How Congress Could Flex Its Muscles on Saudi Arms Sales

Cutting off technical support could cripple Saudi operations in Yemen.

AP Photo/Hassan Ammar
Oct. 23, 2018, 8 p.m.

In the wake of the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Republicans and Democrats alike are calling for a fundamental reassessment of the U.S.–Saudi Arabia relationship. Whether Congress will curtail weapons sales to the kingdom—a centerpiece of President Trump’s Middle East policy—remains to be seen.

Weapons sales to Saudi Arabia long predate Trump. President George W. Bush sought to bolster Saudi Arabia against Iran, and the Obama administration offered far more weapons to Saudi Arabia than any previous administration.

Unlike his predecessors, Trump has explicitly linked arms sales abroad to domestic economic growth. On Friday, Trump claimed that he would “rather keep the million jobs” created by defense deals with the Saudis—in reality, the entire national security and defense sector employed about 350,000 Americans in 2016—than retaliate with sanctions. In an executive order outlining the new Conventional Arms Transfer policy, Trump stated that arms sales “bolster our economy,” and that his administration would “advocate strongly on behalf of United States companies.”

“No other president has been so crass, and it’s an exceedingly short-sighted and dangerous approach,” said Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association. “Weapons are not a trade commodity like any other trade commodity. These are killing machines and they need to be handled in ways that understand the dangers they can cause and human-rights implications of their transfer.”

Most of Trump’s $110 billion package to Saudi Arabia—about $85 billion, according to Defense News—is comprised of nonbinding introductory memorandums. These notifications are not finalized sales, and could still fall apart. Other major sales included in the package were actually approved by the Obama Administration.

Last year, Congress was notified of roughly $17.8 billion in sales to Saudi Arabia, the largest dollar amount for any American ally. (The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile-defense system accounted for $15 billion of that.) The largest notification to reach Congress thus far in 2018 is a $1.3 billion deal for Howitzer artillery guns. Comparatively smaller notifications for light arms, equipment, and spare parts occurred this summer, the last being a $385 million deal, according to the Security Assistance Monitor.

The arms sales process is jointly managed by the State Department's Bureau of Political Military Affairs and the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency. For foreign military sales, the DSCA acts as an intermediary between the contractor and the buyer, and may even supply the equipment directly from U.S. stockpiles. For direct commercial sales, the buyer may negotiate directly with the contractor.

Top lawmakers from the Senate and House may also be involved. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has placed a preliminary hold on the sale of “tens of thousands” of missiles to Riyadh.

Congress formally enters the picture after a foreign buyer agrees to the DSCA’s “best estimate” cost of the deal. For foreign military sales to non-NATO allies such as Saudi Arabia, relevant congressional committees must approve sales of equipment worth $14 million or more, defense articles or services of $50 million or more, and design and construction services of $200 million or more.

Were lawmakers to attempt to block future sales to Saudi Arabia, as allowed under the Arms Export Control Act, they would have 30 days to muster a majority vote of disapproval in both chambers. Votes of disapproval under the AECA are subject to presidential veto, which can only be overridden with a two-thirds majority vote. The last major push to block arms to Saudi Arabia under the act was defeated in the Senate in June 2017 by a vote of 47-53.

The Trump administration is unlikely to send major new arms sales to Congress any time soon, given the bipartisan backlash over Khashoggi’s murder. The administration will likely be “very careful about sending any new arms deals up that they could lose a vote on,” said Bruce Riedel, who advised the last four presidents on South Asia and the Middle East, and now heads the Intelligence Project at Brookings. “On the other hand, there is an ongoing constant transfer of spare parts, expertise, upgrades, technicians, to the Saudis to keep existing weapons systems going. That would be much more difficult to cut off … but would have a much more immediate and complete impact on the Saudis.”

The Saudi-led campaign in neighboring Yemen is highly dependent upon American-made F-15 fighters, which require significant maintenance and spare parts. Were lawmakers to cut off technical support or the supply of parts, “the war in Yemen would stop tomorrow,” said Riedel, “because the Saudi Air Force would be grounded.”

The AECA does not allow Congress to block existing contracts with the Saudi military, or halt the work of contractors working in Saudi Arabia. “[Those contracts] don’t come to the Hill as a matter of course,” said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. “It takes a little digging to figure out what those contracts are.” Such a step would likely require standalone legislation.

Although top Republicans have expressed support for cutting off the flow of supplies and technical support, Congress has so far taken a different approach. Last week, 20 senators on the Foreign Relations Committee kicked off a Magnitsky Act investigation, which gives the Trump administration 120 days investigate the murder of Khashoggi, and potentially impose sanctions on those responsible. Other lawmakers, including the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed, have called for the U.S. to stop refueling missions. A separate coalition of lawmakers plan to reintroduce a resolution ending military operations against Houthi rebels in Yemen entirely.

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