The Trump administration invoked a rarely used provision in federal law to authorize the sale of billions of dollars in arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates without Congressional approval on Friday. Rising tensions across the Middle East with Iran were cited as justification.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified Congress of the White House’s decision to make use of a national security exception in the Arms Export Control Act in order to move forward with the sale of $7 billion in mortar bombs, missile, drones, repair and maintenance services to aid the Saudi air fleet, as well as precision-guided munitions that some officials believe might be used against Yemeni civilians, according to The Washington Post.
Citing these concerns, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has blocked the sale of these armaments since last year. Menendez wrote in a letter at the time to Secretary Pompeo and then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis that “the American public has a right to insist that the sales of U.S. weapons to foreign governments – especially those of this magnitude and lethality – are consistent with U.S. values and national security objectives.”
On Thursday, Menendez warned the Trump administration not to bypass Congress on the agreement, writing in a statement that “The possible consequences of this will ultimately jeopardize the ability of the U.S. defense industry to export arms in a manner both expeditious and responsible,” and that if the President did take such steps, “I will pursue all appropriate legislative and other means to nullify these and any planned ongoing sales should the administration move forward in this manner.”
Menendez expressed his disappointment in a statement after Friday’s announcement:
I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the Trump Administration has failed once again to prioritize our long term national security interests or stand up for human rights, and instead is granting favors to authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia.
I have kept the Trump administration from selling tens of thousands of precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates until they could prove that U.S. assistance and arms sales were improving Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s respect for human rights in Yemen and were in line with U.S. national security interests and values. The Saudi government’s flagrant human rights abuses are clear, as is Muhammad bin Salman’s record of killing innocent people — including Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Similarly, reports of the UAE’s human rights abuses in Yemen, as well as its illicit transfers of U.S. military equipment to radical militias, are deeply troubling. Yet, rather than stand up against those who murdered Jamal Khashoggi and are working against U.S. interests, the Trump Administration decided to do an end run around the Congress and possibly the law.
Menendez said he plans to use unspecified “legislative and other means to nullify these and any planned ongoing sales.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT), who issued a similar warning on Wednesday, said in a statement on Friday that “President Trump is only using this loophole because he knows Congress would disapprove of this sale. There is no new ‘emergency’ reason to sell bombs to the Saudis to drop in Yemen, and doing so only perpetuates the humanitarian crisis there.”
Republican Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee also expressed concern over the move to sidestep Congress. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said that such a move would be “a big mistake.”
“We have a gold standard for that sort of arrangement,” Rubio said, according to The New York Times, “and to violate it for Saudi Arabia is going to open the door for it to happen in multiple other places.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) insisted that “I am not going to do business as usual with the Saudis until we have a better reckoning of the MBS situation,” referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged involvement in the murder of US resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The exception in the law that the President plans to use states that
(1) The President may enter into a cooperative project agreement with any friendly foreign country not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization under the same general terms and conditions as the President is authorized to enter into such an agreement with one or more member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization if the President determines that the cooperative project agreement with such country would be in the foreign policy or national security interests of the United States.
The announcement on Friday was accompanied by the White House’s approval of acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan’s plan to send 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East provide deterrence against what the Pentagon believes is an increasing Iranian threat against US interests in the region.
DefenseNews notes that it could take years for the weapons agreed to in the sale to go under contract but that there are alternatives that the White House could pursue, such as transferring existing weapons from US stockpiles to the countries in question or moving the countries ahead of others on the wait list.