Colin Kahl, then national security advisor to Vice President Biden, speaks at the US-Islamic World Forum in 2015.

Colin Kahl, then national security advisor to Vice President Biden, speaks at the US-Islamic World Forum in 2015. AFP via Getty Images

Tie US Arms Exports to Values, Pentagon Policy Chief Nominee Says

Colin Kahl says sales to Saudi Arabia may change under Biden administration.

A foreign government’s values should figure into any U.S. decision to send it weapons, President Joe Biden’s pick to oversee defense policy issues at the Pentagon told lawmakers Thursday.

“I think our arms sales need to be aligned not just with our national interests, but with our values,” Colin Kahl, who has been nominated to become the defense undersecretary for policy, said at his Senate confirmation hearing.

Kahl spoke as the Biden administration is reviewing arms sales to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. A $500 million bomb sale to Saudi Arabia is among the arms deals on hold. In late January, Raytheon’s CEO Greg Hayes said — without explicitly naming the deal — he expected the Biden administration to block the sale, so it was removed from the company’s 2021 earnings projections.

At the hearing, Kahl mentioned Saudi Arabia.

“I support President Biden's effort to recalibrate the relationship [with Saudi Arabia] to make sure that it's more fully aligned with our interests and with our values,” he said. “A dimension of that, of course, is our arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other countries.”

Last week, Reuters reported that the Biden administration is considering banning Riyadh from buying offensive weapons.

U.S. lawmakers have pushed to block arms sales to Saudi over concerns about Riyadh’s role in Yemen’s civil war and about the role Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, played in the murder of a U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Human rights groups estimate that Saudi airstrikes in Yemen are responsible for thousands of civilian deaths and injuring thousands more.

“Cutting off all military support for Saudi Arabia should be one component of a shift in policy that holds the regime accountable for its abominable human rights record and its consistent violations of the laws of war,” Bill Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy, said last week after a U.S. intelligence assessment concluded the crown prince ordered Khashoggi’s murder.

Hartung said the Biden administration should block all arms and logistics deals.

“There are tens of billions of dollars-worth of U.S. arms sales in the pipeline to Saudi Arabia, many of them tied to deals concluded during the Obama [and Trump administrations],” Hartung said. “And the Saudi Air Force would soon be grounded without U.S.-supplied spare parts and maintenance.”

The U.S. relies on Saudi Arabia, U.A.E. and other Gulf nations to base troops and weapons used for counterterrorism operations throughout the Middle East and serve as a strategic deterrent against Iran. If the U.S. blocks arms sales, those allies could turn to Russia or China for weapons.

If confirmed by the Senate, Kahl pledged to “treat the issue urgently because it's important to me.”