This is the fourth blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2017 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
It might be hard for a president Trump to outdo the Obama administration’s aggressive sales push in the Middle East. According to data from the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the United States has offered a record $198 billion in arms to Persian Gulf nations under the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales program since 2009. Many of these deals are still in the pipeline, and some may fall by the wayside as economic and political circumstances change. But they represent an unprecedented flood of arms offers to the region.
Recent deals to re-supply Saudi Arabia with bombs and ammunition for its brutal air campaign in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians while involving what Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) has said, “look like war crimes,” have been of particular concern. It’s hard to overstate the devastating humanitarian consequences of the bombing and a parallel blockade of Yemen’s ports. According to the United Nations, nearly three-quarters of the population is in need of assistance, and access to food, clean water, and medical care is scarce.
In December, the Obama administration took a step in the right direction when it indicated that it would hold up a sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia out of concern for the kingdom’s continuing air strikes on civilian targets. This had been a demand of non-governmental organizations working against U.S. support for the Saudi-led war. But the policy shift was a halfway measure, as the United States will continue to refuel Saudi aircraft that are engaged in bombing Yemen and not impact other sales, including a more than $3 billion deal on Chinook helicopters sent to Congress just days earlier.
So how will a Trump administration fit into this existing pattern of large-scale arms transfers to the Middle East? On the one hand, Trump has had harsh words for the Saudis, accusing them of being behind the 9/11 attacks and threatening to end U.S. oil imports from the kingdom. And some analysts have suggested that Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric might actually lead to a reduction of U.S. sales to the region.
A countervailing factor that could lead a Trump administration to make ample arms offers to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies is the strong anti-Iran stance of his key advisors. His appointee for National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, has implausibly described Iran as the “linchpin” of a “working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.” As for secretary of defense nominee Gen. James Mattis, his response to a question about the three greatest threats in the Middle East and South Asia, was “Iran, Iran, Iran.”
In the short-term, the most consequential arms transfer decision in the region is whether to continue to supply weapons in support of the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen. Trump has fallen into the trap of seeing the conflict as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, going so far as to claim that Iran’s reason for being involved is as a first step toward crossing the border into Saudi Arabia and seizing its oil assets. The roots of the conflict are much more complicated. While Iran has supplied some weaponry to the Houthi-led opposition, the Houthi have longstanding political and economic grievances that predate Iranian involvement. The Houthi movement is far from being an Iranian “puppet,” and there is absolutely no evidence that Tehran plans to ride its limited support for the Houthi into a surge toward Saudi oil fields, as Trump as suggested.
The Trump administration’s decision about whether to continue to back the Saudis in Yemen will be carried out in the context of growing Congressional opposition. Earlier this year, a resolution sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) that would have banned U.S. sales of cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia almost passed, garnering 204 votes. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) organized a letter signed by 64 House members calling on the Obama to reconsider a proposed tank deal to Saudi Arabia in light of its indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen. And in September, a bipartisan group of Senators sponsored a resolution of disapproval in an effort to block the Saudi tank deal. The resolution received 27 votes, far from victory but a significant step forward given that a year ago only a handful of members of Congress were raising questions about U.S. arms sales to Riyadh.
The precise shape that a Trump administration policy might take toward arms sales to the Middle East in general and transfers in support of the Saudi war in Yemen in particular is unclear. Will Trump and his advisors take a hard look at the negative security consequences of flooding the region with U.S. arms, or will their exaggerated view of the threat posed by Iran serve as the rationale for even more weapons deals?
This article is adapted from a longer piece that appeared in The National Interest.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.