For a nation that identifies itself as “protector of the Free World,” the United States has been more than willing to sell arms to Saudi Arabia for its war with Yemen, a conflict that has cost at least 112,000 lives since it began in September 2014. Fernando C. Saldivar reported for Commonweal Magazine in October 2020 that in the first four years of the conflict, 73% of Saudi Arabia’s weapons were imported from the United States. While the United States has laws in place to regulate arms sales to foreign customers, loopholes and the gung-ho culture of the Trump administration have allowed the American weapons industry to profit tremendously from the Middle Eastern conflict.
The war between Yemen and Saudi Arabia is a deadly conflict that much of the world has ignored. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) estimates that there were over 25,000 war fatalities in 2019 alone. UNICEF states that Yemen is “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” with nearly eighty percent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance. While some expect the United States to provide humanitarian aid or troops to de-escalate the conflict, the Trump administration has stood on the sidelines and US firms profit war from weapon sales that perpetuate the suffering.
The United States ostensibly relies on federal laws to regulate arms sales to foreign clients, but these regulations are vulnerable to loopholes that reduce or nullify their strength. Two laws – the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA) – allow the executive branch to sell arms to foreign customers unless Congress passes legislation to counter those sales. However, the president can veto Congress’s legislation, leaving Congress with the sole remedy of voting to override a presidential veto. If Congress cannot muster sufficient votes to do so, then the weapons sales proceed. With a hawkish president and a conservative Congress, the AECA and FAA laws have been easily bypassed. “Three of Trump’s eight vetoes have involved Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen: he blocked two congressional prohibitions of arms sales and a joint resolution directing the removal of US armed forces from hostilities in Yemen,” Saldivar reported for Commonweal.
The AECA has an additional loophole that allows the president to bypass Congress if there is an “emergency” that requires arms sales “in the national security interests of the United States.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has conveniently asserted such a “state of emergency” to pass twenty-two separate arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, amounting to $8.1 billion dollars in weapon sales.
The Trump administration was not going to let anyone get in the way of its business either. “Among the many federal watchdogs President Trump has sacked is Steve Linick, the State Department inspector general who was fired in May 2020. At the time of his removal, Linick was investigating Pompeo’s emergency certification,” Saldivar wrote.
As a result of its relaxed arms sales laws and a pro-war administration, the United States remains the go-to arms dealer for the world. Saudi Arabia is happy to buy from the US, in part because the US, unlike its European counterparts, lacks “any legal requirement to consider the humanitarian impact” of arms transfers to foreign states, Saldivar reported. By contrast, European countries are legally obligated to undertake such an analysis prior to any arms sales.
The topic of US arms sales to support Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen was pioneered by independent news outlets, with coverage dating back to 2017—when Harry Blaine, writing for Foreign Policy in Focus, asked readers why President Obama signed the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) back in 2013 when the US was still selling arms to the Middle East—and 2011, when Foreign Policy in Focus covered the ATT in its formative stages. Then, Paul Mutter reported that a bipartisan group of US senators had warned that the treaty might interfere with US citizens’ Second Amendment rights. By December 2018, the New York Times published a story on Saudi Arabia’s use of US-manufactured fighter jets and bombs in the Saudi war in Yemen. Further coverage appeared in 2019 when CNN reported that US-built, Saudi-bought weapons had ended up in the possession of Al Qaeda affiliates. The Washington Post and the New York Times pursued the story in 2020, focusing on the US State Department’s failure to consider the risk of civilian causalities and the moral contradictions of the Trump administration’s decisions to continue weapons sales.
Fernando C. Saldivar, “Blood Money: U.S. Arms Manufacturers Are Profiting from Atrocities,” Commonweal, October 30, 2020, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/blood-money.
Student Researcher: Alexander Wetter (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)