A slim bipartisan majority of senators endorsed the Trump administration’s plan to sell $13 billion in sophisticated weaponry to the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, defying concerns about the UAE’s role in civil wars and likely war crimes and President Donald Trump’s rushed process of pushing through the arms deal.
The result is a big loss for lawmakers and activists who want a less hawkish U.S. foreign policy — and a signal that they have a lot of work to do under President-elect Joe Biden.
Two influential Democrats, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona, were crucial to the deal’s survival. Both voted in favor of one part of it, armed drones for the UAE, and Sinema also approved the second aspect, selling a batch of F-35 fighter jets to the country.
“Really mindboggling votes,” Stephen Miles of the progressive group Win Without War tweeted of Sinema and Kelly after the vote. Arizona Daily Star columnist Tim Steller termed the senators’ move “disgusting.”
The defense unit of military contractor Raytheon — which is crucial to the drones being considered — is based in Arizona.
Congress’ upper chamber was voting on two separate motions that would have stopped Trump from giving the belligerent UAE two arms systems it does not currently possess. The F-35 proposal failed 49-47; the bill on the drones failed 50-46.
Trump had said he would veto the bills. Still, progressives and human rights groups are hopeful that the issue will be revisited soon after he leaves office. The incoming Biden administration can halt the transfer of the two systems, as well as a separate $10 billion shipment of bombs and missiles for the UAE which senators targeted in different legislation that did not come up for a vote Wednesday.
The president-elect and his team have repeatedly promised to rein in excesses by U.S. partners in the region. Critics of the UAE sale had said it could spur a new Middle East arms race, worsen the UAE’s brutal interventions in the civil wars in Yemen and Libya and give Russia and China, UAE partners but U.S. adversaries, access to sensitive technology.
“Rushing through massive sales of Reaper drones and our most advanced fighter jets to the Middle East just makes defense companies richer and international security poorer,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a leader in the effort against the sale, said after the vote. “While I am disappointed the Republican-controlled Senate failed to block these sales, I am eager to work with the incoming administration to take a closer look at each of these sales before any transfers are completed.”
Scott Paul of Oxfam America cited Biden’s commitment to “significantly alter” U.S. policy in Yemen, where Washington has since 2015 helped the UAE and its ally Saudi Arabia wage a military campaign that’s produced the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. “The humanitarian situation in Yemen is predicted to deteriorate even further in the coming months with hunger on the rise. Congress and the Biden administration should do all they can to halt these arms sales and be a force for peace to save lives in Yemen,” Paul wrote in an email to HuffPost.
Clues that the Senate would permit the sale started to emerge earlier on Wednesday. One key sign was the news ― first reported by HuffPost ― that Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) would back the package. Lee often works with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), one of the chief critics of the package, and with anti-war campaigners.
“One is seldom disappointed by expecting Mike Lee to let you down when it really matters,” Miles of Win Without War tweeted in response. “A true shame to see him and others greenlight such an atrocious arms sale.”
Activists working on similar national security issues in the future are likely to see this as an important reminder for their work: Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched. In conversations with HuffPost over a month, multiple advocates mentioned Lee, as well as other Republicans and Democrats, as hard to win over and possibly casting deciding votes against the sale, but Sinema and Kelly never came up.
Philippe Nassif of Amnesty International warned of the devastating consequences Wednesday’s vote could have in a statement. “Today’s vote could be the first act in a domino effect which ends in human tragedy as this country provides capabilities which risk being used to injure and kill thousands of Yemenis and Libyans in their homes, their schools, and their hospitals,” Nassif said.