition use, specifically mentioning Syria and Yemen. (See ACT, October 2016.) Although Brazil, Russia, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and many other Middle Eastern countries are not party to the convention, the treaty has 100 states-parties and does establish international law banning the use of the weapons. There is no evidence of U.S. use of cluster munitions in its recent operations in Syria or Yemen.

Military forces in Syria and Yemen continue to use inter-nationally banned cluster munitions, according to investigators.

On Integrating Conventional and Nuclear Planning

March 2017

By James E. Doyle

In the November 2016 edition of Arms Control Today, Vincent Manzo and Aaron Miles attempt to define and defend what they call the “logic of integrating conventional and nuclear planning.” Their logic is neither clear nor compelling. They make assertions regarding the benefits of “integration” to U.S. national security based on no more than psychological guesswork about how potential adversaries might behave in a crisis or ongoing conflict.

The authors claim that such integration is essential for “managing escalation” in a conventional conflict. This statement implies that managing escalation so that nuclear weapons are not used or restricting their use to a very small number of detonations is something that military strategists know how to do. Neither Manzo, Miles, nor any other military officials or security policy advisers know how to manage or control the potential for escalation from a conventional to nuclear war and certainly not from the extremely unstable phase of conflict during which a small number of nuclear weapons has been used to a full-scale nuclear war. 

We can never have confidence in controlling this escalatory space because we cannot know or control the decision-making of potential adversaries. Nuclear deterrence is a blunt instrument that cannot be tailored to evoke particular responses in particular situations. We can never conclusively measure the effectiveness of strategies to deter nuclear use or manage escalation. We cannot effectively communicate subtle messages of resolve or restraint in the fog of war. To think otherwise is dangerous hubris and leads to high-risk strategy that is prone to failure in a crisis. 

The only tool that we have to deter an adversary from using nuclear weapons is to threaten severe consequences and hope the adversary perceives the risks in the way we intend them to be perceived. That is why the United States and its allies must keep the threshold for nuclear use as high as possible. In the European context, this means having the ability to defeat any potential Russian conventional attack on NATO with conventional military force. In Asia, it means maintaining the military capability to defend Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan without resort to nuclear weapons. 

If Russia or any other state were to escalate to the use of tactical nuclear weapons, the United States and its allies have always maintained limited nuclear options that could be employed. Currently, these include the B61 nuclear bomb and the W80 cruise missile warhead that can be employed with a yield of five kilotons or less. The improved B61-12 nuclear bomb, to be deployed in 2022, will have even more capability for “tactical” strikes. But the United States should always declare that even tactical nuclear use would be a last resort and keep such capabilities and the rhetoric regarding their use recessed and nonprovocative.

Why? For precisely the reason mentioned above, which is that we have no confidence that nuclear war, once initiated, could be kept limited. This conclusion was reached in 1983 after senior U.S. national security decision-makers incorporated top-secret U.S. war plans into the most realistic war-game exercise involving nuclear weapons ever conducted by the U.S. government. During this exercise, the U.S. and allied military officers who played the Soviet side interpreted small “tactical” nuclear strikes as an attempt to destroy the Soviet Union and responded with an enormous nuclear salvo against the United States. The United States responded in kind, destroying much of civilization. 

In summary, Manzo and Miles bring nothing new to the conversation on limited nuclear war and escalation. The recommendation to increase the ability of our forces to operate in a nuclear environment is a sound one, but that does not require the acquisition of new nuclear weapons or changes in declaratory strategy. They offer no convincing evidence that increasing the visibility of U.S. military planning for the transition between conventional and nuclear war will make it less likely that the deadly threshold to nuclear war will remain uncrossed in a conflict. Rather, potential nuclear adversaries are likely to see such planning as an indication that our adversity to nuclear use in response to conventional crises has decreased, an outcome that undermines global stability and raises the risks of nuclear war. 


