Top GOP Senator Challenges Trump Arms Deals Over Qatar Crisis

The Trump-friendly lawmaker’s move threatens planned sales to Saudi Arabia and shows bipartisan anger with the administration's Mideast mismanagement.

WASHINGTON ― A powerful Republican senator on Monday stalled the Trump administration’s plans to sell billions of dollars worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and other U.S.-friendly countries in the Persian Gulf.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, wrote to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to say his panel will not clear any arms sales to the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council until the committee is confident that the GCC and the Trump team are working to engage Qatar, a GCC member and the host of the largest American military base in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain ― huge consumers of American military technology ― cut off ties with Qatar on June 5 over its alleged support for terror and ties to Iran. Egypt and a handful of other non-GCC countries followed suit. (The other two countries in the GCC, Oman and Kuwait, have remained neutral in the dispute.)

“I could not have been more pleased with the President’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia. The unity of the Gulf States and their commitment to security cooperation were welcome steps forward,” Corker wrote in his Monday letter. “Unfortunately, the GCC did not take advantage of the summit and instead chose to devolve into conflict. All countries in the region need to do more to combat terrorism, but recent disputes among the GCC countries only serve to hurt efforts to fight ISIS and counter Iran.”

Corker’s committee and its counterpart in the lower chamber, the House foreign affairs committee, have the ability to review arms deals once the executive branch officially proposes them. Corker’s approval is needed for sales to go forward.

The senator’s announcement will cover any weapons packages that have not yet been formally notified to Congress, a Corker aide told HuffPost in a Monday afternoon email.

That means it could affect huge chunks of President Donald Trump’s planned $110 billion deal with Saudi Arabia, as well as other sales to the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain that the president has said he would welcome because of their potential benefit to the U.S. economy. But it will not affect sales already notified, like a $662 million radar system for the Saudis, or assistance classified as defensive, like training for the Saudi navy, the aide wrote. The aide said it also would not affect the delivery of a $500 million package of precision-guided munitions for Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen that created a controversy in the Senate earlier this month.

Corker has been a relatively steadfast supporter of Trump, with his name at one point even mentioned as a possibility for secretary of state in the new administration.

His surprise announcement shows how frustrated foreign policy heavyweights on both sides of the aisle have become over the Trump administration’s handling of the Qatar crisis and the harsh tactics of the anti-Qatar governments. While Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have sought to encourage negotiations and reaffirm the U.S.-dominated status quo, Trump himself has repeatedly escalated tensions and seemingly sided with the Saudis. Top White House aides Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner have encouraged that course of action, the New York Times revealed Monday, while former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and others have told Tillerson to keep working as he is and ignore instructions from a flailing White House.

Corker’s move signals faith in a balanced approach that holds all U.S. partners accountable. And it’s sparked hope among activists who say Congress is often too reluctant to stand up to the executive branch and place conditions on weapons packages to induce better behavior from friendly governments.

Andrew Exum, a top Middle East official at the Pentagon under President Barack Obama, said the announcement sent an important message to Saudi Arabia and other nations.

The Saudi and UAE role in the anti-Qatar campaign has boosted worries in Washington that the countries are pursuing policies without considering American priorities. Tillerson’s State Department has been unexpectedly harsh in criticizing their actions, and on Monday, the Washington Post ran an editorial warning about Saudi Arabia’s recently anointed crown prince, Kushner favorite Muhammed bin Salman.

“He’s acquired a lot of admirers, including in the Trump White House, by outlining plans to reform and modernize the Saudi economy, loosen domestic social controls and ― not least ― undertake tens of billions of arms purchases in the United States,” the piece reads. “Yet as Prince [Muhammed bin] Salman formally takes position to succeed his 81-year-old father, King Salman, there is growing reason for doubt about his capabilities ... the [Qatar] boycott risks serious harm to U.S. interests. Like the Yemen war, it should give cause for care in embracing the new Saudi crown prince. Though he may be charming, his adventurism makes him a questionable ally.”