We Need To Talk About Saudi Arms Sales

This bipartisanship extends into the Senate.

Saudi Arabia’s strikes in neighboring Yemen—fueled directly by American intelligence, logistics, and weaponry—has created a crushing humanitarian disaster, if not outright war crimes. Now, Yemen is so dangerous that even Doctors without Borders (MSF) has decided to withdraw all its staff from six hospitals in the northern region of the country.

That’s a remarkable decision from a medical nonprofit whose very purposed is offering desperately needed humanitarian aid in war-torn regions where other medics don’t dare to go, but it is sadly unsurprising. The announcement came after one of the MSF buildings was hit by an indiscriminate Saudi air strike, killing 19 people. It seems sharing the medical facilities’ coordinates and pleading for safety was of no avail in a conflict defined by its merciless toll on the civilian population, a level of devastation which has led many observers make the war crimes accusation.

Among those troubled observers are 60 members of Congress, who sent a bipartisan letter to the White House on August 29 questioning the Obama Administration’s intention of enabling and assisting such carnage in America’s name. Specifically, the lawmakers challenge Obama’s plan to sell $1.15 billion of weapons to Riyadh without adequately consulting Congress, let alone bothering to address previous congressional requests about pursuit of a diplomatic solution and better protections for Yemeni innocents.

“The [Saudi’s] military campaign has had a deeply troubling impact on civilians,” the letter says, so “[a]ny decision to sell more arms to Saudi Arabia should be given adequate time for full deliberation by Congress.” But because of the timing of Obama’s announcement of the sale—during the August recess, when most representatives are busy with townhalls and summer vacation—the White House could argue Congress’ 30-day window to debate the sale is over before any meaningful debate occurs. The note asks to extend that window until such debate can be scheduled, and it’s signed by Democrats and Republicans alike,

What’s unusual is this coalition of doesn’t fall neatly along partisan lines: Signers include Republicans, such as Justin Amash and Mick Mulvaney, and Democrats, including Jared Polis, Keith Ellison, and Barbara Lee. It is encouraging to see such a strong group of House members who want to reassert Congress’ constitutional oversight authority to bring the executive branch to heel.

This bipartisanship extends into the Senate, where both Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) have fought since at least April of this year to block other arms sales to Saudi Arabia. “It is no secret that Saudi Arabia’s record on strictly targeting combatants and legitimate military targets in Yemen has been questionable,” Paul said in a joint press release. “I believe, along with Sen. Murphy, that the U.S. should halt the sale of air-to-ground munitions to Saudi Arabia until Congress has conducted proper oversight and ensured that such munitions are being used in a way that is consistent with our country’s national security strategy and values.”

Before we double down on that course of action, is a little debate really too much to ask?

The House letter presents arguably an even smaller ask than Paul and Murphy’s concern. It is hardly unreasonable to want public discussion before selling more than a billion dollars’ worth of high-powered American weaponry to a country actively engaged in such a counterproductive and inhumane campaign.

Our government is already quietly supporting the Saudis’ war in Yemen. Yet few here in the States are aware the conflict is happening at all, because this assistance has been proffered without a constitutional declaration of war or the debate it would entail. Before we double down on that course of action, is a little debate really too much to ask? After all, if our tax dollars paid for the development of the tanks and guns Riyadh wants to buy—and they did—then our representatives should get a say in where that equipment ends up.

And it shouldn’t end up in Saudi Arabia, possessed of a terrible track record on human rights and waging an indefensible war. But I’m getting ahead of myself—for the moment, simply having a debate would be a good start. These 60-plus members of Congress should be applauded for taking this stand. Now if only the White House will listen.