(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration has few options to move forward on a $2 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia that Congress is leveraging to censure the U.S. ally for alleged human rights abuses and to rebuke the White House for its unconditional embrace of the kingdom.
Raytheon Co. has been blocked from selling precision-guided munitions kits to Saudi Arabia for more than a year now -- far longer than the normal hold for Congress to review an arms sale. Senator Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, says his April 2018 block on the order will continue until he sees evidence that this technology actually does reduce civilian casualties by turning gravity bombs into more precise “smart” bombs, as the administration claims.
The sale is far from being resolved since the State Department and Defense Department have yet to provide this evidence, according to a person familiar with the proposed sales. Saudi Arabia’s relationship with lawmakers from both parties reached new lows last year over the kingdom’s killing of U.S.-based Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October and the impact that Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen is having on civilians.
This tension is in stark contrast to the situation at the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, when the Saudi royal family hosted his first foreign visit, replete with extravagant displays of friendship between the two countries and promises of mutual investment -- including a package of defense deals Trump said could be worth $110 billion. Trump wanted to improve ties with Saudi Arabia after the relationship languished under his predecessor, Barack Obama, and arms sales were a major part of that.
Now, even as the U.S. counts on its traditional ally to not only counter Iran’s regional influence but also to soften the oil supply shock of stricter Iran sanctions, the White House has hit the limits of what it can achieve without cooperation from Congress.
The strongest bipartisan statement yet on U.S.-Saudi policy was a joint resolution to withdraw U.S. support for the war in Yemen, which prompted Trump’s second presidential veto. It will be up to Republican leaders in the Senate to schedule a vote to override that veto, and a spokesman for majority leader Mitch McConnell declined to comment on when that vote will take place.
Even if that veto stands, as appears likely, Republican support for the underlying resolution serves to warn the administration against trying to force the arms sale by submitting a formal notification to Congress without Menendez’s consent. Members of Congress would then have 30 calendar days to introduce a joint resolution of disapproval to stop the sale.
Raytheon didn’t respond to a request for comment about the status of the deal, nor did the Saudi embassy in Washington. The State Department declined to offer an on-the-record response to questions.
The Yemen resolution was adopted with the support of 54 senators, including seven Republicans. Others like South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and one of Trump’s closest allies, have spoken against any arms sales to Saudi Arabia until the kingdom addresses Congress’s concerns.
Under a 1976 law, the State Department must notify Congress of commercial arms sales that exceed certain thresholds for ammunition, defense construction or defense articles and services. If the top Republican or Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees have any concerns, they can place an informal hold on the sale by refusing to consent to the notification process.
Demand for Change
"I don’t think they’ll ever get arms sales through until there’s a change, until there’s more accountability," Graham said in an interview, backing up Menendez’s unusually long informal hold.
Dana Stroul, a former Senate staff member, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Menendez has bipartisan support for continuing to block the deal, which includes $1 billion worth of precision-guided munitions kits to the U.A.E.
"To override the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on something like this, I actually think a lot of Republicans would come and vote with Menendez, not because they oppose the sale but because of the affront it would be to Congress," Stroul said.
Menendez and Graham this year re-introduced their Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act, which includes a suspension of arms transfers to Saudi Arabia as well as sanctions against anyone hindering humanitarian aid to Yemen or supporting the Houthi rebels active in that country.
A 2018 United Nations investigation concluded the Saudi-led coalition may have committed war crimes in its disregard for civilian life. With roughly 17,700 civilian casualties in the four year conflict, Congress has hardened its attitude toward Saudi Arabia.
"Congress is clearly in a bipartisan way saying ‘no, we need to re-evaluate this relationship’,” with Saudi Arabia, Stroul said.
Yet the U.S. is also counting on Saudi Arabia to ensure adequate oil supplies after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday there will be no more temporary waivers for other nations seeking to buy Iran crude despite U.S. sanctions. Saudi Arabia, the biggest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, will ensure that the oil market “does not go out of balance,” Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih said Tuesday.
The price of crude increased 38 percent this year to a high of $66 per barrel Tuesday as political woes in Venezuela and Libya have crippled production and the U.S. moves to bring Iranian oil exports to zero. Trump has closely watching gasoline prices for U.S. consumers, and he tweeted Monday that “Saudi Arabia and others in OPEC will more than make up the Oil Flow difference in our now Full Sanctions on Iranian Oil.”
Menendez defended the hold on the arms sale as an effective way to encourage Saudi Arabia to act “more constructively,” along with the weight of international opinion and the Yemen resolution. He said the kingdom is “seeking to change course” in the coalition participating in the Yemen conflict.
Some experts, however, warn that suspending arms sales to Saudi Arabia could push the kingdom toward more pliant suppliers such as Russia or China. The Saudis see the Yemen conflict in "existential terms," Stroul said, and will turn to other countries in violation of existing U.S. agreements if it means they can continue operations in Yemen.
"Withholding arms sales to Saudi Arabia is not going to change their behavior," said Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. "Eventually they will go to China and Russia."
There are also concerns that suspending the sale of precision-guided munitions kits could actually cause more civilian casualties.
"The Saudis depend hugely on precision-guided missile imports from the U.S.," said Paul Sullivan, a Middle East expert at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies. "Without the U.S. PGMs, Saudi Arabia will have to take a different tactic. Sadly, that will likely mean using ‘dumb’ missiles that can have much larger impacts on unintended civilian and non-combatant targets. Simply put, more people die unintentionally from dumb bombs than from PGMs."
The implications for civilian casualties is one of the top concerns for Jim Risch, the Idaho Republican who with Menendez leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“The Saudis are working to make the much-needed improvements the U.S. has been trying to help them adopt,” Risch said by email. “I would hope that Senator Menendez will review all the facts surrounding the efforts by the U.S. to limit civilian casualties using more precise targeting mechanisms.”
Stroul and Goldenberg noted that the strategy may be designed to force the Trump administration to re-evaluate its foreign policy priorities as much as it is designed to pressure the Saudis. Congress has been especially wary of the White House’s relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who many lawmakers blame for Khashoggi’s assassination.
The hold forces the administration "to be out there defending a very unpopular Saudi Arabian," Goldenberg said, in reference to the crown prince. "Maybe you get to a point where they say it’s not worth it."
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