By Daniel DePetris
President Donald Trump was only in Riyadh for about two days, but by the look on his face, he had the time of his life. The red-carpet, greetings from Saudi King Salman on the tarmac, the touring of the royal palace with the gold trim on the walls and the huge chandeliers on the ceilings, and the customary dances, it was all of the pageantry, pomp, and circumstance President Trump could have hoped for.
The Saudis, of course, had a compelling reason to pull out all of the stops: the Royal Family desperately wanted to close a number of arms deals that were held in limbo by the Obama administration. And close they did; the roughly $110 billion sale was one of the most expensive (perhaps the most expensive) defense contracts in American history. Whatever the Saudis asked, they got—tanks, artillery, armored personnel carriers, radar, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, and communications equipment were all included in the package.
But is selling tens of billions of dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, a country that is already the world's fourth largest military buyer, in America’s national security interest? Will pouring more weaponry into a region wracked by inter-state rivalry, sectarian conflict, civil war, and refugees make the Middle East a more peaceful place for its people?
At first glance, exporting U.S. military technology and the latest naval vessels and fighter aircraft to strategic allies would seem to be a no-brainer. The manufacturing and export of U.S. military hardware to buyers around the world is an enormously profitable business, supporting hundreds of thousands of American jobs both stateside and overseas. Providing America's partners with the capability to defend themselves is far more practical and a whole lot cheaper than deploying U.S. soldiers to do the job for them.
But U.S. policymakers should exercise caution before approving such a gargantuan Saudi purchase. The junior senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, certainly feels the same way; he’s preparing to use parliamentary procedure to force on a vote on the latest arms deal with the Saudis, an exercise that will compel advocates of the agreement to defend it on the merits.
How, for instance, will U.S.-made weapons be used? Are there any malignant actors who could take advantage of the situation if some of the arms were lost, misplaced, or stolen by corrupt officers and sold on the black market? Does the United States have any responsibility when a partner-nation drops American bombs on a civilian target? Tanks, bombs, personnel carriers, and jets that are exported under assurances they will be used judiciously and in accordance with international humanitarian law, and in compliance with U.N. Security Council sanctions, are too often skirted by the recipients of these weapons.
Take the civil war in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world and one that has been devastated by war for over two years. Most of the civilian casualties in the war, approximately two-thirds based on statistics by the U.N., have been blamed on a Saudi-led air campaign that relies on U.S.-manufactured aircraft and U.S.-manufactured precision munitions—the very same munitions that were included in the latest arms deal with Riyadh.
It's difficult to argue that using U.S. military equipment so indiscriminately makes the region any safer or endears the United States in any way to the millions of Yemenis who've been impacted by the violence, yet that is Washington’s rationale.
Take Iraq in 2014, when whole divisions of the Iraqi army melted away in Mosul and across northern and western Iraq, abandoning tanks, carriers, rifles, M-15's, ammunition, and every other defense article left in the abandoned base. Nearly all of that hardware was provided by the U.S. to the Iraqi security forces at considerable cost, only to be handed over to the very jihadists in the Islamic State the weapons were supposed to combat.
And take Libya, where Time magazine just recently discovered that six American turbo-prop planes sold to the UAE were found stationed in a covert UAE base in eastern Libya, contrary to the Security Council arms embargo on the country. To put it simply, U.S. aircraft exported under clear guidance— that the planes would be deployed lawfully— are instead diverted to a civil conflict to boost the military capabilities of a Libyan general who is an adversary to the legitimate U.N.-recognized political authority.
These are just three recent examples, but there are many more in which African militaries supported by the U.S. are engaging in human rights abuses against civilian populations, detainees in their custody, or during the course of hostilities.
Not only is this objectionable from a humanitarian perspective, but also from a geopolitical perspective. As the examples of Iraq and Syria demonstrate, U.S. soldiers are all too frequently forced to defend themselves against the very same weapons that the U.S. government sells or provides to partner nations in the region. Heavy weapons designated for the Iraqi army or for anti-ISIS Syrian militias are at times stolen or surrendered. A big reason why it’s taken such an extensive period of time to clear ISIS militants from Mosul is because the organization has access to Abrams tanks that were left behind by the Iraqi army in 2014.
Sometimes, an arms package that looks good in the moment can turn into a headache later.
Should Washington continue to enter into defense agreements? In some situations, yes. Offering defensive capacity to the Saudis for counterterrorism, border security, and intelligence and surveillance is indeed a smart investment. These types of contracts help shift the security burden from the U.S. to its partners.
But we have gotten past the point where defense sales progress on auto-pilot, approved with only cursory inter-agency review and even less scrutiny from Congress. If a $110 billion agreement in Riyadh doesn't wake Congress up, nothing will.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow with Defense Priorities.