The Trump administration’s unique embrace of the defense industry and his determination to sell weapons to dictators and human rights abusers may be sowing the seeds of welcome change in the realm of U.S. arms exports. A new study shows a staggering 70 percent of Americans believe that such exports make the United States less safe. Congress must seize the chance to rein in an administration whose policies are undermining national security.
In April 2018, the White House issued its new conventional-arms-transfer policy. The new policy added “economic security” to the list of reasons for a particular sale might receive approval. It also relegated considerations of human rights and international humanitarian law, which wound like a common thread through previous such policy statements, to a single section.
The policy presaged a new vigor on the part of the White House to push guns, bombs, and other weapons to parts of the world embroiled in conflict and to governments infamous for their human rights abuses. Even America’s top diplomats were recruited to act as salesmen and women for U.S. arms.
Perhaps the most egregious example has been the well-publicized sales to Saudi Arabia, which has relied on American munitions to wage a military campaign in Yemen that has left thousands of civilians dead, hospitals in ruins, and the entire country at risk of famine and fatal disease. A CNN report also suggested that some of those weapons have found their way to the hands of Al Qaeda and other militant groups. Not even the brutal murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA has reportedly blamed on the Saudi crown prince, has deterred the U.S. president. Indeed, Trump explained that he opposed lawmakers’ attempts to sanction Riyadh precisely because of Saudi promises to buy more weapons.
When Congress persisted in its opposition, President Trump invoked an obscure emergency provision in the Arms Export Control Act to bypass legally mandated Congressional reviews of arms sales to expedite weapons shipments to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The episode revealed just how feeble the public’s ability to influence the arms sales process really is.
Meanwhile, as U.S. weapons continue to make their ways into the hands of autocrats or to the frontlines of deadly conflicts, defense contractors see financial opportunity. Working hand in glove with the White House, defense industry lobbyists have stumped simultaneously for the Gulf nations fighting in Yemen and the U.S. contractors who supplied them. The government’s revolving door gave industry insiders a seat at the policy table, where, in official capacity, they pushed for questionable arms sales that ran at crosswinds from U.S. values and public sentiments.
But despite its persistence in promoting questionable arms sales, the Administration is clearly afraid of public scrutiny. It has gone to great lengths to obscure the workings and minimize the transparency of an already surreptitious trade, classifying previously public documents, manipulating accounting methods, and removing details from congressionally mandated reports.
Nevertheless, if the Administration’s goal was to shield its questionable practices from public view, they seem to have failed. Prompted in part by a growing public awareness of these issues, the House recently passed three resolutions (1, 2, 3) aimed at barring the president from authorizing arms sales to UAE and Saudi Arabia—in particular, precision guided munitions that have been used in many of the most problematic strikes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The Senate passed similar resolutions earlier, in a rare show of bipartisanship in today’s polarized political climate. Though the measures were, unsurprisingly, vetoed by the President, that the subsequent override vote still garnered a majority in the Senate is a useful measure of the growing discontent in the Republican-controlled chamber.
The House also passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would prevent the Administration from shifting oversight of many firearms exports from the Department of State to Commerce, a move that would have the side effect of dramatically reducing congressional oversight and, by extension, public awareness.
Lawmakers must continue to push such measures, seizing this rare moment of political consensus and public attention. Their message should be clear: the American people shouldn’t have to fear how their own government manages its weapons of war.