Monday evening, members of Senate Committee on External Relations met for a classified briefing with Trump administration officials to hear about a proposal $ 23 billion worth of arms sales to the United Arab Emirates. Right at the end, one of the participants blasted what had happened behind closed doors.
“Just a mind-boggling number of outstanding issues and questions that the administration couldn’t answer,” the Democratic senator tweeted. Chris Murphy. “It’s hard to overstate the danger of rushing this though.”
This remark underscored the growing political struggle over the arms deal announced in early November, an impasse that could seriously affect America’s relations with its authoritarian ally and the military balance in the Middle East.
President Donald Trump wants to sell up to 50 F-35 fighter jets, nearly 20 Reaper drones and around 14,000 bombs and ammunition to the UAE – and he wants to do so before President-elect Joe Biden walks into the Oval Office and potentially port the sale.
The administration explicitly linked the massive weapons package to Trump’s broader efforts to counter Iran and to the UAE’s normalization of relations with Israel in August.
“This is in recognition of the deepening of our relationship and the UAE’s need for advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend against increased threats from Iran,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in one declaration announcing its sales authorization. “The UAE’s landmark agreement to normalize relations with Israel under the Abrahamic Accords offers a unique opportunity to positively transform the region’s strategic landscape.”
But some Republicans and Democrats in Congress, as well as some militant groups, oppose the proposed arms transfer, saying a country responsible for kill civilians in Yemen and Russian mercenaries financing in Libya does not deserve to be rewarded with even better weapons made in the United States.
“Selling such advanced military equipment to the UAE now would be to endorse these policies and threaten US interests and regional stability,” said Seth Binder, an advocacy officer with the Middle East Democracy Project, who heads a the efforts of arms control organizations and human rights groups to stop the sale.
Which means the next 50 days before Biden takes over will see an unpleasant struggle over one of Trump’s last major foreign policy initiatives, one he is trying to push through before time runs out.
“It’s happening too quickly,” said Michael Hanna, a Middle East security expert at the Century Foundation in New York City. “Process is important, substance is important, and neither is good here.”
Why UAE wants US-made guns
The UAE has long wanted advanced fighter jets and high-end drones, which would make it a bigger and more powerful player in the region – not only militarily, but also politically.
“We are not talking about going to war here. We are talking about influencing change in the Middle East, ”said Dalia Fahmy, UAE foreign policy specialist at Long Island University. “The UAE is reasserting itself in the region. It is about being able to harness that perceived power. “
In other words, the UAE wants the world’s most advanced combat aircraft, the F-35, and surveillance and attack drones, because it could then throw its weight in the Middle East. This sounds good in principle – after all, most countries seek to increase their power and influence whenever they can. But a big question is how – and where – exactly the UAE can try to do this.
The sale is “not useful [for the US] if there is more adventurism in Libya or the Horn of AfricaSaid a State Department official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. “It may be useful in a theoretical multilateral framework” against Iran.
Trump and Biden would certainly prefer to see the country use arms against Iran in the event of war and not, for example, bomb innocent men, women and children in Yemen, where the UAE is waging a war as part of a Saudi-led coalition.
Determining the assurances the United States received from the United Arab Emirates ahead of the sales occupied much of Monday’s classified Senate hearing, according to two Senate sources familiar with the discussion.
Murphy’s tweet made it clear that the responses senators received were unsatisfactory – and now he and others are trying to prevent transfers from happening.
There is a five-fold case against the UAE arms deal
On November 18, three Senators – Democrats Murphy and Senate Foreign Relations Ranking Member Robert Menendez, along with Republican Rand Paul – introduced four mixed resolutions to prevent the UAE arms deal.
“Congress is stepping in once again to serve as a control to avoid putting a profit on US national security and that of our allies, and to hopefully prevent a new arms race in the Middle East,” said Menendez in a press release at the time.
These resolutions must be voted on and passed by December 11, or they will expire, paving the way for Trump’s sale. But whether or not the blockade effort works, the resolutions help clarify the top five arguments against the deal.
The first, as mentioned above, is that the UAE could use weapons indiscriminately, killing civilians in Yemen or elsewhere. Without clear guarantees that this will not happen, senators and activists do not want the measure to progress.
The second concern is that Israel could lose what is called its “Qualitative Military Advantage” (QME) in the Middle East. Simply put, US policy since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War has been to ensure that Israel has more powerful forces than its Arab neighbors. Israel and others fear that giving the F-35s and UAE drones undermines that advantage.
However, this issue has “lost its importance” more recently, said Barbara Leaf, the US Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2014 to 2018. The main reason is that in October, Israeli government drops objection to F-35 transfers in particular, shortly after The Pentagon has promised Jerusalem its edge would remain intact.
“It’s more about the foreign policy dimensions of the proposed sale now,” Leaf told me.
Which brings us to the third objection: that the UAE with this advanced weaponry could shift the balance of power in the Middle East, making the Gulf country an even stronger and more influential regional player. If so, experts told me, the UAE could use its new force to attack its enemies, namely Iran, on its own and support other proxies in the region.
But some are not so worried about this possibility. “This will not change the military balance in the Middle East,” said Leaf, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, DC. “Iran’s unconventional missiles and arsenals are formidable and could cause immense damage, even if the UAE gets the F-35.”
The fourth concern is the potential for an arms race. Basically, if the UAE is getting a lot of advanced weapons, others – like Qatar and Iran, the UAE’s adversaries – might as well. At this point, each country can continue to buy more and more weapons until the region becomes more and more militarized and dangerous. This is an outcome that many experts hope to avoid, even if such a possibility remains far away.
The fifth concern is that the Trump administration is closing a deal within months that would normally take years. “It’s definitely rushed. This is an abnormal and bad practice, ”said Hanna of the Century Foundation.
What normally happens is that an agreement is painstakingly worked out between the two parties first, then scrutinized by the State Department and the Pentagon, and then long-term consultations with Congress begin. One point for discussion would be the question of Israel, for example, which could take years to be resolved.
In this case, the Trump administration wants to go from an announcement in November to a sale before January 20, the day Biden is sworn in as president. It is simply unheard of, especially for a weapon package of this size.
This is why a Senate aide told me that they didn’t want the deal to go through until “they’ve marked the i’s and crossed the t’s.”
Until then, the backlash against the deal will likely persist.