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Der Spiegel's report over the weekend that Germany has struck a secret multibillion-dollar deal to sell Saudi Arabia 200 "Leopard" tanks has German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has yet to confirm the report, facing fierce criticism from political opponents and members of her own party in parliament, rebukes in German op-ed pages, and demonstrations in front of parliament (in the picture above, a protester dressed as Merkel holds up a sign opposing the plan).

As we keep an eye on the debate, it's worth noting that when the Obama administration decided to sell Saudi Arabia $60 billion worth of attack helicopters, fighter jets, radar equipment, and satellite-guided bombs last year--in what amounted to the largest arms deal to another country in U.S. history--the opposition to the deal in the U.S. was more muted than the reaction in Germany today. Then-Congressman Anthony Weiner questioned whether Saudi Arabia was a worthy ally in America's standoff with Iran but primarily objected on procedural grounds, expressing frustration that the administration announced the deal while Congress was in recess. The deal won congressional approval relatively easily in November 2010. What explains the different responses in Germany and the U.S.? The coverage of the two arms sales brings two theories to mind.

First, there's the matter of historical precedent. The U.S. has a history of selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, announcing in 2006, for example, a $2.9 billion deal to sell the Saudis Abrams tanks. The Germans, meanwhile, have declined to sell heavy weapons to Saudi Arabia for 20 years "because of concerns over human rights and fear for Israel's security," AFP notes. The BBC's Stephen Evans explains that the "sensitivities" in Germany about selling weapons to "crisis regions" stem "from World War II and from the role of companies like Krupp which armed belligerents in wars in the 19th and 20th centuries," but adds that Merkel's defenders now think Germany "should be allowed to do what other Western economic powers do, namely making and selling armaments in a world in which there is clearly a demand." As for Israel, The New York Times notes that Israel has, in recent years, grudgingly come to view Saudi Arabia less as a threat and more as a regional bulwark against Iran--a change of heart that reduced opposition to America's arms deal as well.

The second factor is timing. Germany's deal comes in the context of the Arab Spring--as, in the words of the Times, "the image of Saudi tanks rolling into Bahrain to help suppress the protests there remains fresh in the public mind." The paper notes that the proposed Leopard tanks include "'nonlethal capabilities,' which would make [them] appropriate for crowd control, and an 'obstacle clearance blade' almost like a plow in the front that can clear debris and roadblocks." When the Obama administration proposed its arms deal with Saudi Arabia in 2010, by contrast, it touted the plan as a job creator and as part of America's broader effort to fortify Arab allies against Iran, according to The Wall Street Journal. Even with the new reality of the Middle East uprisings, those selling points aren't lost on supporters of the German government's plan. As Germany's conservative Die Welt put it: 

Of course it's not the best time for a large tank deal with Saudi Arabia given the Arab rebellion. After all, Riyadh is one of the worst suppressive regimes in the region and has been helping to crush the uprising in Bahrain. But the outrage among opposition parties in Berlin is a little short-sighted. After all, Leopard 2 tanks are pretty unsuited to fighting rebels, unless one is trying to destroy whole cities like Moammar Gadhafi. Besides, Riyadh needs the tanks for quite a different reason: to counter Iran's attempts at domination in the Gulf region.

Update: Reuters is reporting that Saudi Arabia plans to raise its arms purchases from the U.S. to $90 billion from the $60 billion agreed upon last year in an effort to upgrade it navy (the previous deal focused on modernizing Saudi Arabia's air force).

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