The Senate on Wednesday voted down a rare attempt to block an arms sale to Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. counterterrorism partner but one that has fallen into disfavor with a number of lawmakers due to the kingdom's involvement in the war in Yemen and lingering suspicions about its role in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Though senators voted 71-27 to table a resolution that would block the sale, the measure's bipartisan backers, Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., portrayed it as a partial success. They argued the vote sends a strong signal to Riyadh and to the Obama administration that a significant portion of Congress is unhappy with Saudi Arabia’s apparent negligence in preventing civilian casualties in its 18-month bombing campaign in Yemen, as well as its broader role in the fight against terrorism.
“The very fact that we are voting on it today sends a very important message to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia that we are watching your actions closely and that the United States is not going to turn a blind eye to the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children,” resolution co-sponsor Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said on the Senate floor.
The proposed $1.15 billion weapons sale includes 153 Abrams tanks, 20 armored vehicles, over 400 machine guns and more than 6,600 rounds of ammunition. Many of the tanks in the arms deal are to replace ones lost by Saudi Arabia in fighting along its border with Yemen. Under the Obama administration, the United States has sold roughly $100 billion worth of weapons and military equipment to Saudi Arabia,
Saudi Arabia is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who forced the recognized Yemeni government to flee the capital of Sana’a in early 2015. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that 10,000 people have been killed in the fighting, including nearly 4,000 civilians.
“We are arming the Saudis to fight an enemy, the Houthis, that we have not declared war against, and the Saudis are not using those items to fight our sworn enemy, which we have declared war against, al-Qaida,” Murphy said. “We’ve begged the Saudis to change their conduct. We’ve asked them to target al-Qaida….but they haven’t listened.”
Some opponents of the arms sale argue the United States is wrong to provide logistical and intelligence support to Riyadh in its bombing campaign as the Yemeni conflict should be viewed as a civil war rather than the greater proxy war with Iran.
“Internationalizing this conflict has been extremely unhelpful” for hopes of a quick end and limited civilian deaths, said Nadwa Al-Dawsari, nonresident senior fellow with the Project on Middle East Democracy, in a Monday conference call with reporters organized by humanitarian groups opposing the arms sale.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, another co-sponsor of the resolution, said he was opposing the weapons deal on the grounds there was “no conclusive evidence” it would directly benefit U.S. national security.
“The fact that Saudi Arabia is an ally…is not in of itself a sufficient reason to endorse this particular deal,” he said.
Other arguments made by lawmakers against continued weapons support to Saudi Arabia include frustration with the kingdom’s financial support for the global spread of Wahhabism, an intolerant version of Islam that is seen as a theological building block for groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State.
Supporters of the arms sale had comparatively little to say Wednesday in defending Saudi Arabia’s conduct.
Rather, noted security hawks such as John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, cast the weapons package as an important symbolic gesture to a key regional partner in the broader fight against terrorism and Iran.
“Blocking this sale of tanks will be interpreted by our Gulf partners, not just Saudi Arabia, as another sign that the United States of America is abandoning our commitment in the region and is an unreliable security partner,” said McCain, who chairs the powerful Armed Services Committee. “That’s what this vote is all about.”
Added Graham: “Saudi Arabia has shared intelligence with us that has made Americans safe. They have allowed us to use their air bases in times of conflict. They are all in against ISIL and they are a great ally …against Iran. …The pluses outweigh the minuses.”
The vote took place under authorities provided by the Arms Export Control Act, which allows lawmakers to force a floor vote on a resolution disapproving of a proposed weapons sale.