Senators are gearing up to vote next week on one of the most controversial aspects of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy: his support for Saudi Arabia, the U.S. partner that many top officials in Washington and human rights groups say should be punished for its brutality.
Biden wants to sell the Saudis $650 million in missiles. But if a majority in the Senate supports bipartisan legislation to block the arms deal, the president would have to either abandon his plan or issue a veto to protect the sale ― just like former President Donald Trump, who repeatedly torpedoed congressional attempts to put pressure on the kingdom.
Promising a contrast with Trump, Biden said on the campaign trail that he would “make [the Saudis] pay the price” for assassinating journalist Jamal Khashoggi and push Riyadh to end its military intervention in Yemen, which has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Instead, the president has advanced the missile deal and a separate $500 million military assistance package for the Saudis without rebuking the man whom U.S. intelligence blames for the Khashoggi killing, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The arms deal vote ― which could take place as soon as Tuesday ― gives lawmakers their best opportunity yet to weigh in on Biden’s pro-Saudi policy. Senators will consider a measure from Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), which is a companion to a House resolution against the deal from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).
Critics of Biden’s stance toward Saudi Arabia hope the Senate will tank the sale, sending a message that U.S.-Saudi relations must change to reflect America’s commitment to fundamental rights, such as free speech. The president has pledged to emphasize American values in global affairs, but many of his allies say that one year into his tenure, he is failing to do so, particularly in the Middle East.
“The administration came into office speaking a big game about Saudi Arabia, and that has dramatically changed over the past few months,” said Seth Binder of the advocacy group Project on Middle East Democracy. Biden’s arms deal represents “continued support for a repressive regime that’s committing abuses in Saudi and in Yemen. We have laws that prohibit assistance such as this, and the administration is ignoring that.”
Behind closed doors, the Biden administration is making an assertive case for the weapons sale to Congress and influential civil society groups, HuffPost has learned, and it has gained traction even with some skeptics of the Saudis.
The State Department’s Nov. 4 announcement of the deal summarizes Biden’s argument. The Houthi militia, which is battling the Saudis and their partners in Yemen, has ratcheted up cross-border attacks into Saudi territory “over the past year,” an agency spokesperson wrote, threatening U.S. forces deployed there and more than 70,000 U.S. citizens who live in the kingdom. Biden wants to transfer nearly 300 missiles that intercept Houthi drones in the air ― and do not hit ground targets, unlike other U.S. weapons that the Saudis have repeatedly used to kill civilians in Yemen.
Replenishing Saudi missile stocks “is fully consistent with the Administration’s pledge to lead with diplomacy to end the conflict in Yemen while also ensuring Saudi Arabia has the means to defend itself from Iranian-backed Houthi air attacks,” the spokesperson said.
U.S. officials have provided convincing classified intelligence for their claims, a senior Democratic foreign policy aide told HuffPost. That’s softened opposition among influential Democrats who regularly challenge U.S. ties with the Saudis and other abusive regimes.
For instance, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who chair powerful committees that could block the deal and have quietly halted other arms sales to Riyadh under Biden, have not intervened to stop this sale.
The nature of the weapons also allows Biden’s team to pitch them as a way to shield civilians and vital Saudi infrastructure from a possible attack by Iran, a regional rival of the kingdom and of the U.S. Iran crippled Saudi oil fields in 2019.
Still, advocates for a more progressive foreign policy say any additional American support for Saudi Arabia is deeply misguided given its disregard for international norms and people’s fundamental freedoms.
“Approving this sale sends a message of impunity that the United States supports Saudi Arabia’s escalating policy of collective punishment… in Yemen,” more than 40 activist groups wrote in a letter to lawmakers earlier this week. “The Biden administration in its very first weeks committed both to center human rights in foreign policy and to end U.S. complicity in the war in Yemen; allowing this sale to stand breaks that commitment, and would be a human rights failure.”
Additionally, Biden has yet to answer the broader question of how the U.S. should treat bin Salman, who, as the country’s de facto leader, has perpetrated some of the most shocking international excesses of recent years. Concerns about the prince taint any kind of U.S.-Saudi cooperation.
Saudis who hope to reform their country want Biden to understand that there is a fundamental problem with the historic American partner and that the U.S. should use its access to Riyadh to press for wiser governance.
“We used to have a lot of people intervening in decision-making…. Now we are plagued with someone who has concentrated all decision-making and behaves as though the country is his own backyard,” said Hala Aldosari, a Saudi activist and scholar on women’s health.
The Right Battle?
To block Biden’s deal, supporters of the resolution against it would have to win over all but one Democrat, given the position of Lee and Paul. (Vice President Kamala Harris would presumably break a tie in favor of the administration’s sale.)
That’s a tall order given that Democratic senators including Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona have proved willing to break with the party’s broad unity against worrying Middle Eastern weapons sales.
Support for the resolution from prominent figures like Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) could, however, convince many in the party to hold the line ― even at the risk of angering Biden.
Whatever the eventual vote, supporters of a tougher U.S.-Saudi relationship see a silver lining in the fact that top Democrats and key Republicans continue to question the partnership even after the departure of Trump, who was widely seen as too deferential to the Saudis.
Biden’s team “has made this argument that this is defensive equipment, and the fact that there are still members of Congress willing to push back on the sale means that for them that’s not enough, and there’s legitimate grounds for serious concern whether or not you see this sale as defensive,” Binder said.
Even if the Senate permits the arms deal, Binder said, he and his community will see that as a similar challenge to ones they’ve faced in the recent past. Senators initially failed to vote against Trump’s weapons sales to the Saudis in 2017 but eventually ― after public pushback and signs that carte blanche for the Saudis was a bad idea ― voted against arms sales in 2019.
And he argued against reading too much into a possible split in Democratic votes.
“There are those who clearly are supporting the administration’s definition that this is of a defensive nature, and so that is the main divider,” Binder said. “If there were attempts to move forward with things that were clearly seen as more offensive, you would quickly see them return.”
Aldosari said lawmakers could permit key U.S. assistance to the Saudis while placing conditions like requiring independent investigations of how the kingdom uses American weapons. She says Biden’s tougher rhetoric has caused some “mitigation” of rights abuses but “definitely not a radical change.”
“What’s good now is there is a recognition and somewhat restoration of using diplomacy rather than aligning with the wishes of these autocrats,” Aldosari said.
“Of course, there is much more that needs to be done,” she continued, noting that Biden could demand improvements in Saudi behavior by saying that without them he would limit key programs, such as military training. “There are so many levels where the U.S. government is aiding and abetting Saudi Arabia.”