Congress seeks to prevent weapon sales to genocidal regimes

On June 2, 2015, Saudi fighter jets dropped six bombs in Yemen – four on Uqba bin Nafie School and two on Al‐​Masnah Health Clinic. The led to the destruction of the school and health clinic and a civilian casualty. While a minimal amount of opposition fighters in the school died, there is no record of these fighters entering the health clinic. The tools used to commit these attacks were US‐​made, laser‐​guided Mk‐​82 warheads. These same bombs were used in an August 2018 airstrike on a school bus in Yemen that killed dozens of children. Moreover, ReliefWeb, documented 27 unlawful airstrikes, 37% of which involved these bombs.

These stories are just a few of the many examples that highlight Saudi Arabia’s need for U.S. support in their war in Yemen. The US plays a role in this conflict through weapons transfers, mid‐​air refueling, targeting advice and support, expedited weapons sales, and military interoperability drills. Despite repeated Congressional efforts since 2018, no legislation successfully prevented Washington’s weapons sales to Riyadh.

President Biden acknowledges this reality. Since his first foreign policy speech as president, ending the war in Yemen has been a key foreign policy goal. To that end, he agreed to stop US support for Saudi offensive operations in the war‐​torn country. Yet, ten months on, the US continues to fund Saudi Arabia’s participation in the war with no in sight. In early November, the Biden administration approved a $650 million sale of air‐​to‐​air missiles and training to Riyadh, which is part of over one billion dollars in US military support to the Saudis since Biden took office.

The air‐​to‐​air missiles in the recent sale are being framed as defending the Saudis against drone attacks from Houthis in Yemen. The Biden administration is noting that this sale will ensure that “Saudi Arabia has the means to defend itself from Iranian‐​backed Houthi air attacks.” Biden is giving Saudi Arabia weapons that provide means to protect their own territory and still fight a war. Making matters worse, the President also agreed to a $500 million deal that allows Saudi Arabia to maintain its fleet of attack helicopters.

Beyond the humanitarian catastrophe, arming Saudi Arabia is a risky proposition. The Cato Institute’s 2020 Arms Sales Risk Index identifies Saudi Arabia as the 24th riskiest country in the world. The country has some of the lowest degrees of political freedom and highest amounts of conflict participation in the world. Nonetheless, it receives the largest amount of US weapons (over $34 billion since 2001). These sales alone have made the U.S. a party to the war in Yemen, and caused Washington to work alongside Saudi Arabia and other risky nations in Syria.

To its credit, Congress is not sitting by letting these sales continue. There are currently four ways that Congress is trying to restrict arms sales to the Saudis. The first is through the House’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The FY22 NDAA includes amendments that stop logistical support to Saudi warplanes conducting air strikes in Yemen, ends intelligence sharing between the US and Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and ends sustainment and maintenance support for Saudi air forces.

The second attempt Congress is making to restrict sales to Saudi Arabia is through similar acts passed in both the House and Senate that will “flip the script” on arms sales. Currently, the Arms Export Control Act forces Congress to vote against any weapons sale that they wish to stop. This legislation in Congress reverses that. It will make it so Congress needs to vote for any sale it wishes to go through. This means that because Congress will need to debate every sale, the salience of weapons transfers will rise. This means things like the Saudi war in Yemen will be in the news every time there is a potential arms transfer.

Additionally, because blocking an arms sale currently requires the House and Senate to file a joint resolution of disapproval, there needs to be a two‐​thirds majority in both chambers to overcome any presidential veto. Moreover, the House, unlike the Senate, does not have a guarantee that they will get to vote on arms sales. As a result, the bar for passing legislation stopping weapons sales is high. “Flipping the script” means that, without a joint resolution of approval, no weapons sales could go through. In this world, the President would have nothing to veto because no legislation would exist.

The third way Congress is attempting to stop the arms sales to Riyadh is by fixing House rules. Currently, unlike in the Senate, the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) can choose not to debate a contested arms sale and no non‐​HFAC representative can bring it to the floor. Congresswomen Sara Jacobs (D‑CA) and Ilhan Omar (D‑MN) as well as Congressman Ted Lieu (D‑CA) have put forward the Arms Sales Oversight Act. This would provide members of the House with the power to force debate on the House floor, even if they are not a member of HFAC.

The fourth way Congress is attempting to stop these sales is through a joint resolution of disapproval. One has been introduced in the House by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D‑MN) and another will be in the Senate from Sen. Rand Paul (R‑KY). They focus on stopping the most recent $650 million sale of air‐​to‐​air missiles. If passed, a joint resolution would at least delay the weapons transfer process.

US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia are helping Riyadh commit human rights abuses. The Saudis are targeting everyone, including infants, using US aircrafts and bombs. Congress is attempting to stop these sales. In doing so, it seeks to slow the human rights atrocities in Yemen and reclaim its ability to legislate weapons sales.

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