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Rand Paul wants to kill $650M missile sale to Saudi Arabia

But getting Democratic colleagues to sign on may be more difficult that he thought.

Analysis | Middle East

Rand Paul’s office told RS today that the Republican senator is readying a joint resolution of disapproval to stop the Biden Administration’s expected sale of $650 million worth of “defensive” air-to-air missiles or AMRAAMs, as well as 596 missile launches to Saudi Arabia, as announced on Nov. 4

“A message needs to be sent to Saudi Arabia that we don’t approve of their war in Yemen," Paul said in a statement to Responsible Statecraft.

The news was also confirmed in an Intercept report this afternoon in which Paul said he aims to file a privileged motion to stop the export, which would guarantee an immediate floor vote on whether to disapprove the sale. That vote could occur within the next two weeks, according to the Intercept's Sara Sirota.

Interestingly, the article centered around Paul’s interest in generating support from his Democratic colleagues, particularly those who have typically been on the same page when it comes to U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf state neighbor, UAE. But as the report suggests, Biden’s fellow Dems aren’t hopping on the bandwagon right away, at least not yet.

Sen. Bernie Sanders did not show outright skepticism. He told the Intercept that he has yet to see the details, but he’s “not unsympathetic” to what Paul is trying to do. (UPDATE: According to Sirota, Sanders' office now says it will co-sponsor Paul's resolution).

Other comments speak to what could be the sticking point for many others — the difference between “offensive” and “defensive” weapons. At the beginning of his term, President Biden pledged to end all assistance to Riyadh for its “offensive” operations in Yemen. In the months since, analysts have scratched their heads over what that really means and whether the administration would find loopholes through which to drive new arms sales to Saudi Arabia anyway (there is one, approved by the Trump administration, still on hold).

The State Department has justified this latest deal of AMRAAMs by saying they would be used to “defend” the Saudis from cross-border attacks by the Houthis. Critics have responded by saying Riyadh could easily use to the missiles to enforce the economic blockade on Yemen — a form of offensive warfare as it's put tens of millions of Yemenis at risk of starvation and disease.

So far, it sounds like Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., normally a Saudi arms critic, is not sure. “My position generally has been to support truly defensive weapons sales to the Saudis, while opposing sales that could be used in offensive operations, particularly in Yemen,” he told Sirota.

Paul’s action would follow a joint resolution of disapproval introduced by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Mich.) last week. Meanwhile, Sanders and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) have introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would end all military assistance to Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen (defensive, offensive, or otherwise). Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) passed similar language in the House version of the NDAA.

U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) looks on during a U.S. Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Hearing, September 23, 2020. Alex Edelman/Pool via REUTERS
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