Senators Take Aim At Massive Trump Arms Deal

A bipartisan group of senators will attempt to block part of President Donald Trump’s massive weapons sale to the United Arab Emirates with a new bill to be released this week, two sources with knowledge of their plans told HuffPost.

The coalition includes Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which suggests the plan will receive broad support from Democrats in the upper chamber. His co-sponsors for the legislation, a resolution of disapproval targeting $10 billion in munitions that Trump wants to send to the Arab nation, are Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

The sale of the munitions is one element of a gigantic $23 billion package for the U.A.E. that the Trump administration introduced after the country recognized Israel earlier this year in what Trump and his aides portrayed as a major diplomatic win for him in the Middle East. The other portions of the deal are F-35 fighter jets and armed drones ― advanced systems that the U.A.E. does not presently have.

Critics of the U.A.E. say the arms sales risk inflaming tensions in the volatile region, where the Emirates is deeply involved in proxy wars in Libya and Yemen.

Many lawmakers from both parties have also been skeptical of Trump’s penchant for pushing major weapons deals with autocratic Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, while overlooking their human rights abuses and Congress’ authority over such sales.

Spokespeople for Menendez, Murphy and Paul did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The State Department informed Congress of its plan for the package of weapons sales on Nov. 10. That began a 30-day period in which Capitol Hill can try to stop any of the sales by passing a resolution disapproving of them through both the Senate and the House of Representatives. 

The Saudis and U.A.E. should know that there’s going to be a new policy in dealing with them so their days of having carte blanche are over.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.)

For lawmakers and activists who oppose the arms transfer, the big challenge will be securing enough GOP votes to get the bill from the Senate to the Democratic-controlled House. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who frequently aligns with Paul on libertarian foreign policy stances seeking to reduce the U.S.’s global entanglements, is almost certain to endorse the proposal, and universal Democratic backing is likely.

But the deal’s skeptics must also persuade at least two of a handful of Republicans who have previously voted against arms sales to the Saudis and Emiratis. Their top targets include Sens. Todd Young (Ind.), Jerry Moran (Kans.), James Lankford (Okla.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

If the bill preventing the munitions sale does leave Congress for Trump’s desk, he will almost certainly veto it, as he previously has with similar legislation to protect his cozy relationships with authoritarian allies like the Saudis and the Emiratis. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued an emergency declaration last year to permit a huge arms deal with the two nations, overruling Menendez and other powerful lawmakers.

But Capitol Hill will have sent an important signal about its views to the U.A.E. and to President-elect Joe Biden. Even if the sales continue as planned following a veto from Trump, Biden can pause the transfer of the munitions and other aspects of the package.

And the Emiratis will face public embarrassment they sought to avoid as their close partner Saudi Arabia drew condemnation in Washington. They have been distancing themselves from the disastrous Saudi-led intervention in Yemen ― highlighting their troop drawdown while downplaying their support for brutal militias there ― and courting U.S. officials, arguing they should treat Abu Dhabi differently from Riyadh.

“The Saudis and U.A.E. should know that there’s going to be a new policy in dealing with them so their days of having carte blanche are over,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who has led congressional efforts to end U.S. support for the Saudi and Emirati interventions in Yemen. Khanna said he will support the senators’ bill if it reaches the House and he praised Menendez for leading the charge, saying the senator’s stature among national security professionals will lend it credibility.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) expressed her support for the proposal on Twitter after HuffPost revealed that it was in the works.

The new push is also strategically designed to avoid the possible pitfall of angering lawmakers who support the U.A.E.’s normalized relationship with Israel. 

It targets the munitions aspect of the package ― which includes thousands of sophisticated missiles and bombs ― while side-stepping the question of the F-35 jets and the drones, which many in Congress are prepared to see the militarily advanced Emiratis obtain as a signal of good faith. Menendez and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, are separately seeking to legislate requirements for the State Department to regularly inspect the U.A.E.’s use of those systems.

Making the conversation about those weapons allows critics of the sale to focus on evidence that the Emiratis have transferred arms to allies in Yemen, violating U.S. law, and in Libya, breaking an international arms embargo.

Officials at the State and Defense departments have repeatedly told Congress, including in briefings provided earlier this year, that they are concerned that the U.A.E. is supporting dangerous forces in other countries, a congressional aide told HuffPost.

Campaigners against the arms deal ― and the U.A.E.’s sprawling Washington lobbying apparatus ― will now spend the next few weeks debating how seriously lawmakers should take those risks. 

“I don’t think this is an area that has to be partisan on the Hill,” Khanna said. “I’m hopeful that we can get Republicans, especially in a post-Trump world, to stand up for basic American values.”

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