Home/Daniel Larison/Arms Sales and Trump’s ‘Saudi First’ Foreign Policy

Arms Sales and Trump’s ‘Saudi First’ Foreign Policy

President Trump and his good friends the Saudis (White House photo)

Jonathan Caverley debunks Trump’s claims that the U.S. would lose a great deal by cutting off arms sales to the Saudis:

If American officials really want to encourage a change in Saudi policy, they should begin by looking at Saudi Arabia’s largest imports from the United States: weaponry. Cutting off the flow of American arms to Saudi Arabia would be an effective way to put pressure on Riyadh with little cost to the American economy or national security.

Trump keeps rejecting the idea that the U.S. should block arms sales to the Saudis, but as Caverley explains the president’s claims don’t hold up under scrutiny. Trump misrepresents the value the arms sales concluded during his presidency, he grossly exaggerates their importance for the U.S. economy, and by refusing to consider halting arms sales he is forfeiting significant leverage that the U.S. could use to rein in the crown prince’s destructive and abusive behavior. While Trump may claim that he willing to punish Saudi Arabia over their murder of Jamal Khashoggi, his determination not to touch arms sales to the kingdom proves that this is just empty rhetoric. The president isn’t going to impose significant penalties on the Saudis, and so Congress will have to do it instead.

William Hartung addressed Trump’s fascination with selling weapons to despots earlier this year here. As he explained then, arms sales create very few jobs, they are one of the most inefficient ways to spur economic activity, and job creation isn’t a good reason to be selling weapons abroad. Selling weapons that we know in advance are very likely to be used in the commission of war crimes and human rights abuses is a violation of U.S. law, and as long as the Saudis are waging war on Yemen we can be certain that this is how they will use U.S.-made weapons. We know that they are using U.S.-made weapons that they already have to slaughter civilians, and we have seen their blatant disregard for civilian lives on display for over three and a half years.

Caverley concludes by referring to the role of arms sales in Pompeo’s bogus Yemen certification:

Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified that Saudi Arabia was minimizing civilian casualties in the Yemen air campaign apparently to avoid jeopardizing $2 billion in weapons sales. That small number does not show how powerful the Saudis are so much as how cheaply the United States can be bought [bold mine-DL]. Given these sales’ low domestic economic impact and the enormous costs of going elsewhere for Saudi Arabia, the United States has the preponderance of influence in this arms trade relationship. It should act accordingly.

It is damning that Pompeo lied to Congress about Yemen to protect arms sales, and it is even worse that he did so to protect sales worth such a relatively small sum. Our government should not be covering for its reckless clients, and it shouldn’t be so desperate to make more deals with war criminals.

One of the common arguments against blocking arms sales is that the penalized government can just turn around and buy from some other weapons exporting state. This seems plausible at first glance, but the reality is that U.S. clients cannot switch so easily to other arms suppliers. Caverley explains:

Transforming the Saudi military to employ Russian, much less Chinese, weapons would cost a fortune even by Gulf standards, would require years of retraining and would greatly reduce its military power for a generation. Russia cannot produce next-generation fighter aircraft, tanks and infantry fighting vehicles for its own armed forces, much less for the export market. China has not produced, never mind exported, the sophisticated aircraft and missile defense systems Saudi Arabia wants.

Trump happily picks fights for no reason with U.S. trading partners that do far more harm to the economies of all concerned than cutting off arms sales to the Saudis would do, and his Iran sanctions threaten to drive up oil prices to $100/barrel, but he claims that cutting off arms sales would be a “tough pill to swallow” when the cost would be negligible. He is prepared to inflict considerable economic damage on the economy and American workers if it lets him beat up on Canada and Germany and strangle Iran’s economy, but he doesn’t want to hold a despotic state accountable for an egregious crime because the economic consequences are supposedly too great? Even by Trump’s bizarre standards, his preferential treatment of the Saudis makes no sense.

Trump’s continued indulgence of the Saudis is the latest example of a recurring problem in how the U.S. handles the excesses and crimes of its clients. Even though the clients need the U.S. far more than we need them, they and their lobbyists have managed to convince a lot of people in Washington that the U.S. can never use its leverage with its clients for fear of wasting it or because there is a minuscule chance of driving them into the orbit of another major power. This problem did not begin with Trump, but he has made it worse. We saw this with the Obama administration’s pathetic response to the military coup in Egypt five years ago, and we have seen it many times in the U.S. response to Saudi outrages and crimes over the last few years. The U.S. becomes so frightened of alienating bad clients that it doesn’t need that it allows them to run amok and enables them in their worst behavior. That has the effect of letting the clients dictate U.S. actions no matter how detrimental they to U.S. interests these might prove to be.

An administration conducting a foreign policy that genuinely prioritized American interests would not keep sucking up to and covering for Saudi crimes. Unfortunately for the U.S., Yemen, and even Saudi Arabia, the administration’s “Saudi first” foreign policy encourages the crown prince’s worst instincts and leads him to believe that he will be able to get away with just about anything. It is up to Congress, American businesses, and the American public to make sure that Mohammed bin Salman doesn’t get away with anything else.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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