A bipartisan group of senators announced four bills to block President Donald Trump’s massive weapons sale to the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, two hours after HuffPost first revealed their plans to challenge the deal.
The coalition includes Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which suggests the plan will receive broad support from Democrats in the upper chamber. His co-sponsors for the legislation, a set of four resolutions of disapproval targeting $13 billion in aircraft and $10 billion in munitions that Trump wants to send to the Arab nation, are Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
The Trump administration introduced the gigantic $23 billion package for the U.A.E. after the country recognized Israel earlier this year in what the president and his aides portrayed as a major diplomatic win for him in the Middle East.
Critics of the U.A.E. say the arms sales risk inflaming tensions in the volatile region, where the Emirates is deeply involved in proxy wars in Libya and Yemen.
Many lawmakers from both parties have also been skeptical of Trump’s penchant for pushing major weapons deals with autocratic Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, while overlooking their human rights abuses and Congress’ authority over such sales.
The State Department informed Congress of its plan for the package of weapons sales on Nov. 10. That began a 30-day period in which Capitol Hill can try to stop any of the three agreements ― which separately cover F-35 fighter jets, armed drones and a collection of bombs and missiles ― by passing a resolution disapproving of them through both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
“The Saudis and U.A.E. should know that there’s going to be a new policy in dealing with them so their days of having carte blanche are over.”
For lawmakers and activists who oppose the arms transfer, the big challenge will be securing enough GOP votes to get the bills from the Senate to the Democratic-controlled House. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who frequently aligns with Paul on libertarian foreign policy stances seeking to reduce the U.S.’s global entanglements, is almost certain to endorse the proposal, and universal Democratic backing is likely.
But the deal’s skeptics must also persuade at least two of a handful of Republicans who have previously voted against arms sales to the Saudis and Emiratis. Their top targets include Sens. Todd Young (Ind.), Jerry Moran (Kans.), James Lankford (Okla.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).
If the bills preventing the sales do leave Congress for Trump’s desk, he will almost certainly veto them, as he previously has with similar legislation to protect his cozy relationships with authoritarian allies like the Saudis and the Emiratis. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued an emergency declaration last year to permit a huge arms deal with the two nations, overruling Menendez and other powerful lawmakers.
But Capitol Hill will have sent an important signal about its views to the U.A.E. and to President-elect Joe Biden. Even if the sales continue as planned following a veto from Trump, Biden can pause the transfer of the munitions and other aspects of the package.
And the Emiratis will face public embarrassment they sought to avoid as their close partner Saudi Arabia drew condemnation in Washington. They have been distancing themselves from the disastrous Saudi-led intervention in Yemen ― highlighting their troop drawdown while downplaying their support for brutal militias there ― and courting U.S. officials, arguing they should treat Abu Dhabi differently from Riyadh.
“The Saudis and U.A.E. should know that there’s going to be a new policy in dealing with them so their days of having carte blanche are over,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who has led congressional efforts to end U.S. support for the Saudi and Emirati interventions in Yemen. Khanna said he will support the senators’ bill if it reaches the House and he praised Menendez for leading the charge, saying the senator’s stature among national security professionals will lend it credibility.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) expressed her support for the proposal on Twitter after HuffPost revealed that it was in the works.
The new push is also strategically designed to avoid the possible pitfall of angering lawmakers who support the U.A.E.’s normalized relationship with Israel.
While it addresses the jets, the drones and the munitions, its advocates are expected to focus on the bombs and missiles, as many in Congress are prepared to see the militarily advanced Emiratis obtain the new aircraft systems as a signal of good faith.
Making the conversation primarily about those weapons allows critics of the sale to focus on evidence that the Emiratis have transferred arms to allies in Yemen, violating U.S. law, and in Libya, breaking an international arms embargo.
“I support the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but nothing in that agreement requires us to flood the region with more weapons and facilitate a dangerous arms race,” Murphy said in a press release about the bills. “A sale this large and this consequential should not happen in the waning days of a lame duck presidency, and Congress must take steps to stop this dangerous transfer of weapons.”
Officials at the State and Defense departments have repeatedly told Congress, including in briefings provided earlier this year, that they are concerned that the U.A.E. is supporting dangerous forces in other countries, a congressional aide told HuffPost.
Campaigners against the arms deal ― and the U.A.E.’s sprawling Washington lobbying apparatus ― will now spend the next few weeks debating how seriously lawmakers should take those risks.
“I don’t think this is an area that has to be partisan on the Hill,” Khanna said. “I’m hopeful that we can get Republicans, especially in a post-Trump world, to stand up for basic American values.”