This weekend, President Trump will unveil a proposed mammoth arms sale to Saudi Arabia. The pro-Gulf foreign policy establishment in the United States and the Middle East will cheer it as an investment in a new security arrangement for our Sunni partners in the Middle East to combat extremism and fight against Iranian expansion. It was negotiated by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who has zero experience in foreign relations generally, or Saudi arms sales specifically. It appears the Trump administration is counting on the country with the worst human rights record in the region to enforce peace and security in the Middle East.
The arms sale is a terrible idea, and I want you to know why.
First, let’s look at what’s going to happen with these weapons. Piled on top of this enormous arms lot are precision-guided munitions that President Obama would not sell the Saudis. That’s not because the Obama folks didn’t like selling weapons to the Saudis -- Obama sold more weapons and gear to Saudi Arabia in eight years than all other previous administrations combined. No, Obama withheld precision-guided munitions because the Saudis were using U.S.-provided munitions to repeatedly target civilian and humanitarian sites in their bombing campaign inside Yemen, despite regular protests from the United States. Thousands of civilians inside Yemen have been killed during the civil war, many by the Saudi-led coalition, and today, the country is on the brink of famine in part because the Saudis have intentionally destroyed transit hubs and key bridges, and blocked the delivery of humanitarian aid into Yemen. As we speak, millions of Yemenis are being radicalized against the country they blame for the civilian deaths: the United States. By selling the Saudis these precision-guided weapons more — not fewer — civilians will be killed because it is Saudi Arabia’s strategy to starve Yemenis to death to increase their own leverage at the negotiating table. They couldn’t do this without the weapons we are selling them.
Second, the weapons we sell are likely going to have little effect on combatting our primary adversaries in the Middle East: ISIS and al Qaeda. The Saudis’ obsession with Iran, and the proxy wars (like Yemen) that flow from this obsession, mean that they have little bandwidth to go after extremist groups. Meanwhile, the Saudis continue to export a version of Islam called Wahhabism that is a crucial building block for the perversion of Islam parroted by groups like al Qaeda. Trump may raise this issue with the Saudis, but it’s hard to imagine they will feel any pressure to change since they are already getting everything they could ever want militarily from the United States.
Third, we have to ask whether continuing to fuel the growing proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the right way to bring peace to the Middle East. To the extent this conflict is going to continue, we are clearly on the Saudis’ side, but the inarguable effect of selling more capable weapons to the Saudis is the acceleration of weapons build-up in Iran. Iran will not stand pat if we continue to load up their adversary with arms. If we want Iran to end their ballistic missile program (which is primarily designed to confront the Saudi threat), then feeding the arms race between the two nations probably isn’t the best long-term strategy. And really – though we should certainly help our allies defend themselves against a direct threat from Iran -- why is it in our interest to be such an active participant in this regional conflict? 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.
Fourth, $110 billion is a ton of money, and if we are primarily in the business of defending the United States and our allies from terrorism, then we need to ask how else this money could be spent. Yes, this is the Saudi’s money, but we shouldn’t just assume that the path to global security is through the spread of more and more weapons. As a thought experiment, consider what else you could buy for $110 billion. I’ll give you one example, and it’s a doozy. In Africa, terrorist groups like Boko Haram and al Shabab are on the march, and they present a threat not just to African lives, but to U.S. security as well. Terrorist groups thrive on economic destitution in Africa, and often this destitution is connected to abysmal levels of education and lack of opportunity. So try this on for size: $110 billion could educate every single one of the 30 million African primary school age children who has no access to school today...for five years. Put the two side-by-side: larger weapons stockpiles in one capital in the conflict-ridden Middle East, or universal access to primary education in Africa for half a decade. Tell me which one makes the world a more stable place.
Listen, Saudi Arabia is an important friend and partner for the United States. They share important information with our intelligence agencies on terrorist groups like al Qaeda. They have developed a working relationship with Israel that significantly reduces the risk of conflict between Israel and the Gulf countries. They are to be credited for coming to the table to talk about the spread of extremism in the world. But they are still a deeply imperfect friend. $110 billion in weapons will exacerbate, not ameliorate, these imperfections. And in the powder keg that is the Middle East, this sale may simply light a fuse that sends the region, and us, deeper down the rabbit hole of perpetual military conflict.