It is a tried-and-true tactic of public relations to release good news in time for the evening headlines, while bad news goes out over the weekend — and, if possible, during summer vacation — when as few people as possible are paying attention.
Not all of us are on vacation, however, and the small matter of a $1.15 billion arms package to a certain regime known for its dictatorial government and systematic violations of human rights did not quite get by under the radar.
The Pentagon, which operates around-the-clock during August, like any other month, has just announced a huge deal of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, which would include up to 153 Abrams tanks, 20 Hercules armored vehicles, 153 M2 .50-caliber machine guns and 266 7.62mm M240 machine guns, and cluster bombs.
The U.S. Congress, which does not operate around-the-clock during August, has just 30 days in which to review and block the proposal, if it so chooses, after it returns from vacation in September.
The Pentagon was certainly correct if the timing of the announcement indicated their anticipation of opposition to the sale. Congressional critics have already been heard from.
“Saudi Arabia is an unreliable ally with a poor human rights record,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky). “We should not rush to sell them advanced arms and promote an arms race in the Middle East. I will work with a bipartisan coalition to explore forcing a vote on blocking this sale.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) would likely join such a coalition. “I believe that U.S. weapons sales should first and foremost advance American security interests and we’ll take a close look to make sure that’s the case here. The Saudis have largely backed away from the military fight against ISIS, and I’d like to see them commit to rejoin that fight as part of major new military sales,” Murphy said. “I also continue to have concerns over the high rate of civilian casualties in Saudi Arabia’s Yemen operations.”
Civilian casualties in Yemen were the cause of a European Parliament resolution in late February calling for an end to arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Several European countries, notably France and Britain, are major suppliers of weapons to the kingdom. But the consciences of the EU lawmakers were troubled by an estimate that 3,000 of the 6,000 deaths in the fighting there since Saudi Arabia entered the picture were of civilians.
The euphemism “collateral damage” has fallen into relative disuse in recent years; the sheer number of incidents involving unintended civilian casualties has gradually eroded its euphemistic value.
And when numbers approaching half the casualties in a conflict are civilian, “indiscriminate” would seem to be a more accurate term for the routine spilling of the blood of women, children and elderly, along with legitimate military targets. In June, the United Nations reported that in 2015, the Saudi-led coalition killed 510 children and wounded 667 others in Yemen.
The Saudis have staunchly denied that their operations target civilians — though they admit that they do always seem to get in the way.
Given the disturbing facts of the Saudi use of Western weaponry, one has to ask why the Obama administration appears so keen to furnish the Saudis with additional refills of deadly equipment.
The answer, in a word, is Iran.
Iran is the reason that Saudi forces are in Yemen in the first place. As Riyadh’s ambassador to the EU, Abdulrahman Al Ahmed, said in a letter ahead of the above-mentioned vote: “The larger ramifications of our not taking action in Yemen would have had devastating geopolitical consequences for the kingdom, Europe, and the broader West, as well.”
And if it wasn’t clear from that missive that Iran was fomenting the chaos in Yemen, Sen. John McCain recently spelled it out, saying that “the Iranian-backed Houthis were about to take over Yemen… We wouldn’t do anything about it, so the Saudis did.” McCain suggested that critics of U.S. material support for the kingdom reconsider.
Iran figures in the calculations of U.S. policymakers in another respect as well. Saudi leaders were reported to be extremely upset with the Obama administration’s willingness to sign the nuclear deal with Iran, which they believed came at the price of their own country’s security interests. To salvage the relationship with Riyadh, Washington late last year approved a much bigger arms sale than the one on the table this August: hundreds of air-defense missiles for $5.4 billion, four military ships for $11.25 billion in October and 22,000 smart and general-purpose bombs for $1.29 billion.
It would be shortsighted to advocate an outright cancellation of the new arms deal. We need to keep Saudi Arabia on our side, even if they are not exactly our kind of folks, to put it mildly. If we want them on our side in the good fight against Iran-sponsored terrorism, we have to put up with some bad things too.
But that doesn’t mean we have to tolerate everything they do.
For example, the regime has been criticized for its reckless use of cluster bombs. Shortly after the U.N. report came out, a proposal by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) to ban the sale of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia was defeated 216–204. It deserves reconsideration.
Last Tuesday, there were reports of at least seven civilian deaths in a coalition strike on Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, most of them in a potato chip factory. Since they are using U.S. arms, it does not seem unreasonable to insist that the U.S. military advisors be given more of a say in the selection of targets in Yemen, to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible.