WASHINGTON: The Trump administration is working on a new deal to sell precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia just months after Congress tried to stop a similar sale, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee revealed.
Sen. Robert Menendez said In an op-ed for CNN.com late Wednesday that he received a State Department draft of the previously-undisclosed sale which includes “thousands more precision-guided bombs to the President’s ‘friend,’ Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.”
Menendez, who last year helped lead an unsuccessful congressional charge against the Trump administration’s plan to sell $8 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia under a “national emergency” declaration, added: “The administration has refused to answer our fundamental questions to justify this new sale and articulate how it would be consistent with US values and national security objectives.”
The potential sale would likely face broader resistance from Congress, which objected to last year’s arms sale and emergency declaration, but was unable to override the president’s veto.
The fight started in May 2019 after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo invoked an emergency authorization claiming Saudi Arabia faced an immediate danger from Iran, and needed the new precision-guided munitions and other weaponry. The move amounted to an end-run around Congress and led to a spate of 22 resolutions of disapproval in which Senate Democrats were joined by GOP colleagues Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, Todd Young, and Mike Lee in seeking to block the sale.
The administration’s decision to cut the Senate out of one of its core foreign policy-making roles is a move that will likely not be forgotten, though it is unclear what kind of bipartisan support any attempt to block the latest package would have this time around, in the midst of a tight election year.
The Saudi-led war in Yemen has been a major point of contention between Washington and Rjydiah for years, but has only delayed, and not stopped, the US from selling billions of dollars worth of munitions to the kingdom.
Beginning as an air campaign in 2015 to oust Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who had overthrown the local government, the war descended into a bloody stalemate which has claimed thousands of civilian lives. Saudi naval blockades and bombing aid centers and hospitals have also given rise to one of the world’s great humanitarian disasters, with millions at risk of starvation.
The Trump administration has grown increasingly concerned about Iranian aggression in the region, particularly after last September’s drone assault on the Abqaiq oil facility in Saudi Arabia, temporarily shutting the massive complex down.
The attack, which hit 17 different targets at a well-defended facility critical to the Saudi oil industry, shocked the globe and prompted the Trump administration to send hundreds of troops and more air defense equipment to the Kingdom, which has already purchased hundreds of billions of advanced US military kit over the years.
The majority of the weapons that were part of the $8 billion deal last year will take years to arrive in Saudi, undercutting the rationale for the emergency declaration by the State Department, Menendez said. “There was no emergency. It was a fabricated tale to reward an eager and unsavory customer of US arms.”
Adding to the bad blood between the White House and Congress when it comes to Saudi was the abrupt firing earlier this month of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick, who was looking into last year’s weapons deal.
Linick’s investigation began at the behest of House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, who issued a terse response to the sacking: “We don’t have the full picture yet, but it’s troubling that Secretary Pompeo wanted Mr. Linick pushed out before this work could be completed.”
The arms sales are part of a wider fight between the White House and a bipartisan group of lawmakers over US policy in the Middle East. Not only are many members of Congress intent on blocking more arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but many senators also want to place a check on the administration’s ability to engage in a military conflict with Iran.
Earlier this month, for the second time in two years, the Senate failed to overturn President Trump’s veto of a resolution seeking to block him from taking military action against Iran without approval from Congress. The effort was defeated by a 49-to-44 vote, well below the constitutionally required two-thirds majority needed to enact the measure over his veto. Seven Republicans joined Democrats in support.
It is unclear how large the latest weapons package is, and when the administration plans to officially deliver the news to Congress. But it’s clear that like last year, it’s likely to set off a new fight, this time potentially supercharged by a presidential election, and tight Congressional elections across the country.