Trump’s Saudi Arms Sale Is About Politics and Economics, Not Security
President Trump wants to use his emergency powers to sell billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia on national security grounds. Congress wants to stop the sale because of lingering anger over Saudi abuses and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the usurpation of its legal authority to review arms sales. Both sides are ingenuous. The willingness to sell the Saudis weapons has little to do with American national security, and everything to do with economics and politics.
Congress has looked the other way for decades as administrations of both parties have sold some of our most sophisticated weapons to the Saudis. President Obama sold the Saudis $112 billion in weapons over eight years, including a record $60 billion package in 2010, and reportedly was prepared to sell another $115 billion in 2016.
Both branches of government understand the Faustian bargain America made long ago with the kingdom. The Saudis sell us oil, and we help guarantee the survival of the monarchy. By moderating the price of oil, the Saudis help the American economy, which benefits the president. Selling arms gives the regime a sense of security, while allowing us to get money we spend on oil back, benefiting US defense contractors, and creating jobs in states where a president needs to collect electoral votes.
In 1981, a majority of the Senate initially disapproved of the sale of AWACS radar planes to the Saudis, partly because of the potential threat they posed to Israel. The Reagan administration preposterously argued the planes couldn’t endanger Israel, but would allow the Saudis to defend themselves from the Soviet Union. Adding to the absurdity, the Saudi defense minister threatened to turn to the Soviets if the US didn’t sell them the planes.
More important was the fact that more than 700 corporations in 42 states had contracts with Saudi Arabia. Each of these, in turn, had hundreds of subcontractors, all of whom shared the principals’ interest in keeping the Saudis happy. The presidents of Boeing, the main contractor for the AWACS, and United Technologies, which had $100 million at stake, sent out more than 6,500 telegrams to subsidiaries, vendors, and suppliers all over the country urging them to lobby for the sale. The president of the US Chamber of Commerce wrote to every senator the day before the AWACS vote, and 860,000 recipients of the Chamber’s newsletter were advised of the adverse consequences for US trade if the sale were not approved.
The AWACS sale went through after Reagan twisted enough Republican arms to reverse what seemed a certain defeat.
How did the Saudis show their gratitude? OPEC raised the price of oil, and the Saudis announced a production cutback. The kingdom also denounced Oman for participating in a US military exercise and offered money to the emirate if it canceled an agreement allowing America access to its military facilities. The Saudis subsequently opposed US policy towards Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, the PLO, Syria, and Libya.
Bill Clinton shared Reagan’s economic and political motivation when he convinced the Saudis to sign a $7 billion deal for commercial aircraft. Clinton subsequently took credit for creating an estimated 100,000 jobs. The states benefiting from the deal were worth 122 electoral votes in the forthcoming election.
Fast forward to today when, after the sale of more than $100 billion in US arms, the Saudis are unable to defeat an army of Iranian-backed Houthi tribesmen, who have much fewer financial resources. And their failure has been accompanied by the deaths of thousands of Yemeni civilians in attacks using American weapons. This carnage provoked Congress to vote to end US support for the Saudi war in Yemen.
Congress will fail, however, to prevent the proposed arms sale. Anger about Yemen, the lack of Saudi transparency regarding the Khashoggi murder, perpetual human rights abuses in the kingdom, and Trump’s effort to bypass Congressional review created a confluence of forces to block the sale. Nevertheless, only seven Republicans in the Senate voted to disapprove the sale, far short of the veto-proof majority needed. Hence, Trump can supplement the $510 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia that he authorized in 2017.
Supporting a country that undermines our values and interests has always been questionable. Up until now, however, Saudi behavior has never provoked such widespread opposition. Whether it can be sustained in the present case or beyond is unclear, but history is not reassuring given the economic and political interests of presidents of both parties.
Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library.