This is the sixth blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2019 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.
The most high profile signs of this restraint revolve around the most high profile U.S. arms purchaser, Saudi Arabia. A loud rebuke of Trump’s approach to the kingdom came in December when a bipartisan group of 56 Senators took the highly unusual step of using the 1973 War Powers Resolution to direct the president to end U.S. military action in the war in Yemen, including any refueling to the Saudi-led coalition. An earlier vote in March garnered only 44 votes. The outcry over Trump’s unabashed arms support to Saudi Arabia played a large role in changing many Senators’ minds.
Another War Powers-based resolution should expect to win Senate approval in the new Congress, when it is re-introduced. In the House, the new Democratic majority would also be likely to approve such a resolution. While leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has yet to indicate when a such a measure might be brought forward, she is one of 101 co-sponsors of the previous House version, which was blocked by a late procedural action in December.
The War Powers Resolution came on the heels of steps more explicitly addressing the arms trade. In June 2017, 47 Senators voted to block more than $500 million in precision-guided munitions (PGM) sales to Saudi Arabia; and in September 2016, 27 Senators supported stopping a $1 billion tank sale. While neither of these measures were successful, they indicate the building Congressional opposition to unrestricted arms sales to Riyadh. That sentiment was encapsulated after the recent War Powers vote when co-sponsor Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) said that “momentum is…only growing. Congress has woken up to the reality that the Saudi-led coalition is using U.S. military support to kill thousands of civilians, bomb hospitals, block humanitarian aid, and arm radical militias.”
In addition to these very public votes, some Congressional leaders are acting in other ways to reign in unwise arms sales. Under the U.S. system, leaders within the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee are pre-notified of potential arms sales. That pre-notification period has been the more traditional place for an opposition hold on controversial sales. For a period in 2017, former SFRC chair Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) declared a hold on new arms sales to Gulf Cooperation Council countries. More recently, ranking member Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) placed a hold on PGM sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. While Corker is no longer in Congress, Menendez retains his position and his June 2018 hold remains in place. During the recent War Powers debate, he argued that the Trump administration view of the U.S.-Saudi relationship was “unhinged” in thinking that “selling weapons to the Saudis was more important than America’s enduring commitment to human rights, democratic values, and international norms.”
These actions are promising, and creative Congressional leaders have the opportunity to do more. While the public can be an ally for responsible action on 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 often comes after the initial review period has passed. Congressmembers could insist that, or possibly take it upon themselves to make, these potential DCS transactions public immediately. Saudi PGM sales, for example, have come through the DCS process and relied upon concerned leaders to share in raising awareness.
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, leaders should follow the entire process. To the best of my knowledge, however, the relevant chair and ranking committee members have only once used the power they gave themselves to receive from the State Department a notification of an arms shipment at least 30 days prior to its delivery. It’s time to exercise, and to expand, such authority (see Section 201).
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 were sold from his state to Saudi Arabia in August, 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 this year, we can expect the administration 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 great deal of concern. These rules have been at the heart of the 3-D gun printing controversy that energized public debate in the middle of last year. Members of Congress have raised an alarm that they will lose notifications about these sales, and need to be prepared to stop, or counteract, this dangerous export process change. Just as Trump’s broad approach on arms sales does, these changes risk making it easier for weapons to end up in the hands of terrorists, international criminals, and abusive regimes as well as further undermine the promotion of human rights norms that should be central to U.S. actions.
Jeff Abramson is a non-resident senior fellow at the Arms Control Association and manages the Forum on the Arms Trade.