President Donald Trump wants to spend the final weeks of his presidency transferring America’s most advanced fighter jet, a set of powerful armed drones and thousands of bombs and missiles to a Middle Eastern dictatorship that is deeply implicated in multiple civil wars and aggressively represses its own population.
A growing group of lawmakers and activists is mobilizing to stop him.
Trump plans to wrap up a $23 billion weapons sale to the United Arab Emirates by the middle of December. It would put an exclamation point on a presidency that has focused more on arms deals than any since President Dwight Eisenhower first warned of the political power of the military-industrial complex.
Before that happens, critics of the deal want both houses of Congress to pass resolutions disapproving of the transfer.
Their hope is that sending such a message in a bipartisan way, which would have to be the case for the bills to clear both the Democratic House and the GOP-held Senate, would pressure Trump to respect lawmakers’ reservations about how the belligerent UAE might use the weapons ― or would at least motivate President-elect Joe Biden to halt the transfers once he takes office in January.
On Wednesday, Republican Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) joined Democratic foreign policy heavyweights Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.) in sponsoring four resolutions of disapproval for the arms sales. Now those lawmakers and a coalition of influential activists from humanitarian, anti-war and human rights groups will spend the weeks ahead convincing Congress to support the legislation and pushing leadership in the two chambers to bring it to a vote, starting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
For a number of reasons, the activists face an uphill battle. Senators will not reconvene until Nov. 30 and they are then only present and able to consider motions like these resolutions for a handful of days in December. It’s unclear exactly when the lawmakers’ statutory right to block the arms deals expires, but aides say that point should be on or around Dec. 10. In that same period, Congress will be considering possible additional coronavirus relief and hammering out a bargain to keep the government open ahead of a funding deadline of Dec. 11.
The UAE also has a positive reputation in Washington, bolstered by its suave ambassador, Yousef Al Otaiba, and his large lobbying operation. Both representatives of the Emirates and Trump administration proponents of the deals are likely to emphasize how they align on two priorities that are broadly shared across Capitol Hill: supporting Israel and countering Iran.
Many members of Congress, among others, perceive the arms sales as a gift to the Arab nation for its agreement earlier this year to normalize relations with Israel. Al Otaiba is expected to play on Americans’ anxieties about Tehran and their sense that his country is uniquely moderate and pro-Western among Muslim-majority nations to win support for the deal.
Still, a dozen well-informed observers told HuffPost they are increasingly confident that a rare combination of progressives, hawks and more on Capitol Hill will send a big signal about changing U.S. foreign policy to prioritize human rights and give less credence to bellicose, often unreliable dictators abroad.
“I expect quite a fight in Congress… a short and fierce fight,” said Philippe Nassif of Amnesty International, one of the groups opposing the sale.
The Case Against The Deal
The Trump administration calls the weapons sale an important affirmation of a key American partner, particularly as Iran lashes out against U.S. pressure.
Critics of the deal generally cite one or all of a set of problems with the agreement, deploying different arguments based on whether their audiences are liberal or conservative, wonkish or more focused on matters beyond global affairs.
One major concern is that the president appears committed to rushing through the deals without discussing them with lawmakers over months of negotiations, as is customary with a deal of this magnitude. The foreign policy ramifications are enormous: Trump’s own State Department has concluded the deal would seriously change the balance of power in the Middle East.
Trump sent his official notification of the package to Congress less than two months after the UAE recognized Israel in a flashy ceremony at the White House as part of a set of deals known as the Abraham Accords.
Since then, the Trump administration has had rocky briefings to justify the game-changing move with lawmakers and their staff, congressional aides told HuffPost. A session between senior officials from the State and Defense department and House members on Thursday failed to satisfy skeptics, one Democratic staffer said. The administration has yet to schedule a similar briefing with senators, HuffPost has learned.
The haste is especially aggravating to Capitol Hill because it comes one year after Trump overrode Congress to fast-track shipments of bombs to the UAE and Saudi Arabia in a process the State Department’s inspector general criticized. That frustration now unites important legislators across partisan and ideological divides.
Another top complaint is that the sale could threaten the U.S. and ally Israel, which the Trump administration says it deserves credit for bolstering through the UAE accord and other steps. Many more bellicose lawmakers ― the type that would rarely oppose a weapons sale to an American partner ― are worried that the UAE could permit China or Russia, with whom it collaborates closely, to gain access to sensitive information.
That logic is especially compelling to strong supporters of Israel who might otherwise embrace the package as a way to guarantee continued ties between that country and the UAE.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) is a good example. In an emailed statement, he told HuffPost, “there’s a growing number of unanswered questions about the sale — not just the impact of the sale on Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge” ― an advantage that the U.S. is required to maintain by law ― “but also about the other elephant in the room, which is China.”
