The Dangers of Arming Autocrats

Weapons sales to Saudi Arabia may be aimed at restoring balance to the Gulf. But they come at a steep price.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud welcomes U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump on May 20, 2017.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud welcomes U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump on May 20, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

This post was updated on Wednesday, June 14.

On June 8, while official Washington sat captivated by the testimony of former FBI Director James Comey, a small group of bipartisan senators planned to force a vote on a subject near to official Washington’s heart: arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

At issue in the vote—which was held Tuesday afternoon—were precision U.S.-made air weapons systems, part of a basket of prospective deals worth $110 billion that the Trump administration had offered during the president’s visit to Riyadh in May, during his first official trip abroad. They included Paveway bomb guidance packages, $350 million of which the Obama administration had blocked in December over concerns about repeated and deadly Saudi-led coalition strikes on Yemeni civilians. The vote was close, but the measure was defeated, meaning the arms sales will go forward.

In the Saudis’ view, the refusal to sell the Paveways was only the last of Obama’s many slights.

“Any new president has to be better than President Obama, because no one was worse for us than Obama,” the former editor-in-chief of Asharq al-Awsat, a newspaper owned throughout its history by members of the Saudi royal family, told The New York Times ahead of Trump’s visit.

Never mind that the Obama administration had been quite good to the Saudis, reportedly boosting the intelligence support they got from the National Security Agency and offering them $115 billion worth of weapons in 42 separate deals over eight years, more than any previous administration.

For the Saudis, nothing made up for the Obama-led deal to lift sanctions on Iran, their preeminent foe, in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program.

Legitimizing Iran was anathema not only to Saudi Arabia but to much of the Washington foreign-policy establishment, the “blob” so disparaged by Obama’s deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes. Trump’s performance in Riyadh—complete with ardah—was a belly flop into the blob, which has long supported the seemingly hereditary U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, handed down like an inheritance to generation after generation of Saudi kings and American presidents.

A central tenet of this durable pro-Saudi dogma, indeed of nearly all U.S. alliances in the Middle East, is the sale of U.S. arms. In 2015, the top three purchasers among all developing nations worldwide were Qatar ($17.5 billion), Egypt ($11.9 billion), and Saudi Arabia ($8.6 billion). From 2008 to 2015, Saudi Arabia bought more U.S. weapons than any other developing nation, agreeing to $93.5 billion worth of purchases.

(Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution has argued that Trump’s Riyadh bonanza was “fake news,” a misleading mix of Obama-era efforts, but while Trump may have been taking credit for past deals, the weapons have, nevertheless, been offered.)

These sales, often buoyed by U.S. subsidies known as foreign military financing, have continued despite many of the recipients’ dark records of serious human-rights abuses—such as the torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings carried out by the Egyptian military in its campaign against the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula, or the many possible war crimes committed by the Saudi-led coalition in its ongoing bombing of Houthi-Saleh forces in Yemen.

Supporters of these sales argue that while these governments may be ugly, if they don’t buy from us, they will buy from the Russians or the Chinese (or the French), and selling them our weapons gives us greater say in how those weapons are used, and greater insight into how their militaries operate. If war breaks out, we’ll be able to work closely with our clients because they’ll be using our technology.

Andrew Exum, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy in the Obama administration, recently argued in this magazine that progressive politicians should take more credit, not less, for these sales, given the hundreds of thousands of workers employed in the U.S. defense industry and the “millions of American mouths” fed by their salaries.

“This might be another area in which progressive elites … are simply out of touch with the voters they need to win back control of the Congress and state assemblies, never mind the presidency,” Exum wrote.

But arms sales don’t bring home the jobs that supposedly make these deals worth the angst. The Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs has found that “clean energy and health care spending create 50 percent more jobs than the equivalent amount of spending on the military,” while education spending creates more than twice as many jobs. Boeing’s deal to sell 30 passenger jets to Iran will reportedly support 18,000 U.S. jobs, the same number Lockheed Martin touted for the air and missile defense systems, combat ships, and tactical aircraft it may sell to Saudi Arabia. But passenger jets won’t be bombing civilians in Yemen. Nor were Boeing, Raytheon, or Lockheed Martin even willing to hazard a guess as to the number of jobs Trump’s Riyadh proposals might actually create, when asked by The Washington Post.

In Egypt’s case, the provision of U.S. arms has also not provided the more cynical benefits put forward by the proponents of such sales. U.S. officials don’t always know how the Egyptian military uses U.S. weapons in the Sinai. In a leaked video that appeared in April, Egyptian army and militia forces appeared to have used U.S. Humvees to transport several Sinai men to their summary executions.

More importantly, treating values as negotiable based on whether they are effective is a slippery slope. (The argument against torture as both reprehensible and ineffective, for instance, raises the question of how we would view torture if it worked.) Weapons sales to abusive governments tweak our conscience, supporters argue, but they offer benefits. Thou shall not kill, except for votes in swing states.

In theory, U.S. law came down in favor of values more than half a century ago, when Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act in the first year of the Kennedy administration, banning security assistance to any government that “engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” U.S. security assistance, Congress wrote at the time, should be provided in a way that promotes human rights and avoids identifying the United States with abusive governments.

Fifteen years later, the Arms Control Export Act set up elaborate procedures to regulate U.S. government and commercial arms sales and stated that the purpose of such sales should be limited to essentially three areas: supporting friendly nations’ internal security, legitimate self-defense, or participation in United Nations-sanctioned actions.

The last major piece of legislation, passed 20 years ago by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy as an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, forbids the United States from training or equipping any unit of a foreign security force if there is “credible evidence” that the unit has committed “gross violations of human rights.”

But this regime of rights-based restrictions has failed miserably to prevent U.S. weapons from flowing to abusive governments, especially in the lax environment of the seemingly never-ending conflict against al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and whatever progeny will take their place.

Michael Newton, a retired Army officer and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Law, recently wrote a persuasive argument for the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights that arms sales to Saudi Arabia, based on that country’s various abuses both domestic and international, violate the conditions of the Foreign Assistance Act and Arms Control Export Act.

“Saudi Arabia presents an apparent prima facie case for the immediate cessation of sales under the FAA,” Newton wrote.

Even the Leahy Law, which theoretically enables the State Department to ban aid to abusive units based on even circumstantial evidence of violations, is riddled with holes.

A 2016 report on military aid to Egypt by the Government Accountability Office found that the State Department was failing to record human-rights abuses committed by Egyptian security forces in its internal database, did not have the organizational charts necessary to identify problematic Egyptian units and, predictably, could not track some types of aid, like ammunition, to their final unit. In practice, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, which has lead responsibility for vetting under the Leahy Law, barely has the manpower to sift through the billions of dollars of arms purchases supported by U.S. subsidies in the form of foreign military financing, leaving foreign military sales—the exponentially larger purchases countries make with their own cash—almost unsupervised.

While the Comey hearing may have rekindled Democrats’ dreams of a premature end to the Trump administration, the president’s arms dealing in Saudi Arabia highlighted a deeper strain of U.S. policy that seems destined to outlast him.