Saudi weapons deal suspended

By Daniel DePetris

The war in Yemen is the hidden conflict of the Middle East. According to U.N. figures, only 53 percent of the funds requested under the 2016 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan has been fulfilled, a shortfall in cash that has kept people from accessing medical care, food, water, and basic shelter. The humanitarian situation in the country could get even worse next year, and despite eight in ten Yemeni children already suffering from malnutrition, the U.N. is projecting worsening conditions in the country next year.    

Through it all, U.S. policy in Yemen has been the definition of contradictory.  Washington has expressed its intent to facilitate and assist negotiations between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebellion, hoping that the combatants will be able to find the political courage to arrive at the formation of an inclusive, technocratic, transitional government. Yet at the very same time that the United States is hoping to meet that goal, Washington has continued to sign massive, multi-billion dollar arms deals with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — a country that is not only a military participating in the conflict, but a government that is hosting and supporting a Yemeni government that would likely have collapsed were it not for Gulf Arab support.

In other words, the U.S. is both packaging itself as an impartial mediator within the inter-Yemeni diplomatic process while providing one of the main protagonists in the conflict — Saudi Arabia — with the bombs, missiles, and fighter aircraft needed to continue its military campaign against the Houthis.

Fortunately, the United States is beginning to realize how unconstructive its policy towards Yemen has become. Last week, the Obama administration announced that it will suspend a $350 million package of GBU-guided smart bombs to Riyadh over concerns that the Saudi-led air campaign is hitting too many civilian targets and resulting in far too many civilian casualties. Intelligence support for the Saudis will also be retooled to focus more on defensive measures along the Saudi-Yemeni border instead of targets that could be used for offensive operations in Yemen — a reflection in part of Washington’s concern that Riyadh is being far less judicious than international humanitarian law demands. 

The decision to suspend arms to an ally will cause angst and perhaps even anger in the corridors of power in Riyadh. The Saudis, understandably, are still concerned that the United States signed a nuclear accord with their Iranian rival without consulting Saudi officials properly and letting them have some input in the process.  Any further moves that could be construed as further separating the U.S. from Saudi Arabia could make the broader bilateral relationship between the two countries more difficult to endure. There will also be the inevitable complaint that U.S. arms exports are a critical tool for maintaining alliances and good relations with security partners, as if the United States has a mandatory obligation to enter into billion-dollar defense agreements in order to gain better access in the relationship.

These arguments, however, are not only misplaced, but also damaging to U.S. national security policy. 

If countries are behaving questionably or are pursuing policies that jeopardize regional stability or sully the United States in the eyes of millions of people, Washington shouldn’t be reluctant or frightened from pulling the plug on defense exports or stopping a pending arms agreement in its tracks. Indeed, doing so is not only an effective way of demonstrating to nations around the world that the United States won’t be burying its head or blind itself to the realities and complexities of the region, but rather that U.S. officials will exploit all of the power and influence it possesses in order to make its interests more attainable.  In the case of Yemen, that interest incorporates a return to negotiations by all parties in the war rather — not a continuation of the conflict.

The United States has long been one of the world’s biggest armsdealers. Over the past eight years, the U.S. has approved $278 billion in arms sales to foreign countries, including over $33 billion in sales this year alone. Because lawmakers on Capitol Hill rarely challenge the utility of a foreign military sale, contracts usually proceed without a hitch.  A foreign country contacts U.S. arms manufacturers, expresses a desire to purchase a couple of F-16’s, and the State Department notifies Congress that a sale is pending. The sale then generally sails through without a peep from lawmakers. Any issues over the recipient country’s human rights record or foreign policy is typically brushed under the rug in favor of keeping the relationship intact or not ruffling any feathers.  Maintaining relationships, though, shouldn’t be a goal for the U.S. in and of itself; what good is a relationship, after all, if they don’t serve America’s foreign policy goals?

In the grand scheme of things, the suspension of a $350 million munitions package to the Saudis is a drop in the bucket to the tens of billions of dollars in defense sales that the United States approves every single year. Other military assistance to Riyadh will continue, and more deals will certainly be signed with Saudi officials next year and long into the future. 

But the suspension is nonetheless a positive sign that U.S. officials are coming to a series of conclusions that have long been frowned upon by the foreign policy and defense establishment — U.S. weapons exports aren’t just a series of business transactions, but an effective way to lobby a country to change its behavior or actually contribute to peaceful relations instead of conflict.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.   

This piece was originally published by Business Insider on December 22, 2016. Read more HERE.