POLITICS
01/01/2018 07:00 EST | Updated 01/02/2018 16:46 EST

U.S. Politicians Can Afford To Grow A Spine On Saudi Arabia

Five Democrats helped save an arms deal with the kingdom pushed by President Trump. It doesn't have to be this way.

WASHINGTON ― On the morning of Sept. 10, 2016, aircraft bombed a remote area in western Yemen where workers were drilling a well for a nearby village. After the first strike, villagers came to remove bodies and see the damage. The planes returned and bombed the rescuers. All told, the assault eventually killed more than 20 people, including three children. Two months later, Human Rights Watch investigators visiting the site found two bomb fragments that showed the explosives were made in the United States.

Congress had its best chance to prevent a further shipment of bombs likely to be used in Yemen this past June, when senators proposed a resolution to block a $500 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are bombing Yemen along with the United Arab Emirates, another U.S. ally, which in May 2015 bought 600 of the kind of bombs used in the September attack.

The resolution failed. Five Democrats voted against the measure and expected Republican support for it never materialized. The final tally was 47-53, with Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) endorsing President Donald Trump’s decision to let the Saudis buy the munitons.

Despite incessant criticism of the U.S. role in the Yemen war, a change in Washington policy sometimes seems impossible. But it doesn’t have to be. The sheer horror of the Saudi-UAE intervention, which has killed thousands of civilians with its airstrikes and left millions more diseased and hungry because of assaults on infrastructure and shipping routes, has galvanized politicians and rights groups across Western countries that count as those Arab governments’ most important foreign friends. The U.S. could play catch up.

In Britain, the resurgent Labour opposition party in its 2017 manifesto said that if elected  lead the nation’s government, it would block huge British weapons shipments connected to the Yemen war until the United Nations conducts a full inquiry into the coalition’s behavior. Labour’s popular leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is a former anti-war activist; now he’s got the rest of the party onboard and is speaking about its new position regularly.

In Sweden, one of Europe’s top weapons producers, the parliament will soon debate making a foreign government’s record on democracy and human rights a key consideration in any negotiations for armaments. Supported by major parties on the left and right, the new policy is expected to pass ― and to have a particular effect on the UAE if correctly implemented.

And stateside, activists and some lawmakers are challenging old assumptions about U.S. politics and foreign policy.

Yes, politicians from Republican-leaning states can afford to defy the military-industrial complex. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) did so by voting in June to block the arms sale, joining lawmakers from purple states that went for Trump in 2016 like Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), as well as hawkish Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Republican Sens. Todd Young (Ind.) and Dean Heller (Nev.).

No, American arms deals are not guaranteed jobs programs. Research shows that the taxpayer dollars sustaining the defense industry could create more and better-paying jobs if invested in other sectors. And there’s increasing awareness about “offsets” ― promises of investment in foreign countries that U.S. defense companies make in many arms deals, essentially funding jobs and advances in technical expertise abroad.

In 2018, Democrats and interested Republicans have the energy, the contemporary examples and the constitutional ability to reshape an American system that supplies more than 30 percent of global arms exports — particularly by focusing on Yemen, where the U.N. says the ongoing conflict could result in the worst famine in many years and which national security experts see as a gift to al Qaeda and the self-described Islamic State. Can U.S. politicians seize their moment?

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
President Donald Trump during his stop in Saudi Arabia in May.

Long Distance Lessons

When Sweden’s new “democracy clause” on arms exports goes into effect in the spring of 2018, it will be the culmination of a long debate in a country that built a major domestic arms industry during the Cold War because it did not want to rely for its defense on either the U.S. or the now defunct Soviet Union.

Lawmakers first seriously considered the idea in 2003, said Lucie Béraud-Sudreau, a defense economics researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Parliament and rights groups focused on it more intensively after 2011, when the Saudi and UAE governments ― then top customers for Swedish equipment ― violently suppressed Arab Spring-related protests in Bahrain.  

The following year, Sweden’s Sveriges Radio revealed that Swedish officials were secretly negotiating to build an arms factory in Saudi Arabia, eventually prompting the resignation of the defense minister. That scandal and broader concern about how Swedish weaponry was being used was front-page news “for a long time,” Béraud-Sudreau said.

In 2012, the Swedish parliament began an inquiry into how best to tighten export controls. The study was published in 2015 ― by which point Yemen was in the news too, helping activists boost public anger and pressure on the government to make a change, according to Béraud-Sudreau.

