There’s Less than Meets the Eye in Trump’s Saudi Arms Deal

U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a meeting with leaders at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Evan Vucci/AP

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U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a meeting with leaders at the Gulf Cooperation Council Summit, at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center, Sunday, May 21, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

It takes a lot of existing offers and future promises to add up to $110 billion.

Donald J. Trump may be unpredictable, but there is one common theme that runs throughout his presidency: a penchant for exaggerating his achievements. From his insistence that the crowd at his inauguration numbered over one million people to his claim to have rebuilt the military before his first budget was even announced, the president is perfectly comfortable claiming credit for things that have not, in fact, occurred.

So it may be with the new arms deal with Saudi Arabia, pegged by the Trump administration as worth up to $110 billion. Many of the items mentioned as part of the package had already been offered to Riyadh during the Obama administration, including a Patriot missile defense system, Multi-mission Surface Combatants, attack and transport helicopters, and artillery systems. The value of these offers runs into the tens of billions of dollars.

One item in the Trump package that is clearly new is the offer of a Lockheed Martin Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, a deal that could run into the billions depending on how many missiles are included and what kind of support systems are involved. But that leaves the administration a far distance from its $110 billion in claimed sales.

The State Department fact sheet on the deal listed weapons and gear that might be offered to Saudi Arabia, from aircraft to armored vehicles to border defense systems. No such deals have been formally announced to Congress as yet. And they will purportedly be rolled out over a decade — beyond the four years of Trump’s first term, or even a second one.

So what we have is a deal that is mostly a mix of offers already made and promises yet to be kept. And when and if some of the new offers are formally notified to Congress – a process that will at least reveal what systems are to be provided at what cost – there is no guarantee that they will produce signed contracts and actual deliveries of weaponry. For example, during the Obama years, Congress was formally notified of offers of weapons, training, and military support services to Saudi Arabia worth $115 billion. So far only about half of those offers have resulted in formal agreements, and less than $20 billion in goods and services have actually been delivered. And deliveries of major systems can take years. For example, an offer of F-15 combat aircraft to the Saudi Air Force that was announced to Congress in October 2010 didn’t result in the first planes being delivered until December 2016.

Arms sales to the Gulf States cannot be treated like just another export item.

This is all by way of saying that the ultimate value of the Trump administration’s arms offers to Saudi Arabia is yet to be determined. The $110 billion figure looks suspiciously like an effort to post some big numbers to underscore the administration’s uncritical support for Saudi Arabia, its animosity towards Iran, and its focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs,” as the president put it.

The jobs argument is also overstated. The assembly of some of the systems, such as some helicopters from Lockheed Martin, will be done in Saudi Arabia. More work for Riyadh will no doubt follow, since that government’s new long-term economic plan calls for the development of its arms industry – some of which may well be built with technology supplied by the United States. Some of the deals may never materialize. No deals, no jobs.

And military spending is the least effective way to create jobs, according to a 2014 study by the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute. Focusing on industries of the future, like clean energy technologies, would not only create more jobs in the short term, but it would get the United States a foothold in a growth area that could sustain good paying jobs for generations to come.

But whatever the size of Trump’s big deal, it raises serious human rights and foreign policy concerns. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, put it best when he expressed concern about the regional impact of the deal: “What do we have to gain by going in so enthusiastically with the Sunnis against the Shia in their fight for power in the Middle East? This isn’t our fight, and history suggests the U.S. military meddling in the Middle East ends up great for U.S. military contractors, but pretty miserable for everyone else.”

The administration’s decision to revive a deal for precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia is particularly troubling, as these are the kind of weapons that have been used in Riyadh’s brutal bombing campaign in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians in strikes that independent human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have suggested could be war crimes—crimes in which the United States may be complicit, given their provision of arms and refueling services for the Saudi bombing campaign.

Equally concerning is the potential attack by another major U.S. arms recipient, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), on the port of Hodeida in southern Yemen. The port is the main entry point for humanitarian aid to Yemen at a time when the country is on the brink of famine.

Rather than touting the jobs created by arms sales to the region while giving U.S. allies a green light to use U.S. weapons however they please, the Trump administration should rethink its support for the Saudi/Emirati-led war in Yemen in general, and the provision of massive arms offers to the Saudi regime in particular.

Given their potentially devastating consequences, arms sales to the Gulf States cannot be treated like just another export item. The Trump administration offers to Saudi Arabia, however exaggerated they may be, will not only threaten human rights and human lives, but they will be counterproductive for long-term U.S. security interests.

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