Lawmakers Grill State Official on Emergency Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE

In a contentious hearing last week, lawmakers grilled a senior State Department official on the administration's justification for bypassing Congress to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, R. Clarke Cooper, defended the Administration's decision, arguing that the invocation of the Arms Export Controls Act's emergency provision reflected urgent and developing threats emanating from Iran that required immediate action to shore up the security of America's Gulf allies.

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed skepticism at the supposed "emergency" that allowed the President to circumvent the usual Congressional review processes, suggesting instead that the effort was meant to bypass clear Congressional opposition to continued support to the Saudi led war effort in Yemen. Saudi and Emirati airstrikes in the country have killed scores of civilians and contributed to what the UN has called the world's worst humanitarian crisis.  In April, lawmakers took the unprecedented decision to invoke the War Powers Act, passing a bipartisan resolution mandating an end to US military support to the coalition. Though the measure was vetoed, it signaled the Hill's discomfort with the Administration's unflinching support to Gulf allies despite their war conduct and other malign behavior, including the assassination of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, which implicated the Saudi Crown Prince.

Throughout the hearing, several lawmakers insisted that the emergency that required the expedited transfer of weapons was "phony", noting that just three days before the emergency declaration, classified briefings for Congress on the deployment of additional U.S. forces to the Persian Gulf made no mention of any developing threats. Others noted, that many of the sales would take months or years to make their way to Saudi and Emirati soldiers. In his opening comments, Chairman Engel said “There is no emergency. Do you know how I know? I know because a real emergency would require weapons that could be delivered immediately... A real emergency would not justify building new factories in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to manufacture weapons that have been built in the United States for years and years.”

In addition, Assistant Secretary Cooper's claim that the provision of precision-guided missiles would help mitigate civilian casualties in Yemen did little to convince lawmakers. Congresswoman Spanberger and Congressman Malinowski both noted that the Saudis have repeatedly used precision munitions to hit schools, hospitals, and other civilian objects. Congressman Malinowski, who was formerly the the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, further noted "The administration has presented us no evidence that the Gulf countries face any substantially new threat from Iran that would justify declaring an emergency, or that these weapons, which the Saudis need to keep bombing Yemen, would even be useful if such a threat arose... If we allow these arms sales, the effect will be to prolong a war that does not serve U.S. interests, while signaling to the Saudis that they can get away with anything,” he continued.

Even more implausible was the Secretary's suggestion that the bypassing of the Congressional review was somehow indicative of the Administration's commitment to the statutory process laid out in the AECA. In his opening remarks, Assistant Secretary Cooper said, “I do not view the Secretary’s certification as setting aside of this process. Indeed, by carving out a certain set of cases in the context of a statutory authority long granted by Congress, the secretary’s action is an affirmation of the value we place on our engagement with you on arms transfers and broader security assistance issues.”

Though criticism from Congressional Republicans was more muted, ranking member McCaul did express his disappointment with the decision, and affirmed that he and Chairman Engel were working on bi-partisan legislation to condition arms sales on new provisions, including that they would not contribute to civilian casualties.

In addition to their rhetorical protest, a bipartisan group of senators announced that they would introduce 22 separate resolutions of disapproval to oppose the arms sales, though Assistant Secretary Cooper testified that some weapons systems are already on their way to the Gulf. In any case, the decision seems to have brought some bipartisan consensus on the need to solidify Congress' role in the arms sales process.