After President Joe Biden quietly OK’d Donald Trump’s largest arms deal earlier this year, the Biden administration is now defending it in court using ludicrous logic: that it’s unfair to suggest the United Arab Emirates will misuse American weapons just because it has repeatedly done so for years.
Several groups are suing the State Department in federal court — a coalition that includes relatives of more than 50 people killed by UAE military actions in Libya, including an attack that U.S. intelligence blamed on the Emiratis not long before Trump offered them the package of fighter jets, drones and bombs.
Critics of the UAE deal argue the process of approving the sale violated the United States’ standards for arms exports. If a judge agrees, that could derail the entire sale.
Many of Biden’s most important political allies share their skepticism of the plan. In December, nearly the entire Democratic Senate caucus voted to halt the effort, and soon after taking office, Biden launched a review of the deal over its risk to human rights and national security.
When HuffPost broke the news in April that Biden would follow through on the Trump-era plan, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said he and his colleagues were “concerned” and had “many questions.”
But in a filing sent to court on July 16 and reviewed by HuffPost, Justice Department lawyers said opponents of the $23 billion sale are unfairly speculating about its consequences. Biden’s attorneys said there’s “nothing more than conjecture” offered by the groups challenging the deal and made a curious argument on whether they have a right to bring this suit.
“Plaintiffs’ primary argument in support of standing — that the UAE has been engaged in a continuing course of injurious conduct for the last six years, before the sales at issue in this case — only emphasizes that the U.S. Government is not the cause of any injury, and that an injunction to block the sales would not redress any injury,” they wrote.
The DOJ says that should convince U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman to dismiss the case against the weapons transfer. But this argument — that the sales are essentially disconnected from ongoing human rights abuses — flies in the face of the administration’s statements about its support for the deal and its broader approach to global affairs.
This spring, Biden aides told lawmakers that they acknowledge their worries about selling sophisticated armed drones to a Middle Eastern power for the first time, as well as concerns about UAE policies like its brutal interventions in Yemen and Libya. They argued that Washington can pressure the Emiratis to be more careful.
A State Department spokesperson offered similar arguments to HuffPost in April. “The estimated delivery dates on these sales, if implemented, are scheduled for after 2025 or later. Thus, we anticipate a robust and sustained dialogue with the UAE to [ensure] any defense transfers meet our mutual strategic objectives,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “We will also continue to reinforce … that U.S.-origin defense equipment must be adequately secured and used in a manner that respects human rights and fully complies with the laws of armed conflict.”
And in one of Biden’s biggest moves to reform U.S. foreign policy in line with his campaign promises, the president acknowledged that past atrocities should be a factor in arms deals.
When he said he would prioritize ending the war in Yemen ― a progressive goal that has united the Democratic Party ― Biden said one step “to underscore our commitment” would be cutting off some U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has used American planes, bombs and fuel support to kill thousands of Yemeni civilians, spurring outrage and accusations of war crimes.
Biden halted $768 million in bomb sales for the Saudis that Trump had approved. On Wednesday, a State Department official confirmed to HuffPost that those deals remain suspended.
“If somebody is throwing rocks into the water and you give them more rocks, guess what they’re probably going to do? Throw those extra rocks!”
The Biden administration may privately believe the Emiratis should face a different set of rules than the Saudis, despite their close collaboration in the punishing Yemen campaign. But it’s defending the sale by suggesting the UAE will abide by universal American standards ― and key players in shaping America’s international approach doubt the Emiratis will do so.
“The Emiratis already have a record of illegally transferring weapons to [extremist] militias in Yemen, and Congress, frankly, has not received sufficient assurances that such transfers will not happen again,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), the chair of the Senate panel overseeing Middle East policy, said at an April hearing.
Skeptics of the arms deal say the administration’s dubious logic strengthens their case for further scrutiny of the transfer.
“If somebody is throwing rocks into the water and you give them more rocks, guess what they’re probably going to do? Throw those extra rocks!” said Justin Russell of the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs, the nonprofit that organized the lawsuit against the UAE package. “The historical actions of the UAE in the region definitely demonstrate potential in the future for similar aggressive acts.”
Spokespeople for the White House and the State Department declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.
In the coming weeks, Russell’s group hopes to defeat the government’s attempt to deny them standing in court.
“The question of Saudi aggression has dominated the headlines and has garnered both international and domestic attention,” he said. “We firmly believe that the Emirati aggression is much more egregious and does not garner public attention, and therefore we have to seek remedy through a coequal branch of government, that being the judicial branch.”