James E. Doyle is an independent nuclear security specialist. He was a technical staff member at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1997 to 2014.

Nuclear deterrence is a blunt instrument that cannot be tailored to evoke particular responses in particular situations.  

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...

Obama Acts on Arms Exports

January/February 2017

By Jeff Abramson

While notifying Congress of numerous major arms sales, the Obama administration in its final months took some steps to address controversial arms trade issues by limiting certain weapons transfers to Saudi Arabia and promoting the Arms Trade Treaty. 

The State Department in December notified Congress of more than a dozen potential, major conventional arms deals totaling more than $12 billion under the Foreign Military Sales program. These include $9.5 billion in sales to Middle Eastern countries that include upgrading more than 200 Abrams tanks for Kuwait, providing more than three dozen Apache attack helicopters to the United Arab Emirates, and supplying 48 Chinook cargo helicopters to Saudi Arabia. 

Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky., left) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn., right) discuss legislation to prevent some weapons sales to Saudi Arabia at an event moderated by Center for the National Interest Vice Chairman Dov Zakheim on September 19, 2016, in Washington. (Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)Although the late-term notifications of the prospective sales did not draw significant congressional opposition, sales to Saudi Arabia have been controversial given the conduct of the Saudi-led military coalition in its war in Yemen, during which hospitals and civilian areas have been bombed. In September, more than a quarter of U.S. senators voted to block a $1 billion tank deal for Riyadh. Although their efforts were unsuccessful, such strong opposition is rarely seen because sales are vetted by Senate leaders prior to public notification. (See ACT, October 2016.)

Concerns over Saudi bombings led the Obama administration to halt sales of precision-guided air-dropped weapons to the kingdom, Reuters reported on Dec. 13. The administration did not suspend other sales or the refueling of coalition warplanes. In May, the administration suspended transfers of cluster munitions to Riyadh. (See ACT, October 2016.)

U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah), who had opposed the tank sales, welcomed the other restrictions in statements Dec. 15. Paul said he was pleased to see the administration “respond to growing pressure over its arms sales to Saudi Arabia.” Murphy said it was “the right call” and added that “if we are concerned about U.S.-supplied bombs being dropped on civilians, we should also stop refueling the Saudi planes that are flying those missions.”

Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, was the developing world’s top arms purchaser during 2008-2015, with agreements totaling more than $93 billion, according to an annual Congressional Research Service report released in December. The United States remained the world’s top arms seller, accounting for more than half of all global sales agreements in 2015 and nearly two-thirds of agreements with Saudi Arabia over the 2008-2015 period covered by the report.

Also in December, the White House transmitted the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to the Senate with a message from President Barack Obama recommending “that it give its advice and consent to ratification.” On the same day, Dec. 9, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) reiterated his opposition, alluding to “an array of concerns with Second Amendment rights” and saying “it will remain dead in the water.” 

Thomas Countryman, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, wrote in an official blog post Dec. 20 that the ATT has nothing to do with restricting U.S. gun rights, an issue raised by opponents that has made the ATT a nonstarter for many Republican lawmakers and some Democrats. The accord “deals strictly with the international transfer of conventional arms,” said Countryman, who led the U.S. delegation that negotiated the treaty. He reiterated the Obama administration’s contention that the treaty “is fully consistent with the domestic rights of U.S. citizens, including those guaranteed under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” 

The treaty, which the United States signed in September 2013, now has 91 states-parties, including 25 of NATO’s 28 members. It requires the establishment of national export control systems, as well as assessments of whether exported arms would “contribute to or undermine peace and security” or could be used to commit or facilitate serious violations of international humanitarian or human rights law, acts of terrorism, or transnational organized crime. 

Although official treaty meetings have generally skirted discussion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite civil society arguments that they violate the treaty, a U.K. legal case to be heard in February could have broader implications on treaty implementation if the court finds the sales illegal. (See ACT, October 2016.)

Saudi sales limited, Arms Trade Treaty sent to Senate.

