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Not so fast, say lawmakers who suspect lame duck Trump is expediting UAE weapons deal

Bipartisan effort would try to block sale of F-35s, drones, and bombs to known human rights abusers.

Analysis | Washington Politics

The grumbling over the Trump administration’s plan to sell the United Arab Emirates over $23 billion in new weapons, ostensibly in return for its agreement to normalize relations with Israel, has reached a strident pitch, as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle prepare legislation to make sure it never happens.

Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Chris Murphy, along with Republican Senator Rand Paul, are expected to introduce four joint resolutions of disapproval this week to block the sales, which include not only 18 Reaper drones, but 50 F-35 strike fighters, and $10 billion worth of bombs and other munitions.

Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced similar legislation in the House Thursday that would prohibit the sales.

A cacophony of criticism followed the August revelation that the Trump administration had secured this deal as part of their larger UAE-Israel “peace” agreement. The Israelis and their supporters in Congress, including Sen. Menendez, declared that the sale of F-35s would hurt the country’s “qualitative military edge.” In fact, he and Sen. Dianne Feinstein already introduced a bill in October that would slow down the sale of the F-35s. 

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (which is part of the DoD) announced the sales officially in notices to Congress on Nov. 10. The contractors that stand to benefit from these sales are familiar names among the top 10 arms manufacturers in the United States and the world: Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon. Incidentally, the outgoing Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is a former lobbyist for Raytheon. The Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy is a former executive at Lockheed Martin, where he worked exclusively on the F-35 program.

Israeli leaders have since quieted their opposition to the deal as Washington promised Tel Aviv new and better weapons sales to compensate

Meanwhile, others decried the sale over human rights issues, pointing to the UAE as contributing to the deaths of Yemeni civilians in that war, using U.S. weapons and assistance. They insist that the weapons will likely be deployed in further conflict there, rather than for the “regional security,” i.e., countering Iran, as widely suggested by proponents of the deals.

“The UAE continues to maintain a contingent of forces in Yemen, and to arm and train militias that have engaged in systematic human rights abuses,” writes William Hartung and Elias Yousef in a recent Security Assistance Monitor brief.  They also point to the UAE’s use of drones in Libya, which is in violation of a United Nations embargo.

Rep. Omar said in a statement Thursday that "we should be investing in our own communities here at home, not selling weapons to help dictators commit human rights abuses.”

The Senators are reportedly accusing the administration of trying to leapfrog Congress in an attempt to plough through the deal while Trump still has two months in office.

“A sale this large and this consequential should not happen in the waning days of a lame duck presidency, and Congress must take steps to stop this dangerous transfer of weapons,” Sen. Murphy told Politico. 

According to Politico and sources who spoke to Responsible Statecraft the senators are charging the Trump administration with circumventing the standard protocols within the congressional review period under the Arms Export Control Act before the sales are approved. They say they have  questions about “specific national security risks inherent in the proposed sale,” that have yet to be answered. The 30-day review period started ticking on Nov. 10. 

But arms control experts say that the barriers to reverse a sale are so high under the act that Congress has never been able to kill a deal. Right now both chambers would have to vote in the next month to “disapprove” the sales, and override a presidential veto, otherwise the administration is clear to finalize it.

Activists who have been watching this particular weapons sale unfold say their best bet is to convince the incoming Biden administration to stop it, as long as a Letter of Acceptance (contract) is not signed by then. The next task is reforming the Arms Export Control Act to give Congress more authority in future deals, including a requirement that lawmakers have to “approve” sales, rather than registering “disapproval” before the clock runs out. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) has introduced legislation in this vein before, and sources say he is working on a new proposal for the incoming Congress. 

In the meantime, keeping the weapons out of the hands of the UAE should be imperative, say critics who spoke with Responsible Statecraft.

"It's welcome news that Senators Menendez, Murphy, and Paul are working to block Trump's attempt to ram through $23 billion in weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates during the lame luck,” said Hassan El-Tayyab, Legislative Manager for Middle East Policy at Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL).

“For years, the UAE has been a leading driver of violence in the world's worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen and it's critical the United States not endorse even more violence. The incoming Biden administration should listen to this bipartisan message from Congress and commit to blocking delivery of these weapons and future weapons sales to known human rights abusers." 

U.S. service member passes in front of a MQ-9 Reaper drone, one of the weapons that the Trump administration wants to sell to the UAE. (REUTERS/Omar Sobhani)
Analysis | Washington Politics
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