“The Administration better come to Congress with good answers about how they plan to ensure our most advanced military technology and hardware doesn’t end up in the hands of our leading adversary.”
“China is increasingly active all across the region and would love to get a hold of the technology in our F-35 stealth fighters,” Gottheimer continued. “That’s why the Administration better come to Congress with good answers about how they plan to ensure our most advanced military technology and hardware doesn’t end up in the hands of our leading adversary. After all, if Beijing can access and reproduce the technology for the stealthiest, most advanced fighter jet in the world, and sell it to whomever, then that’s a direct threat to our own national security and to Israel’s.”
It’s unclear that giving the UAE the F-35 is appropriate, said Brad Bowman, a former Republican Senate staffer who is now senior director of the center on military and political power at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.
“Israel’s peace with the UAE is a historic and positive development, and the United States should take all reasonable steps to demonstrate the benefits for UAE in making peace with Israel. There are a number of ways to do that, including in the security sector, that have nothing to do with the F-35,” Bowman wrote in an email. He argued that the Emiratis receiving that aircraft would require the U.S. to boost Israel’s own military power.
Such thinking could drive an unlikely partnership between traditional advocates for an assertive U.S. presence in the world, including some Republicans, and more liberal figures ― as well as some libertarians ― who want sweeping change to rein in American militarism. It’s similar to the front that united against the UAE’s close partner Saudi Arabia over its role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Other opponents of the UAE. sale, like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), are highlighting the country’s disturbing track record on human rights. “Besides their very well-documented war crimes in Yemen, the U.A.E. has also been credibly accused of committing war crimes in Libya,” Omar said in a Thursday press release. She has introduced similar resolutions of disapproval in the lower chamber to those in the Senate.
“They’re also reportedly paying for child soldiers from the same militia that committed the Darfur genocide [and] badly undercutting the transition to democracy in Sudan. Amidst a deadly pandemic, we should be investing in our own communities here at home, not selling weapons to help dictators commit human rights abuses,” Omar continued.
Even more centrist lawmakers are open to that argument because they know the UAE received a large number of bombs through Trump’s so-called “emergency” sales to them last year, a Democratic aide said. “They can’t possibly have exhausted their existing stocks.”
That prompts the question of what the Arab state plans to do with additional material, particularly given its ongoing support for brutal allied militias, including extreme groups, in Yemen and Libya.
Congress has demonstrated an unprecedented bipartisan level of concern over the devastation in Yemen, in particular, passing historic resolutions to try to end American support for the yearslong military campaign the UAE and the Saudis waged there. The moment before a friendly administration takes office hardly seems the time to give in, said Erica Fein of the advocacy group Win Without War.
“Our grassroots are fired up about that,” she added.
Getting To ‘No’
The next step to watch is how much support critics of the arms deal can build up from Republicans.
Many senators are likely holding off on taking a position until they receive the Trump administration’s briefing, which is expected to occur soon after Thanksgiving.
Should the president’s team fail to convince some in the GOP that they can preserve Israel’s edge and prevent poaching of U.S. secrets by Russia and China, they could lose important votes, the Democratic aide predicted. The Republicans to watch are Sens. Todd Young (Ind.), Jerry Moran (Kansas), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), most of whom just last summer voted against weapons sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
While many in the party remain wary of crossing Trump, those members have already shown a willingness to do so, and campaigners say it’s unlikely their calculus has changed significantly.
“I don’t think that after pushing back against the Trump administration for four years, they’re going to suddenly decide to shift and stand with the party against what is clearly a broadly supported policy that the Biden administration will take into office,” Scott Paul of Oxfam America said. “At this point, it seems like a question of the different ways Congress can demonstrate to the incoming Biden administration that, one, this is a ball they’ve carried for a long time, and two, they want to partner” with the new team in the White House to hold abusive regimes accountable.
He anticipated that lawmakers will find some way to show both Trump and Biden that they are leery of pumping more arms into the region, either through the resolutions or other means like must-pass defense funding legislation at the end of the year.
It’s also possible they will largely target one part of the huge UAE deal — the bombs and missiles — and a win a vote on two of their resolutions rather than all four, another Democratic aide told HuffPost. “People who support the Abraham Accords see the [F-35 jets and drones] as part of it, whereas the munitions is more, like, they got a bunch of them recently.”
The broadly shared desire to advance some kind of check is undeniable.
Nassif of Amnesty International, who said he has discussed the UAE’s activities with at least 35 congressional offices over the last two weeks, described increasing skepticism in Congress over the Arab country’s handling of U.S. expertise, weaponry and support, particularly following reports of extremists obtaining arms through the Emiratis.
“The tone on Capitol Hill has changed on the UAE and I think people are wanting to hold them accountable,” Nassif said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story referred to Mitch McConnell as the Senate minority leader.