Critics of the existing Swedish export policy ranged across the political spectrum; the right-wing Christian Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party are especially enthusiastic about cutting military supplies to Saudi Arabia. This past October, the government released its “democracy clause” proposal to support from most factions in the legislature. And Béraud-Sudreau said weapons suppliers have had to be muted in their criticism lest they alienate the public. The measure has already won international applause.

Stockholm’s argument is that it is a win-win. “The proposal involves a tightening of the rules for arms exports, while at the same time securing the long-term prospects for the Swedish armed forces ― and providing the business sector with predictable export conditions,” Marinette Nyh Radebo, the press secretary at the Ministry of Defense, wrote in an email to HuffPost.

In Britain, the parliament has flexed its muscles on the arms issue to less success. Two top committees recommended an immediate halt to U.K. sales to the Saudis in a 2016 joint report, but the Conservative-led government and its allies in Westminster responded that complaints should be considered in court ― where a judge this summer announced on the basis of secret evidence that he would let the exports continue. Activists have pinned their hopes on an appeal, Human Rights Watch researcher Kristine Beckerle told HuffPost, noting that the British press is paying close attention to ongoing accusations that the Saudi-led coalition is committing war crimes in Yemen.

Meanwhile, Labour’s striking unity on its weapons sales stand ― and recent electoral success on a platform that included it ― suggests voters and future governments will prioritize the issue.

There remains reason to doubt that countries like Sweden and the U.K. ― which are deeply committed to defense sales ― will overnight stop aiding campaigns like those in Yemen.

“We are worried that the [democracy] clause is not strict enough,” Agnes Hellström, the president of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, told HuffPost in an email. Her organization and others would prefer a full ban on sales to non-democracies rather than case-by-case assessments of countries’ democratic credentials.

Sam Perlo-Freeman, an expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and World Peace Foundation, believes loopholes in the new regulation permit Sweden “to sell arms to dictatorships when it really wants to.”

Frustration over crises like Yemen does not need to force changes of heart on arms sales, some prominent British critics of the war argue. Andrew Mitchell, a member of Parliament critical of the Saudi-UAE intervention, told HuffPost he opposes the idea of an arms embargo on multiple grounds. 

“Saudi Arabia is a rich country surrounded by many enemies and therefore they will always be able to purchase the weaponry,” Mitchell said. He argues that the U.K.-Saudi arms trade enables London to pressure the Saudis to follow international agreements on the law of war.

He also expresses concern about the domestic economic effect of ending the weapons deals. “I’ve always been a bit neuralgic about Westminster politicians waving their moral conscience at the expense of livelihood and jobs in the northwest of England,” he said.

Some governments supplying arms to Saudi Arabia simply avoid high-level accountability. In Canada, for instance, activists charge liberal darling Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with evading tough questions about Canadian support for the Yemen intervention and for Saudi internal repression. Canadian equipment was used in assaults on a persecuted minority community inside the kingdom this past summer, video footage appears to show, and there’s no sign of progress on a promised investigation.

“So far as I am aware, they have not briefed anyone on the findings. Instead they have switched from saying they will take action if there is ‘evidence of human rights violations’ to ‘evidence of serious human rights violations,’” said Peggy Mason, a former top Canadian diplomat and president of the Rideau Institute think tank.

She also said she believes Canadian regulation of arms sales is too weak because it does not require consultation from third-party groups or parliamentary approval, resulting in a huge majority of requests being granted.

Mohammed Hamoud via Getty Images
Airstrikes carried out by a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has helped create the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Capitol Hill Catch-Up

Foreign inspiration has yet to strike U.S lawmakers. Even progressives who might be expected to lead the charge against arms deals that might shame or threaten the U.S. for the sake of the Democratic Party’s credibility on foreign policy or their electoral prospects, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have yet to call for a full end to arms shipments that might be used in Yemen ― though both did vote against the bomb sale in June.

Warren cited the crisis in a recent hearing and wants to use American leverage to prompt a ceasefire, an aide told HuffPost. And Sanders has excoriated American support for the Saudi-led coalition, comparing it to Russian and Iranian support for brutal Syrian President Bashar Assad in his main foreign policy speech of the year. But aides to both senators declined to specify whether they want the U.S. to just stop selling the bombs prolonging the war in Yemen.

Speaking to HuffPost after the failed June resolution that he co-sponsored, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said it was a challenge to unite Democrats ― even with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on his side.

“I was definitely disappointed. But the issue of arms sales is not a foundational issue for the Democratic Party, so it’s not like it naturally unites us. I had to work for every single one of those votes,” Murphy said.

That was clear to activists who lobbied senators to oppose the sale, two told HuffPost on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. One said none of the five Democratic senators who eventually voted with Trump and Saudi Arabia even accepted requests for meetings with their group. This source said at least some of these senators likely wanted to show voters they are independent of Schumer and the Democratic Party line.

