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A Veto Is not Enough to Get Congress and Trump on the Same Page in Regards to Saudi Arabia

Today, the United States Senate voted on a series of bills seeking to block an impending sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries. The votes came after the Trump Administration attempted to make an end-run around Congress, declaring an ‘emergency’ in order to fast track the sale-irrespective of the typical 30-day period of Congressional review for foreign arms sales mandated by the Arms Export Control Act of 1976. Still, despite this legislative finagling, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee introduced twenty-two separate resolutions seeking to block the sales, a move that has threatened to jam the Senate’s legislative calendar. While it is likely that President Trump will veto the Senate’s measures, the bipartisan pushback from Capitol Hill indicates both the widespread frustrations that linger from the administration’s handling of the Khashoggi murder, as well as an apparent disbelief amongst Senators that the Administration’s depiction of Iran as an imminent threat is justified.

The sale includes a variety of weapons, munitions and training agreements. Notable within the deal are Paveway Precision Guided Munitions, as well as an agreement that will allow American-based Raytheon to begin building bomb parts domestically within Saudi Arabia.[1][2] Since May 2018 Senator Menendez has placed a ‘hold’ on the sale of all precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia due to fears that these weapons could target Yemeni civilians, a move that allowed for further Congressional review. However, in mid-May 2019, murmurs began circulating that the Trump Administration could invoke an emergency to circumvent these ‘holds.’ The mere idea of bypassing congressional review sparked a bipartisan backlash, with Menendez commenting, “That would be a dangerous precedent and would unlock a whole host of other actions as a result.” Republican Senators Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Rand Paul (R-KY) echoed his concerns of the Administration’s bypassing of Congress. [3]

A week later these murmurs became reality when Secretary Pompeo sent a letter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) notifying him that he had indeed determined Iranian actions as warranting an emergency.[4] In response Senator Risch, a typically stalwart Trump defender indicated the possibility of doubts saying that he was “reviewing and analyzing the legal justification for this action and the associated implications.” While Risch’s response was still rather coy, Senator Lindsay Graham was more blunt saying, “I am also very concerned about the precedent these arms sales would set by having the administration go around legitimate concerns of the Congress.”[5]

In response to these concerns, Senator Menendez introduced twenty-two resolutions individually seeking to block different aspects of these sales. The resolutions retained a ‘privileged status’ under the Arms Export Control Act, meaning Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could not keep them from the Senate floor once they proceeded from the committee. As such, Senator Menendez and Senator McConnell reached an agreement that would prevent the twenty-two resolutions from discombobulating the Senate voting schedule. As per their arrangement, two of the resolutions received their own debates and votes, while the remaining twenty were voted on as one package.[6] The measures disapproving of the Saudi sales passed thanks to aisle-crossing votes from Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Todd Young (R-IN) among others.[7]

Despite the expected veto, this vote carries a symbolic message, namely that both parties within the legislative branch are sending a message that lawmakers are not necessarily on the same page with the executive branch’s strategy to increase pressure on Iran by enhancing the capacity of its rivals in the Gulf. Such a conclusion has been emphasized by Congress’ reaction to three recent events.  First, the nominally anti-Saudi vote is occurring the same day as U.S. officials report that Iranians shot down an American drone. Second, the vote of disapproval is occurring in spite of recent tanker attacks which the administration has gone to great lengths to depict as evidence of Iran’s malignance. Finally, in what amounts to bad coincidental timing for Saudi Arabia, the vote took place one day after the United Nations released a report indicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s personal culpability in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The report corroborated what the CIA had told Senators, and disputed President Trump’s support to the official narrative of the Saudi government. The Senate’s proceeding to vote on this bill indicates that the Congress and the Trump Administration are viewing these respective incidences through completely separate lenses.

This action by the Trump administration is not the first time the President has tried to go around Congress to have his way within U.S. – Saudi Relations. Several weeks ago, the President sparked Congressional outcry when it was revealed that his administration secretly approved the transfer of certain nuclear technologies to Saudi Arabia, in spite of the Congress still having yet to implement a satisfactory ‘123 Agreement,’ between the two countries. Additionally, earlier in the year when Congress sought information as to how U.S. manufactured weapons sold to Saudi Arabia ended up in the hands of Yemen’s Houthis or Al-Qaeda, a letter sent by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) asking such questions failed to receive a response.

Amidst all the fuss on Capitol hill related to the sale of these weapons to Saudi Arabia, two measures from Senator Rand Paul seeking to block the sale of weapons to Bahrain and Qatar failed to gain any kind of atypical traction within the Senate. Despite Paul’s stalwart opposition to these sales and professions of human rights concerns, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) perhaps best summarized the Senate’s attitude toward these sales, saying, ‘Everyone understands that Bahrain and Qatar are going to get arms anyway.”[8] The resignation such an attitude evokes perhaps only makes the Senate’s bipartisan opposition to U.S.-Saudi sales all the more remarkable, signifying that sentiments regarding Saudi Arabia and Iran circulating in U.S. discourse indeed have the ability to disrupt a transaction process that is remarkably difficult to challenge. The Trump Administration may ultimately have its way, however moving forward the Senate’s historic opposition to the sale should be worrisome to Trump, reminding him that he is on a completely distinct page from Congress as it relates to the status of one of his closest allies (Saudi Arabia) and what he is trying to sell as one of the United States’ greatest existential threats (Iran).



[1] Letter from Secretary Pompeo to Senator Risch. https://int.nyt.com/data/documenthelper/1109-pompeo-memo-arms-sales/0300852ef550787be7dc/optimized/full.pdf#page=1

[2] Michael LaForgia and Walt Bogdanich, “Trump Allows High-Tech U.S. Bomb Parts to Be Built in Saudi Arabia,” The New York Times, June 7, 2019.

[3] Zachary Cohen, Alex Rogers and Manu Raju, “Senator Warns Trump May Use ‘Obscure Loophole’ to Sell Bombs to Saudi Arabia” CNN, May 22, 2019.

[4] Letter from Secretary Pompeo to Senator Risch.

[5] Marianne Levine, “Senators Will Try to Block Trump’s Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia,” Politico, June 6, 2019.

[6] Susannah George, “Senators Reach Deal to Vote On Blocking Saudi Arms Sale,” The Washington Post, June 19, 2019.

[7] Karoun Demirjian, “Senate to Vote to Block Trump’s Emergency Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia, UAE,” The Washington Post, June 20, 2019.

[8] Joe Gould, “US Senate Upholds Arms Sales to Bahrain, Qatar,” Defense News.

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