Europeans Seek Conventional Arms Talks

January/February 2017

By Kingston Reif

Fifteen countries in Europe are calling for a “relaunch of conventional arms control” negotiations with Russia amid concerns about the deteriorating security situation in their region due to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

In a joint statement Nov. 25, the foreign ministers of the 15 nations said that the existing pillars of the European conventional arms control architecture, namely the 1990 Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, the 2011 Vienna Document, and the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, are “crumbling” and “need to be strengthened.” They cited “an urgent need to re-establish strategic stability, restraint, predictability and verifiable transparency and to reduce military risks” and urged “a structured dialogue on conventional arms control in Europe.”

Foreign ministers attending a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe December 8-9, 2016, in Hamburg, Germany, called for “creating an environment conducive to reinvigorating conventional arms control.” (Photo credit: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)The ministers said that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) should be a “central forum for such a dialogue.” The 57-member OSCE works to facilitate a comprehensive approach to European security.

The countries that joined the statement are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. All are OSCE members. 

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier first floated the proposal in a Project Syndicate op-ed on Aug. 26, citing “new and deep rifts” between Russia and Western nations that would likely endure for the near future. Further, he warned of a “new arms race” in Europe due to developing technologies such as offensive cybercapabilities and “new combat scenarios” such as smaller, more mobile fighting units that “are not covered” by existing arms control regimes.

Steinmeier said that a new arms control dialogue should address regional military force ceilings and transparency measures; take into account new military capabilities and strategies, including smaller, mobile units; include new weapons systems, such as drones; permit effective verification in times of crisis; and be applicable where territorial status is disputed. 

Steinmeier conceded that such an undertaking might not succeed “at a time when world order is eroding and relations with Russia are strained” but that “it would be irresponsible not to try.” 

Germany served as chair of the OSCE in 2016. Austria is the chair in 2017, as the position rotates annually. 

The initial U.S. reaction was lukewarm. Bruce Turner, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, said that Russia’s ongoing challenge to the core tenets of European security “make contemplation of a new arms control agreement in Europe difficult” in remarks in October at an OSCE conference in Vienna.

Instead, the United States “believes that it makes more sense to work to preserve, strengthen, and modernize our existing agreements, and begin a dialogue on our security concerns” in the OSCE, said Turner, who handles European security, technology, and implementation in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. Turner cited as a key U.S. goal modernizing the Vienna Document, a set of politically binding confidence- and security-building measures designed to increase openness and transparency concerning military activities conducted by OSCE members.

Russia has taken a wait-and-see approach. In a speech at the United Nations in October, Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the nonproliferation and arms control department in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Steinmeier’s proposal “merits thorough analysis.”

“We will see how Germany’s NATO allies will respond to this initiative,” he added. 

In a Dec. 24 email to Arms Control Today, Ulrich Kühn, a fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said the future of the 15-nation initiative is uncertain, citing the transition to a new administration in the United States, Austria’s assumption of the OSCE chairmanship, and the fact that Steinmeier soon will be leaving his foreign minister post.

At the OSCE ministerial meeting in Hamburg on Dec. 8-9, the 57 participating states issued a statement declaring that they “will work towards creating an environment conducive to reinvigorating conventional arms control” and confidence- and security-building measures in Europe.

Germany’s foreign minister cites the risk of a “new arms race” in Europe.

Mine Ban Successes, Challenges Continue

January/February 2017

By Jeff Abramson

States-parties to the Mine Ban Treaty gathered in Santiago, Chile, from Nov. 28 to Dec. 1 to continue efforts for achieving a mine-free world. 

Although mine use has declined significantly, three states outside the treaty, as well as nonstate armed groups in 10 countries, continued to use landmines according to the annual Landmine Monitor report. In 2015, casualties due to landmines, cluster munition remnants, and other remnants of war rose to at least 6,461, a decade-long high, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a civil society coalition, said in the report issued just prior to the meeting.

