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Tags: Khashoggi | menendez | yemen

Trump's 'Emergency' Saudi Arms Sales Will Come Back to Haunt

us secretary of state mike pompeo at the state department in washington dc
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, center, walks past Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, as he and other foreign ministers arrive before a photo at the State Department, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019, in Washington. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Eli Lake, Bloomberg Opinion By Friday, 24 May 2019 06:51 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

For more than a year now, Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., has delayed the sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to make a point about the war in Yemen.

On Friday, the Trump administration went ahead with those sales over his objections to make a point about the threat from Iran.

That is made possible by a rarely used provision in the Arms Export Control Act.

Section 36 of that law gives the president the authority to over rule congressional objections to arms sales in case of an emergency.

In an interview Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put it like this: "There is an urgency to the matter. You can see the destabilizing activity in the Middle East."

He said later that the arms sales were designed in part to deter Iran from further attacks by its own forces or proxies.

On Iran, Pompeo has a point. Four commercial ships were sabotaged in Emirati territorial waters earlier this month, which Pompeo has said was likely because of Iran. In Saudi Arabia, Houthi rebels (who are supplied by Iran) launched a drone attack on the east-west pipeline.

The number of threats reported against U.S. targets in the region has also increased, leading Pompeo last week to order the removal of non-essential U.S. personnel from diplomatic posts in Iraq.

And while the acting secretary of defense, Mike Shanahan, reportedly told members of Congress in a closed-door briefing that the threat from Iran had subsided because of recent U.S. actions, the Pentagon announced the deployment of 1,500 more U.S. troops to the Mideast in response to Iran's belligerence.

There is some precedent for invoking Section 36 of the arms export law. In 1984 for example, President Ronald Reagan used the provision to send Stinger missiles to Saudi Arabia to deter Iranian threats to its oil infrastructure.

But precedent helps only so much to justify the Trump administration’s action.

Some of the 22 pending arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are not emergencies at all, for example a contract for the Saudis to refit F-18 fighter jets, which will take years to complete.

Most arms sales are approved through an informal process. A lawmaker can raise objections to a particular sale, placing a hold on it as Menendez did, and the State Department will then try to address those concerns with the member of Congress.

Almost always the arms sale moves forward after these private consultations.

Invoking the emergency arms sale provision disrupts this informal tradition and challenges one of the few powers Congress still exercises in foreign affairs.

Add to this that arms sales to Saudi Arabia have become a major sticking point after a team of Saudis murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi this fall in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Even Trump allies like Senator Lindsey Graham have supported cutting them off.

In December, Graham vowed to oppose any arms sales to Riyadh so long as Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman remains the putative Saudi leader.

President Donald Trump's decision to bypass Congress will most likely harden congressional opposition to Saudi Arabia at a moment when the White House and the State Department are making the case for a “maximum pressure” campaign against the Saudis’ regional enemy, Iran.

This is why Republican senators who support the arms sales advised Pompeo and the White House, according to Senate sources, to use a lighter touch.

These senators urged Pompeo to formally announce the arms sales to Congress without consent from Sen. Menendez. Under the law, Sen. Menendez and his allies would have 30 days to pass a joint resolution to oppose the sale in the House and Senate. That resolution can be vetoed by the president.

While Sen. Menendez may have enough votes in the Senate to oppose the arms sale, he lacks a veto-proof majority.

Pompeo declined to discuss whether the administration considered that option. "I have spoken to Senator Menendez about this, as early as my confirmation process," he said in the interview. "He has demonstrated real concerns about some elements of these sales. We think in the precision-guided munitions, it makes more sense to provide them than for the Saudis to get them from Russia or China."

That's a fair point, and it shows the challenge for Sen. Menendez and other lawmakers who hope to pressure the Saudis to seek a diplomatic solution to the war in Yemen.

Nonetheless, bypassing Congress was a risky play.

Trump and Pompeo will need senators next month to confirm a slate of nominees for ambassador and other senior posts. How likely will they be to cooperate if they feel their foreign policy concerns have been ignored and their longstanding arms sales prerogatives have been so blithely discarded?

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.

© Copyright 2019 Bloomberg L.P. All Rights Reserved.


Bypassing Congress was a risky play. Trump and Pompeo will need senators next month to confirm a slate of nominees for ambassador and other posts. How likely will they be to cooperate if they feel their foreign policy concerns have been ignored?
Khashoggi, menendez, yemen
Friday, 24 May 2019 06:51 PM
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