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Senate Skeptics are Right: End Missile Sales to Saudi Arabia

American neutrality in the Middle East would serve U.S. interests and make the region more stable.

Ships of the Saudi Arabia Navy. (SSGT. J.R. RUARK via Wikimedia Commons)

In response to the proposed sale of U.S. missiles to Saudi Arabia, Senators Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders are leading a bipartisan effort to oppose the sale. This is still a fight of David and Goliath, as Congress has never successfully stopped an arms sale. It’s time for that to change.

While President Biden has pledged to end support for “offensive operations,” U.S. support for Saudi Arabia has continued under the guise of defense. There have been advances, namely a halt on new SDB smart-bomb sales. But the U.S. has relabeled, not halted, the support, which could end Saudi involvement in the Yemeni war altogether. The U.S. continues logistical support for Saudi warplanes and helicopters, the chief means through which the Saudis conduct their offensives.

Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity isn’t threatened. The country is actively engaged in an offensive war of its own choosing, and the U.S. tipping the scales in Saudi Arabia’s favor just perpetuates that war. U.S. neutrality, by contrast, would bring Yemen closer to a negotiated peace. As Saudi Arabia has been forced to deal with diminished U.S. support since April, it has begun brandishing diplomacy instead of bombs.

U.S. support for the Saudis is a game-changing condition for both sides. As long as the U.S. tips the scales, its interests will be targeted, as they were when Houthi rebels seized the U.S. embassy earlier this month. The threat to American interests extends to oil markets. U.S. involvement legitimates oil infrastructure as strategic targets. By sticking to the sidelines, the U.S. would make targeting those sites militarily useless and safeguard America’s economic interests in the process.

There is also hypocrisy in the U.S. decrying the rise of a global “democratic recession” while supporting an authoritarian regime in a war that may wipe out a generation of children. U.S. interests coincide with moral imperatives. There are no hard tradeoffs here; the moral path is also the strategically sound path. The U.S. can save millions of lives while extricating itself from a conflict that doesn’t endanger Americans.

While attention on Saudi Arabia is warranted, many have failed to notice that the U.S. quietly allowed the UAE to continue receiving $23 billion in U.S. arms. A U.S. official also confirmed last week that the UAE is slated to receive advanced F-35 fighter jets despite the UAE’s continued involvement and possible war crimes in Yemen. Amid reports that the UAE allowed the construction of Chinese military facilities, the U.S. needs to stop its blank-check support for a government that doesn’t reciprocate. Just as with Saudi Arabia, neutrality would better insulate the U.S. from conflicts that don’t threaten Americans.

American neutrality in the Middle East would make the region more stable. Consider that the Saudi-Iran rivalry has resulted in proxy wars, the seizure of oil tankers, and exacerbated sectarianism throughout the Arab world. Blanket U.S. support to Gulf states enabled this instability by artificially injecting U.S. military and diplomatic power to bolster the Saudis. Even with modest U.S. disengagement, regional rivals have already begun talks to deescalate tensions. Full neutrality would further encourage this and would do more to secure American economic interests than arming countries to the teeth.

An apocryphal quote attributed to Winston Churchill states that Americans will always do the right thing once all other options are exhausted. We have exhausted all other options with Saudi Arabia. It is time to end U.S. support and arms sales to the Saudis, regardless of how they’re marketed. The Senate has the power to do so. It takes political courage to do the unprecedented, but it is necessary. U.S. interests don’t just warrant it; they demand it. Millions of starving Yemenis are suffering under a Saudi-imposed holodomor. The Senate measure is a modest one: to stop sanctioning this butchery under an American flag.

Geoff LaMear is a Fellow at Defense Priorities.

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