The United States government has an unfortunate history of ill-conceived arms sales to nations around the world. But it’s our longstanding arrangement with Saudi Arabia that has become particularly troubling in recent years.
President Barack Obama’s latest announcement—that he intends to provide the Saudis with a rushed order of over one billion dollars in new weaponry—should provide the impetus Congress needs to seriously reflect on and re-evaluate the nature of our relationship with this supposed ally.
Last week, I joined a bipartisan coalition of 64 U.S. representatives in sending a letter to President Obama asking him to delay the weapons sale to Saudi Arabia. As my concerned colleagues and I note, “Amnesty International has documented at least 33 unlawful airstrikes by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition across Yemen that appear to have deliberately targeted civilians and civilian facilities, such as hospitals, schools, markets, and places of worship. These attacks may amount to war crimes.”
Despite the seriousness of this allegation, the Obama administration is attempting to push through another weapons sale in a long line of many—this time with a price tag of $1.15 billion. By law, Congress may block any such transfer within 30 days of being notified, but this notification came on August 8—and congressional business was not scheduled to resume until September 6.
That leaves a mere two days for Congress to debate and potentially vote on the sale—a tall order in the House of Representatives and an impossibility in the Senate. While it’s true that the United States has regularly supplied Saudi Arabia with weapons with little fanfare since at least the 1970s, it’s long past time to reconsider this arrangement.
As our bipartisan letter explains, “3,704 civilians, including 1,121 children have been killed during the conflict [between Saudi Arabia and Yemen]. 2.8 million Yemenis have been internally displaced by the fighting, with 83 percent of the population now dependent on humanitarian assistance for survival. Any decision to sell more arms to Saudi Arabia should be given adequate time for full deliberation by Congress.”
The American people deserve to know that their tax dollars are funding weapons that may be used by a foreign government against civilians. And as their representatives in Congress, we must not be afraid to question the status quo.
Members of Congress who support arms sales to Saudi Arabia must publicly justify this position when basic human rights questions linger. The lives of innocent civilians are at stake. At the very least, we owe them—and the people we represent—open eyes and a vigorous debate.
Despite apparent indifference from the White House, State Department, and many congressional leaders, I’m heartened by the strong bipartisan coalition questioning the continuation of this reckless policy.
An issue as serious as a Saudi-led coalition striking civilian targets with American weapons requires more than a passing glance. We cannot turn a blind eye for the sake of political convenience. Serious debate around the matter is a simple, albeit crucial, first step.