Delegates convene during the plenary of the Fifteenth Meeting of the States-Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty in Santiago, Chile on November 28, 2016. (Photo credit: ICBL)Delegates adopted a final document that “reaffirmed the determination…to put an end to the suffering and casualties caused by anti-personnel mines” and “expressed concern about the allegations and instances of use of anti-personnel mines in different parts of the world.”

Poland, the most recent NATO member to join the treaty, announced it had completed ahead of its June 2017 deadline the destruction of its stockpile of more than one million landmines. Under the treaty, states have four years to complete stockpile destruction once the treaty enters into force for that country.

The only NATO country not party to the treaty, the United States, attended as an observer, which it has done since 2009. At the meeting, Steve Costner, deputy director of the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement at the U.S. State Department, said the “process is ongoing” to “ultimately comply with and accede” to the treaty, a goal first announced by the Obama administration in 2014. (See ACT, October 2014.)

At this year’s annual meeting, to be hosted Dec. 18-22 in Vienna, states-parties will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the treaty’s opening for signature, on Dec. 3, 1997.

States-parties to the Mine Ban Treaty gathered in Santiago, Chile, from Nov. 28 to Dec. 1 to continue their efforts

Conventional Weapons: Obama’s Missed Opportunities

December 2016

By Rachel Stohl

When Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was elected president in 2008, he had already demonstrated leadership in trying to curtail conventional arms proliferation. 

As a senator, he had sought to treat the dangers of conventional arms in a similar vein as nuclear weapons by joining Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in authoring the Cooperative Proliferation Detection, Interdiction Assistance, and Conventional Threat Reduction Act. The bill, signed into law in January 2007, provided funding to prevent the proliferation of conventional weapons and to help U.S. allies detect and interdict proliferated weapons.

The U.S. granted a waiver to allow arms sales to the government in South Sudan, where the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates 16,000 children have been recruited by armed groups, including the national army, since civil war began in December 2013. On February 10, 2015, a group of child soldiers participated in a disarmament and reintegration event supported by UNICEF. (Photo credit: Charles Lomodong/AFP/Getty Images)While the Lugar-Obama initiative represented an uncommon and important emphasis on reducing the risks posed by conventional arms, Obama’s presidency has been marked by a limited focus on conventional weapons issues. Certainly, there have been some noteworthy and beneficial steps. For example, during Obama’s two terms, the United States signed the landmark Arms Trade Treaty, released a new conventional arms transfer policy for the first time in 20 years, developed a new unmanned aerial vehicle export policy, and moved closer to joining the Mine Ban Treaty. 

Yet, the Obama administration’s overall record on conventional weapons issues is disappointing in a number of respects. The administration has a troubling record with regard to arms sales to countries with significant history of human rights abuses, including the use of child soldiers; with regard to transparency and accountability for the U.S. drone program; and as it pertains to the U.S. status in the community of nations banning indiscriminate and deadly anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions. 

Indeed, the eight years of the Obama administration saw the highest value of foreign military sales agreements since World War II. From 2009 to 2015, these agreements totaled approximately $245 billion, compared to an estimated $127 billion from 2001 to 2008 under President George W. Bush. The quantity of weapons sold is less concerning, however, than the recipients of these weapons. Throughout the Obama administration, the United States has provided arms to countries with controversial human rights records, such as Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and more recently the Philippines. The Obama administration has approved arms sales to the most violent offenders—think Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen or President Rodrigo Duterte’s most recent crackdown in the Philippines—stopping only when Congress has interceded or raised uncomfortable questions. In short, the Obama administration’s legacy on arms sales reflects a strong emphasis on sweeping national security concerns, such as counterterrorism priorities, at the expense of broader foreign policy values and interests, such as promoting human rights and supporting democratization and good governance.

