There was cheering among the libertarian community when, in the last months of his administration, Barack Obama decided to halt some arms sales to Saudi Arabia, following "allegations" of war crimes perpetrated by the kingdom in Yemen. However, it appears that Saudi Arabia - despite its clear predisposition toward Hillary Clinton in the presidential race - has made even deeper inroads into the White House than many suspected because according to the Washington Times, the Trump Administration is poised to "quickly approve" not only the deal rejected by Obama.
According to the Wash Times, citing one U.S. official directly involved in the transfers, a roughly $300 million precision-guided missile technology package for Riyadh and a multibillion-dollar F-16 deal for Bahrain are now in the pipeline ready for clearance from the new administration. The deals, if approved, would send a clear signal about the "priorities of the new administration." For one it would suggest that Saudi Arabia is once again a clear beneficiary of US weapons exports, which would suggest that the proxy war in Yemen, fought largely with US-made weapons, will continue. The source spin is that the US delivery is meant to help defend the Saudis from potential ISIS terrorist threats, as well as concerns about Iran.
“These are significant sales for key allies in the Gulf who are facing the threat from Iran and who can contribute to the fight against the Islamic State,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Whereas the Obama administration held back on these, they’re now in the new administration’s court for a decision — and I would anticipate the decision will be to move forward.”
If confirmed, it would suggest that contrary to expectations of a military de-escalation in the middle east, the Trump administration will contribute further US military involvement, both direct and indirect, in the region. Already Trump has vowed to create "safe zones" in Syria, a decision which critics have blasted as assuring even more US troops are sent into harm's way.
While the WT said that the Pentagon also declined to comment, congressional sources have told it they anticipate the Trump administration will easily overcome resistance on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and some Republicans have called for restrictions on sales to Riyadh amid an outcry from human rights groups over large-scale civilian casualties of the Saudi-led military campaign in neighboring Yemen. Various rights groups have charged that the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition waging war against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen “appear[s] to have deliberately targeted civilians and civilian objects such as hospitals, schools, markets and mosques, which may amount to war crimes.” More than 60 members of the House signed a bipartisan letter calling on former President Obama to delay a $1.15 billion sale of battle tanks to Saudi Arabia last Summer. In September Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky co-sponsored a bill with Democratic Sens. Christopher Murphy of Connecticut and Al Franken of Minnesota to try to block the sale.
While the bill was tabled by a 71-27 procedural vote, the senators made headlines arguing that Riyadh’s indiscriminate bombing in Yemen was feeding extremist narratives and strengthening al Qaeda and Islamic State in the war-torn nation.
Which is not to say that Obama was a pacifist: the Obama administration ultimately approved the Saudi tank deal — a move many saw as part of a pattern to ease security fears of the Saudis and other Arab Gulf states in the wake of the nuclear deal Obama strongly backed with Iran. William Hartung of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for International Policy noted in an analysis published in December that the Obama administration offered more than $115 billion worth of weapons to Riyadh in 42 separate deals between 2009 and 2016 — more than any U.S. administration in history.
“The majority of this equipment is still in the pipeline, and could tie the United States to the Saudi military for years to come,” wrote Mr. Hartung, who said in an interview this week that the Trump administration should proceed with caution on both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
During his final days in office, Obama suddenly shifted on weapons sales to the Saudis, specifically with regard to the now-pending package of precision-guided weapons technology.
An Obama administration official told Reuters in December that “systemic” and “endemic” problems in Saudi Arabia’s targeting in Yemen had led to the decision to spike the sale of the so-called smart bomb technology from Raytheon.
The U.S. official who spoke with The Times this week questioned that logic and suggested the Trump White House is now poised to embrace the deal, which would include enough of the Waltham, Massachusetts-based company’s “Paveway” guidance systems to “convert thousands of dumb bombs into smart bombs.”
The U.S. has sold precision-guided bombs and technology to the Saudis as far back as 2008, but the kingdom has reportedly been badly in need of a resupply since its campaign in Yemen kicked off two years ago.
How does the Trump admin justify actions which could lead to many more innocent civilian casualties? As follows: “While we’re very concerned about Saudi actions in Yemen in terms of the civilian casualties, we believe a more accurate partner is a more effective partner and results in fewer casualties,” the official said. “If they’re going to drop stuff, it should be precision-guided rather than dumb.”
Unless, of course, the civilians casualties are being specifically targeted.
Separately, the Obama administration in October blocked the proposed $3 billion sale of 19 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain until the tiny Sunni Arab monarchy demonstrated measurable progress on human rights. The government in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, has aggressively cracked down on its restive Shiite Muslim majority since the pro-democracy Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. It’s not clear whether the Bahrain and Saudi deals will face the same level of opposition on Capitol Hill as was seen last fall. Once the Trump administration signs off on the deals, Congress will have 30 days to block them.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker suggested the Bahrain deal may be imminent, but declined to comment on the Saudi deal. “I’m hoping the Bahrain deal is going to roll out without the restrictions,” the Tennessee Republican told Defense News last week. “I think it could happen soon.”
A senior aide to Mr. Corker told The Times that the senator stands by the assertion. The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
The bottom line, however, is that in Trump the Saudis have managed to land a very near and dear friend, one who will provide them with any weapons they need, for a price. Sources close to the government in Riyadh told the WashTimes that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir is “very, very up” on the Trump administration and believes it will pursue a significantly different policy from the Obama administration, particularly toward Iran.
Other U.S. officials, speaking on background this week, noted that the Trump administration already moved during its first days in office to approve roughly $1 billion in sales for America’s Gulf Arab allies, including some $400 million in air-to-air missiles and helicopter parts for Kuwait and a $500 million-plus package that included Aerostat observation balloons for Saudi Arabia. The Saudis in particular are likely to see billions of dollars in more defense sales in the coming years.
We conclude with a statement by the abovemention Hartung, who said that “in the case of Bahrain, whatever purported benefits they would get from more F-16s are counterweighted by the fact that they suppress democracy,” he said. The Obama administration’s sudden resistance in December had also sent “a concrete message” to the Saudis that “we’re not going to tolerate their indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen,” he added.
“To lift that now, without some indication from the Saudis that they’re going to stop doing it, makes no sense,” Mr. Hartung said.
We can only hope that Trump will stop this deal absent said indication, alas we will likely be disappointed.