Defiant Congress Sparks Showdown With Trump Over Saudi Arms Deal
Though the opposition may be largely symbolic, lawmakers are clearly growing tired of unconditional support for the Gulf kingdom.
The White House and Congress are headed for a showdown over President Donald Trump’s massive multibillion-dollar arms package for Saudi Arabia. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate are calling for congressional hearings and scrutiny into the planned arms sale, which Trump finalized during his trip to Saudi Arabia this week.
On his first presidential trip abroad, Trump made his initial stop in Riyadh, where he was lavishly greeted with sword dances and a glowing orb as he penned a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi leadership. Some congressional leaders say the move sent the wrong message to the rest of the world.
Sens. Chris Murphy (D.-Conn.), Al Franken (D.-Minn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) introduced a joint resolution of disapproval for the deal. Under a provision of the Arms Export Control Act, they now have to wait 10 days before bringing their measure to the floor of the Senate.
They hope to block the sale of weapons and equipment to the Royal Saudi Air Force, though it represents only a portion of the total $110 billion arms package.
On the House side, Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) urged the House Foreign Affairs Committee to reconsider selling precision-guided munitions to Riyadh — a sale blocked by former President Barack Obama in December 2016 over civilian casualties in Saudi airstrikes on Yemen. The two lawmakers urged a hearing on the deal before the window for congressional oversight on the sale closed on June 20.
The debate showcases waning congressional support for a historic U.S. ally plagued by rampant human rights abuses, a controversial war in Yemen, and export of extremist ideologies to other parts of the world.
Saudi Arabia is pounding Yemen with airstrikes in a controversial campaign against the country’s Houthi rebels, backed by Riyadh’s arch geopolitical foe, Iran. International watchdogs and human rights groups have slammed Saudi Arabia for indiscriminately targeting civilians in the air campaign, which has bogged down into a two-year long quagmire, while millions of Yemenis face starvation. Saudi Arabia has carried out its campaign with U.S. weapons and support.
“The Saudis have not proven to be responsible in their use of American weapons,” said Jeff Abramson of the Arms Control Association, citing the numerous cases of Saudi airstrikes against civilians in Yemen. “The United States shouldn’t want its name attached to those actions,” he told Foreign Policy.
Other Congressional leaders slammed the deal on account of Riyadh’s human rights violations and export of extremist ideologies. In a particularly fiery statement on Friday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D.-Vt.), ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, accused Trump of kowtowing to “one of the world’s wealthiest and repressive regimes.” He accused the Saudi royal family of “support for extremism that breeds terrorism” and “gross mistreatment of its own citizens.”
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he expected the new motion would fail. “I think it probably goes the way of the other [resolutions]. I think most of the people on the committee and in the Senate support those sales,” he told reporters Thursday.
Sens. Murphy, Franken, Paul, and Mike Lee (R-Utah) tried to pass a similar motion last year when the arms package was first proposed under former President Barack Obama. The motion failed by a vote of 71-27.
Photo credit: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, May 26, 2017: Utah Sen. Mike Lee co-sponsored a bill to block an arms sale to Saudi Arabia in 2016. A previous version of this article mistakenly called him Patrick Lee.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer