CNN broke an important story today outlining how Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have intentionally transferred American‐made weapons to violent non‐state actors. Intended as a government to government sale, everything from American rifles to Oshkosh armored vehicles to TOW anti‐tank missiles have made their way into the hands of “Al Qaeda‐linked fighters, hard‐line Salafi militias, and other factions waging war in Yemen.”
Although the extent of the problem in Yemen is disturbing, the illegal dispersion of American weapons is nothing new. And the fact that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are unreliable customers should not come as any surprise.
American experience in the Middle East has long demonstrated that sending weapons into conflict zones is a recipe for trouble. After the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, the United States provided Iraq with a vast amount of weapons and equipment in order to rebuild the Iraqi army. Later, however, the Islamic State (ISIS) wound up with almost an entire division’s worth of American equipment after defeating the Iraqi army in 2014, helping fuel its emergence. This equipment found its way into Syria, where ISIS also stole American‐supplied rockets just weeks after they were sent to arm Syrian rebels fighting ISIS and Assad.
Nor is the problem of dispersion limited to the battlefield. American weapons often wind up crossing national borders to be sold to the highest bidders on the black market. The CNN report notes that Yemeni black markets are showcasing American weapons, but so are markets in Somalia, South Sudan, Mali, Cote d‑Ivoire, and Latin America.
Losing weapons to adversaries and criminals makes life difficult enough. What makes the Yemen case particularly troublesome is the fact that Saudi Arabia and the UAE felt free to give up control over American weapons on purpose. The Saudi coalition hoped to gain traction and support from the militias in the complex political landscape of the protracted conflict. The fact that such transfers were technically illegal meant little.
Though arms sales advocates argue that selling weapons to allies will allow the United States to influence their behavior, Yemen illustrates the exact opposite. When arms sales customers have more immediate concerns in their own backyard, their willingness to take direction from Washington, D.C. dwindles.
Policy makers should take this report as an opportunity to rethink U.S. arms sales policy. As we have shown in previous research, these challenges are not impossible to predict. Some countries to which the United States transfers weapons, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Iraq, represent greater risks for unintended negative consequences than others. A more prudent arms sales policy would acknowledge that promises and end‐use monitoring are insufficient to prevent the misuse of American weapons abroad. In some cases, not selling weapons may be the only way to prevent downstream problems.
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- “Projected Costs of Nuclear Forces, 2019 to 2028,” Congressional Budget Office. The CBO creates new budget estimates every two years on the cost of America’s nuclear arsenal in the upcoming 10‐year time frame. This iteration is $94 billion more than the 2017 iteration — now spending will average just under $50 billion annually. This is the beginning of a much larger modernization bow wave that’s coming.
- “Congress poised to put Saudi Arabia on the hook for millions in military training,” Bryant Harris. Saudi Arabia currently utilizes various American military assistance programs to get access to U.S. training programs for their military at discounted rates. Congress may cut them off from these coupons. (h/t @RachelStohl)
On Wednesday June 13 the Saudi-led military coalition launched an assault to seize Hodeidah, the site of Yemen’s main port. The port, currently held by Houthi fighters, is the primary channel through which humanitarian aid reaches millions of at-risk Yemenis, who have suffered from four long years of civil war.
The war has already taken a huge toll on Yemen. If the vital humanitarian aid delivered through Hodeidah is disrupted by a coalition assault, many more civilians could die.
The coalition had sought direct military assistance from the United States, which has provided weapons, intelligence, and logistical support throughout the war. The Trump administration declined, however, and encouraged the coalition to give the United Nations time for diplomacy. This remains the right approach. As tragic as the situation in Yemen is today, continued American support for military intervention is the wrong answer. Not only does the United States lack a compelling national security interest in Yemen, but by supporting the Saudi-led coalition the United States has contributed materially to the one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the 21st century. Further military support won’t improve American security, but it risks making things worse for Yemen.
On Tuesday, a vote in the Senate sought to curtail America’s participation in the destruction of Yemen. This vote was the culmination of months of dedicated work by those involved in this issue, and the resolution failed by only a few votes. It forced a debate on the topic and added to international momentum to resolve the conflict peacefully.
On Thursday, the Trump administration notified Congress of three new arms sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — the country that has repeatedly tossed aside the laws of armed conflict to indiscriminately target cities and civilian populations. Nevertheless it seems that America will remain the kingdom’s largest weapons supplier.
This round includes 6,600 TOW missiles, $300 million worth of repairs to their Abrams tanks and other surface vehicles, and $106 million for helicopter maintenance. These deals are worth $630 million total.
Restricting arms sales like these would lessen America’s involvement in the war and force Saudi Arabia to either find other suppliers or rethink the current course of action.
For more on this issue, check out our latest in DefenseOne on the events this week. Interested in American weapons exports and the intersection of foreign policy more generally? Read our latest Policy Analysis, “Risky Business: The Role of Arms Sales in U.S. Foreign Policy.”
Saudi Arabia’s prodigal son returns to Washington this week, beginning a tour through the United States apparently aimed at drumming up investment in the country. Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is young with big ideas: he wants to reform Saudi society and wean the Saudi economy off oil. He also wants to build up Saudi as a foreign policy player – with or without the United States – and cement Saudi dominance in the Gulf.
It’s small wonder then that profiles and articles about the prince typically either laud him as a great reformer or simply criticize his foreign policy blunders. The truth is an accurate portrayal of Mohammed bin Salman must include both. And policymakers and businesses should be wary of the potential pitfalls of his proposed reforms, even as they hope for their success.
The Crown Prince’s social reforms are a welcome step in the right direction, though they will be difficult to complete. Thus far, there has been a crackdown on the religious police, robbing them of much of their power over morality issues. Cinemas have been permitted to screen movies for the first time in decades. Women can now attend sporting events, and legal changes are in progress that will allow them to drive.
Likewise, the innovative economic reforms that MBS has proposed – notably using an IPO of Aramco stock to shift the government’s primary income source away from oil and towards investment gains, paired with an attempt to reform the domestic economy and attract inward investment – could potentially reshape and improve the state of the Saudi economy.
There is no doubt that U.S. policymakers should welcome these changes and encourage Saudi Arabia to continue down this path.
Unfortunately, on the flip side, the assertiveness shown by MBS at home has been matched by an extremely bellicose foreign policy. The young prince’s foreign policy overreach has already helped to create the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The Saudi blockade of Qatar has been spectacularly ineffectual and has hardened into stalemate.
The United States is helping one of the most vicious authoritarian regimes in the world bomb and blockade one of the poorest and most defenseless countries in the world. Painful as it may be for Americans to hear, war crimes are being committed with America’s support.
Saudi Arabia launched its war on Yemen in 2015 on flimsy national security grounds and almost immediately garnered criticism from the United Nations and human rights groups for indiscriminate bombings, and in some cases deliberate targeting, of civilian areas. Saudi bombs have landed on residential homes, marketplaces, refugee camps, schools, hospitals, and at least one funeral. In spite of these allegations and clear evidence of extreme human suffering, the United States has supported the Saudi campaign from the beginning by providing refueling assistance, logistical support, intelligence cooperation, and diplomatic cover (not to mention massive arms sales).
To date, conservative estimates put the number of Yemenis killed by Saudi bombs at more than 13,500 (including more than 5,000 confirmed civilians). What has made the situation an order of magnitude worse is Saudi Arabia’s de facto blockade of Yemen’s air, sea, and land ports, preventing the delivery of much needed humanitarian aid. The main sewage plant in Yemen’s capital Sana'a ran out of fuel, couldn’t import more, and hasn’t run for months at a time, helping intensify the spread of disease. More than 900,000 Yemenis are suffering from cholera, a disease that could be treated if the Saudis would permit entry of aid and medical supplies. But, according to the BBC, the Saudis have turned away up to 29 vessels with 300,000 tons of food and 192,000 tons of fuel, plus a UN ship transporting 1,300 tons of health, water, sanitation, hygiene, and nutrition supplies.
About 17 million Yemenis are in urgent need of food; 7 million of those are facing starvation. Roughly 400,000 children under the age of five are suffering from acute malnutrition and, if Yemen doesn’t get relief soon, up to 150,000 of those children will likely die within a few months.
Journalists from CBS News, looking to shine a light on what the United Nations has called a “man-made catastrophe,” were recently denied entry into Yemen by Saudi authorities. Riyadh doesn’t want the world to know what it’s doing. CBS instead found Yemenis willing to film the horror, which aired on 60 Minutes this past weekend. The stomach-churning footage is not easy to watch. David Beasley, who runs the UN’s World Food Program, told 60 Minutes that, “the Saudi-led coalition” – a phrase he apparently used advisedly to include the United States – “are using food as a weapon of war. And it's disgraceful.”
Let’s be clear: there is no credible strategic justification for US complicity in this abominable cruelty. The Saudis claim the war is necessary to crush the Houthi militants in Yemen, a group that has received backing from Iran. Incidentally, Iranian support for the Houthis was negligible until well into the Saudi air campaign, with Iran boosting support largely in response to Riyadh’s offensive. In any case, the war itself has done more to bolster the position of Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen than to effectively push back against Iranian influence.
During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump delighted in waving to packed crowds while the Rolling Stones’ “You can’t always get what you want” played. At the time, the song seemed like a repudiation of the Republican elites who had failed to support his campaign. Today, as his Middle East policy careens off the rails, it’s a concept the President himself should learn to grasp.
Mere hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that tensions between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other regional states were negatively impacting the fight against ISIS and calling for all sides to defuse tensions, the President contradicted him, publicly castigating Qatar for terrorist financing, and backing the Saudis in their campaign against Doha. In this, as in other things, Trump appears not to understand the trade-offs inherent in his own Middle East policies.
Certainly, the rift between Qatar and other Gulf states predates Donald Trump. Tensions have been high for years, particularly during the Arab Spring, when the Gulf states often backed different sides in the political struggles and wars that convulsed the region. As I described in a Cato Policy Analysis in 2014:
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“As early as June 2012, media sources reported that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey were arming anti-regime rebels [in Syria] with both light and heavy weapons… The vast quantities of money and arms they have provided during the past three years have driven competition among Syria’s rebel groups. This competition has increased the conflict’s duration and has reduced the likelihood that the rebels will eventually triumph.”