One of Obama’s more disappointing legacies has been his record on stopping military assistance and arms sales to governments using or recruiting child soldiers. The 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which took effect in 2010, aims to leverage coveted U.S. military assistance to pressure governments to stop using children in combat. The law prohibits U.S. military assistance or arms sales to governments that use children in their national militaries or government-supported armed groups, although the restrictions can be waived if the president finds it is in the “national interest” to do so. In the last six years, the administration used these waivers to allow more than $1.2 billion in military assistance and arms sales, while withholding approximately $60 million, or less than 5 percent of assistance otherwise subject to the law. For six years, the Obama administration has sent the wrong message to governments that recruit and use child soldiers that there are no consequences for their continued recruitment and use of children in combat.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signs the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which establishes common standards for international trade in conventional weapons, on September 25, 2013. The legally binding accord, which currently has 87 states-parties, entered into force December 24, 2014. (Photo credit: Win Khine/UN)The administration will also leave with an unfulfilled legacy on issues surrounding the transfer and use of cluster munitions and landmines. The United States still has not joined the vast majority of its allies and partners in signing the Convention on Cluster Munitions or the Mine Ban Treaty. Moreover, the United States continues to facilitate the use of cluster munitions, particularly in countries such as Yemen, where there have been numerous cases of U.S.-made cluster munitions hitting civilian targets. The United States has committed to phasing out by 2018 those cluster munitions with a failure rate exceeding 1 percent, which is an effort to mitigate the harm to civilians, and to prohibit nations buying U.S. cluster munitions from using them in civilian areas. Yet, progress has been slow and enforcement weak.

The United States is one of only 35 countries that remain outside the Mine Ban Treaty, the 1997 accord also known as the Ottawa Convention. The Obama administration, in a policy shift two years ago, pledged essentially to comply with key treaty provisions, which bar the use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of anti-personnel landmines, everywhere except for the Korean peninsula due to the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea from a potential invasion from the North across the mined demilitarized zone. Numerous officials, however, have called this exception into question for more than a decade, noting that technological advances in other systems could offset the utility of landmines. Although the administration initiated a study to examine alternatives, the results of its study have yet to be released.

On drones, the Obama administration has taken some steps toward establishing a transparent, accountable, and responsible policy for lethal use. In February 2015, the administration released an updated drone export policy, which includes potential requirements for enhanced end-use monitoring of military drones, additional security conditions, and requirements for only transferring sensitive systems through government-to-government military sales. Importantly, commercial U.S.-made drones are also subject to “stringent” restrictions under the new guidelines. The policy also requires recipients to agree to “principles for proper use” before an export can be approved. 

Additionally, in July the administration released the first official data regarding U.S. drone strike casualties. At the same time, the administration released an executive order on measures to address civilian casualties, which requires, among other steps, relevant agencies to develop, acquire, and field intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems that contribute to the protection of civilians and reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties. In August, the administration released a redacted version of the presidential policy guidance, which outlines the procedures for approving direct action against terrorist targets located outside the United States and areas of active hostilities.

Although these are positive steps, U.S. drone policy overall continues to resemble a patchwork of half-measures to address concerns rather than a comprehensive and complete examination of how drone proliferation and use fit within larger strategic objectives. For example, although the civilian casualty data provides insight on combatant and noncombatant casualties in areas outside active hostilities, the release lacks substantive information to allow for objective analysis and more informed debate on the program’s overall effectiveness and risks to civilians. 

Ultimately, Obama’s record on conventional arms issues leaves much to be desired. After eight years in the White House, the administration missed its chance to better address the security, development, economic, and human impacts of the proliferation and use of conventional arms around the world. Although there were some commendable developments, Obama failed to make the most of opportunities to match U.S. global leadership in arms exports with performance as a global leader in setting appropriate standards for arms transfers and use.


Rachel Stohl is a senior associate with the Stimson Center’s Managing Across Boundaries initiative and directs the center’s Conventional Defense program.

Obama’s presidency has been marked by a limited focus on conventional weapons issues.

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