U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is giving the a-okay to Saudi Arabia’s military action in Yemen. Via the State Department (emphasis mine):
Pursuant to Section 1290 of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 (NDAA), I certified to Congress yesterday that the governments of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are undertaking demonstrable actions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure resulting from military operations of these governments.
The Trump Administration has been clear that ending the conflict in Yemen is a national security priority. We will continue to work closely with the Saudi-led coalition to ensure Saudi Arabia and the UAE maintain support for UN-led efforts to end the civil war in Yemen, allow unimpeded access for the delivery of commercial and humanitarian support through as many avenues as possible, and undertake actions that mitigate the impact of the conflict on civilians and civilian infrastructure.
Unfortunately, the 50 children who were killed in a Saudi airstrike on a Yemeni school bus were not available for comment.
Congress slightly forced Pompeo’s hand on the issue with the certification requirement although it’s doubtful the State Department wouldn’t have supported Saudi Arabia. It mainly affected the U.S.’s ability to refuel coalition jets focused on Yemen, but the NDAA language was so broad it probably wouldn’t have caused too much strain on the relationship with the House of Saud. It is nice seeing Congress slightly use its constitutional muscles on making the rules of government, although this exercise was akin to stretching out a small cramp in one’s pinkie toe.
The Saudi war in Yemen became a bit more of an issue in Washington, DC mainly because the bus bombing involved a missile made by Lockheed Martin – in a sale authorized by the Trump Administration. There are also apparently troops on the ground in Saudi Arabia to specifically help the Saudis find Yemeni targets and more arms sales to fund the war are pending.
Of course, the Obama Administration had also been involved in Yemen through drone strikes, ‘military advisers,’ arms sales, and more.
It’s a bipartisan war – even if neither major U.S. party wants to take responsibility. It only matters when it comes up to election time and whether the American voter really cares about foreign policy, especially when it comes to troops (hint – not likely).
The entire situation is far from surprising because Trump is hoping to surpass Obama as arms dealer in chief. Obama’s Pentagon handed out $33B in weapons sales in 2016 with Vice Admiral Joseph Rixley noting there is a “growing sales-trend over the last decade.” Most of that cash came from – you guessed it – Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates aka the top two countries involved in the Yemeni civil war.
You can thank LBJ’s Administration for the U.S. even getting involved in the arms industry to begin with thanks to the 1968 Foreign Military Sales Act. The legislation allowed the Defense Department to sell off military overstock to foreign countries. The 1978 Arms Export Act gave the government – specifically the president – even more power by saying all arms sales of over $25M had to go through them first (NATO countries were excluded). Congress can issue a declaration condemning any potential arms sale, but it really doesn’t have any teeth.
There are plenty of reasons to debate the constitutionality of almost any arms sale via the government because there’s no real provision in the allegedly hallowed document Republicans claim to love or at least have some sort of high school crush on.
Peter K. Tomka suggested in 1986 it was up to the president to claim power to conduct arms sales through the idea of being commander-in-chief and having some power over foreign policy. It’s a bit of a stretch because it twists the words of Article II of the Constitution into knots – something almost all presidents dating back to George Washington have done in one way, shape, or form. Give the executive an inch and it’ll take it a mile.
Congress does have the power raise and support an army and arming those in the so-called Militia when they’re in the service of the U.S. Tomka believes the legislature has the power to sell weapons to allies in a time of war, although the logic is flawed because it stretches the words of “declare war” from the notion of Amerian troops fighting a battle to the U.S. funding conflicts like some sort of puppet master.
Of course, the U.S. does have a history of doing just that – whether it be through executive or legislative action. The 80s were filled with America selling arms or supporting various nations for a variety of causes. The U.S. gave weapons and/or intelligence to Iraq during their war with Iran before both Arab nations were considered a threat to America. Afghanistan received support from the U.S. in their fight against the Soviets. A friend of mine declared America has a wretched track record when it comes to Arab World arms and military dabbling, but considering some of the questionable decisions by the U.S. government in South America (see Manuel Noriega and, possibly, Augusto Pinochet) it could be that track record is just wretched all around.
There are several solutions to this issue – although none of them will make anyone really happy.
The first is getting the U.S. out of the business of picking which nations get what arms from American companies. The naysayers will suggest there’s no way Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman will suddenly halt sales to the Saudis or some African or Asian warlord. This isn’t exactly true.
The defense contractors currently have a major “out” when it comes to large military equipment sales: the U.S. government. The government approves all arms sales before they happen, so all the private companies have to do is go, “Well, the feds were okay with it, so you should be too.” It would be much more difficult for Lockheed Martin to explain away a sale of weapons to a Saudi-led coalition if suddenly a busload of Yemeni children were blown to smithereens. The companies would still have to answer questions why they decided to accept so-called blood money and their stock prices would probably dip.
The other solution is making sure Congress signs off on any arms deal the U.S. does with equipment it already owns. This is even a more imperfect solution because it could still involve kickbacks of some kind to defense contractors in whatever agreement they sign with the feds. But it would stop the Defense Department from tossing out weapons sales to every nation which swears to be on “our side,” like Oprah slinging vehicles to her audience.
Another way to mitigate arms sales by the American government is to simply ban them. It’s an idea which would have to be carefully crafted because it could promote a black market of Pentagon overstock by some entrapeneurial quartermaster at a U.S. military base in Saudi Arabia. The flip side is it could force the five-sided monument to inefficiency to actually become efficient – knowing it can’t pawn off overstock to the highest bidder. Want to replace the Abrams Tank with a newer model? Well, either turn it to scrap or see if defense companies will be willing to buy the back. Again, not a perfect solution but one which could promote fiscal responsibility in an era where the idea is as rare as the Dallas Cowboys winning two playoff games in a row (or even making the playoffs).
Of course, none of this will happen unless Congress decides to start doing its job and get back in the role of setting the rules of government. As for Yemen, the U.S. has no business being involved in another civil war.