The second source who did have contact with some of the offices of the five Democrats said familiar concerns were raised about supporting the resolution: Wouldn’t the Saudis simply buy weapons elsewhere? What about the reaction of the defense industry? And wouldn’t the Senate look weak on Iran, which has supported the Saudi-UAE coalition’s rivals in Yemen?

Warner, one of the five, told HuffPost after the vote that “I have concerns about some of the Saudis’ actions in Yemen, but I felt in terms of the precision-guided armaments, that might improve their actions.”

He added that is “patience” with the crisis in Yemen “is wearing thin.”

McCaskill was more enthusiastic about her vote, saying through a spokeswoman that the deal would help an important partner threatened by Iran.

Aides to Manchin, Nelson and Donnelly did not respond to requests for comment.

For the Saudis, the closeness of the June vote and increasing congressional complaints about the Yemen situation meant it was time to remind lawmakers of certain basics.

“The kingdom is committed to prevent any gap in its defense requirements, therefore if one source of weapons is blocked it will seek other suppliers,” Prince Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., told HuffPost in a recent email.

He noted that the kingdom seeks weapons in responses to threats it shares with partners like the U.S., and that Saudi aircraft bought in the West contributed significantly to the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS.

For all that, efforts continue to have Congress grapple with the arms sale issue. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who successfully pushed for a recent House resolution acknowledging the U.S. role in Yemen’s suffering, said he is working on legislation to stop sales to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain ― another coalition partner ― until the nations ease restrictions on aid and trade to help Yemenis.  

“I think there is a great concern in Congress, even from those people who care about a relationship with Saudi Arabia strategically,” Khanna told HuffPost. He believes he can rally Republican support for his effort, noting that even Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the pro-Saudi chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently indicated Congress should help pressure the Saudis.

Lawmakers and officials could also try to better enforce current export controls on American-made weapons, experts say.

The U.S. has rules intended to prevent uses of its weapons that would violate international humanitarian law, but there’s no guarantee officials will make realistic and accurate judgments about the risk of misuse, according to Daniel Mahanty, a former State Department official now with the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

For all the worry about the influence of the weapons lobby in Congress, there’s a different kind of vested interest that might be even more important in U.S. approvals of arms sales, Mahanty said. In both of the two processes by which American arms are sold abroad ― the foreign military sales and commercial military sales frameworks ― U.S. personnel at embassies are deeply involved in vetting the foreigners receiving the weapons. 

“Overwhelmingly, the interest is to advance sales, not to restrict sales,” he said.

Officials with that kind of thinking cite two reasons for it: the importance of helping U.S. industry and the so-called “partnership dividend” that accrues from these kinds of deals with other countries.

Mahanty was involved in Obama administration conversations about cutting bomb sales to Saudi Arabia over Yemen as reports came in of strikes on civilian targets. A major challenge was investigating those claims and monitoring the use of weapons after they’re shipped, because it’s unlikely American officials can secure all the relevant information ― including access to sensitive decision-making processes by governments like Saudi Arabia.

He said it would be wiser to more deeply consider countries’ past behavior and records before approving export licenses. In January, he plans to release a report co-authored with researcher Annie Shiel explaining how that and a number of other steps ― like more congressional oversight ― could mean fewer U.S.-made bombs kill foreign civilians.

Mahanty and others also are challenging the main narrative about weapons deals. The U.S. has no real need to worry about dominating the global arms trade, given how far it outstrips its closest competitor, Russia, and other governments’ desire to be interoperable with the American military, he said.

“I don’t have a problem saying we’re going to forego a fraction of total arms sales if we’re not going to find a piece of a U.S. precision-guided munition in a Yemeni hospital,” Mahanty said. “I think the dividend from giving up that percentage point pays itself back it in spades in that the U.S. can say its exercising some self-restraint.”

Bill Hartung, a researcher at the Center for International Policy, said he plans to continue his work that disputes the claim of arms deals bringing jobs. “The bottom line is that the jobs issue is far less important than Trump, the Pentagon, or the arms manufacturers would have us believe,” he wrote in a recent email.

The activism continues, and its advocates say it is already delivering. Khanna noted that U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres recently took time to speak with him about efforts to draw attention to Yemen in Congress, and that Trump himself has begun criticizing the humanitarian effects of the Saudi-UAE campaign.

This and other signs “show that Congress can assert its role on foreign policy,” Khanna said. “Imagine if Congress were to awaken from its stupor and actually engage in foreign policy pronouncements and deliberation on every place around the world.”