By Daniel DePetris
Last week, President Donald Trump flew out of Riyadh on Air Force One with one of the biggest business deals he has likely ever signed in his life: a $110 billion arms sale meant to provide the Saudi armed forces with the most technologically sophisticated military equipment on the open market. The United States has struck hundreds upon hundreds of arms sales over the years, but no transaction has been this large.
This sale "bolsters the Kingdom's ability to provide for its own security," according to a White House statement, "and continue contributing to counterterrorism operations across the region, reducing the burden on U.S. military forces." Indeed, for what the Saudis are receiving—a state of the art anti-missile defense system, precision-guided smart bombs, helicopters, patrol boats, Multi-Mission Surface Combatant ships, armored personnel carriers, and much, much more—it's easy to see how the total value of the agreement could rise to such an astronomical expense. An oil-rich familial monarchy like Saudi Arabia, of course, can afford it - even with the low crude oil prices and cash crunch that Riyadh has been feeling over the last year.
To many elected officials, exporting defense systems to allies and partner nations is an efficient way to ensure that U.S. national security objectives are defended. By offering the best military technology that the U.S. is producing at any given time, Washington helps allies and friends help themselves by improving the synchronization of our militaries in the event of a major conflict. In general, members of Congress are no exception; many but into that sentiment, believing that defense exports not only serve a strategic purpose for the U.S., but sustain the manufacturing jobs in the defense industry that are so critical in their in congressional districts.
You can be excused for believing that the legislative branch has no role in this entire process. Far more often than not, arms deals and export licenses are approved with barely any objection from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. And if there are objections, the problems are usually taken care of a letter from the State Department or the Pentagon assuring the lawmaker that his or her concerns are addressed. The entire defense export process codified in the Arms Export Control Act– a law that provides Congress with the authority to disapprove a defense sale or transaction– have almost become pro-forma. Thirty days before an arms sale is formally approved, the executive branch notifies Congress about it. Once that notification occurs, Congress typically accedes to the requested sale. Lawmakers in effect have been rubber stamps.
Congress, however, possesses considerable authority to block an arms sale that the body views as unwise, unwarranted, or contrary to the national security interests of the United States. Under the AECA, any Senator can file a discharge petition in order to force a full debate and vote on the matter– a mechanism that was last used by Sens. Rand Paul, Chris Murphy, Mike Lee, and Al Franken in September 2016 in an attempt to block a $1.15 billion military export to the Saudis. Although that effort failed (the Senate defeated the disapproval resolution by a 71-27 vote), the fact that senators were even on the floor debating the wisdom of arms exports was a notable achievement. The last time that occurred was in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan muscled a $354 million package of missiles to Saudi Arabia through Congress. Viewed another way, it took 30 years before senators utilized the full extent of their power under U.S. law.
Sens. Paul, Murphy, and Franken are reasserting themselves yet again on defense exports, this time challenging a portion of President Trump's $110 billion arms package with Riyadh that includes precision-guides munitions. All three Senators cite Saudi Arabia's indiscriminate bombing in Yemen and failure to distinguish between military and civilian targets as reasons for filing the resolution of disapproval, a concern that has been backed up repeatedly by U.N. human rights monitors and human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The resolution will be taken up on the Senate floor next month.
Whether you agree or disagree that sending more weapons to the Royal Saudi Air Force is a good idea, surely it's wise and prudent for Congress to assert itself and actually conduct a debate on this issue before the package is finalized.
Selling and delivering advanced warheads, F-15 aircraft, naval vessels, and missile defense systems is a serious matter given how these weapons and platforms may be used in a conflict. The State Department may have the authority to propose, initiate, and sign an agreement, but Congress also has a responsibility under the law to ensure that an arms sale serves U.S. national security interests, impacts regional stability in a positive way, and will be used by the buyer in accordance with international humanitarian law and the laws of war.
Sens. Paul, Murphy, and Franken are living up to our Founder’s vision by asserting Congress's role in this entire process. The separation-of-powers established in the U.S. Constitution, a concept that dictates how the federal government operates, is even more important when it concerns national security. After decades of sitting on the sidelines, Congress now seems to be waking up.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on June 6, 2017.