Saudi Arms Deal Advances; But Dangers Remain

by WILLIAM R. HAWKINS June 19, 2017

President Donald Trump's pledge to sell Saudi Arabia $10 billion in new weapons, made at the historic Riyadh summit of 50 Sunni Muslim states in May, has crossed a major hurdle in the U.S. Senate. On June 13, S.J. Res. 42, "A joint resolution relating to the disapproval of the proposed export to the Government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia of certain defense articles" came to a floor vote. It was sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) with the backing of Democrats Chris Murphy (CT) and Al Franken (MN). The resolution was defeated 47-53. Sen. Paul only got three other Republicans to vote to block the sale; fellow libertarian Mike Lee (UT), plus Dean Heller (NV) and Todd Young (IN). These GOP defectors were offset by the five Democrats who crossed over to join 48 Republicans to form the majority supporting President Trump's new commitment to back America's allies in the Middle East.    

In his floor speech supporting his resolution, Sen. Paul blamed Saudi Arabia exclusively for the war in Yemen and the humanitarian crisis it has created. He bemoaned that civilians had been killed by Saudi airstrikes. Yet, his resolution would have halted sending precision-guided weapons to Riyadh which will lessen collateral damage. Of course, lessen does not mean ending completely civilian deaths. These are inevitable in modern war, especially in urban areas. Our enemies always exaggerate claims of civilian losses for propaganda effect, but they also exploit the sensibilities of people like Sen. Paul by using civilians as human shields. They hope for a slackening in the use of allied airpower, an advantage they cannot match. The U.S. has invested heavily in advanced technology to limit collateral damage, but the priority must always be to defeat the enemy. Victory is the ultimate humanitarian strategy as casualties are increased by long wars, and by the kind of brutal, terrorist regimes that America and its coalition partners are fighting in the region. 

Sen. Paul claimed that blocking the arms sale was only part of the larger issue of stopping any engagement of the U.S. in the Yemen civil war. He claimed he would not sell the Saudis "a single rifle." He wanted to force a vote on the war, raising his usual eccentric interpretation of Constitutional war powers. He thus set himself up for a decisive defeat when his motion was voted down; confirming on the record of his own statements Senate support for the American involvement in Yemen.   

His main appeal was emotional. He had a large photo of an emaciated child at his side while he denounced the Saudi blockade of Yemen ports which he claimed indicated a strategy of starving out the enemy. But not all Yemeni ports are blockaded, only those held by the Houthi rebels. Does Paul believe that any food shipped through the port of Hodeidah, the focus of leftwing attention, would go to the general public? Or would it be seized and used by the rebels to feed their own troops and Shiite supporters? This is what the UN and other aid groups have complained about in the past. The guys with the guns get the food, as has been the case in every war. And without a blockade more than food would flow to the rebels, such as arms from Iran.

Paul doesn't like the idea o blockades and "famine" as a tactic of war; but this only again shows his ignorance of history. This is one of the oldest forms of maritime strategy. Alfred Thayer Mahan, still considered the greatest single authority on naval strategy from his book The Influence of Sea Power upon History and other writings, served on Union warships blockading Confederate ports during our Civil War. Closing the sealanes to enemy commerce was central to Allied victory in both world wars. It is why the U.S. Navy must remain the dominant force across the world's oceans.

Sen. Paul's speech seemed to come straight out of an essay posted last March on the website Antiwar.com by Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the notorious Code Pink. She also denounced "the Saudi-led military intervention in the civil war in Yemen, an intervention that has resulted in an epic tragedy of destruction and starvation." But Code Pink is not "anti-war"; it is anti-American, always defending any enemy of the U.S. or its allies. Benjamin acknowledged "Greater US support for the Saudis, who intervened in Yemen to try to stop the Iran-friendly Houthis from coming to power, is part of Trump's 'get tough' policy on Iran." But she still opposes helping the Saudi-led coalition win the war. She particularly opposes "an offensive to seize Hodeidah from the Houthi rebels, [which] will mean even more death and hunger for the Yemeni people." Yet, liberating the port would open a supply line to the people and close one to the rebels. Benjamin's argument only makes sense in terms of helping the rebels.

Likewise, Paul's arguments are all slanted to aid the rebels and the Iranian regime. Indeed, he tried hard to make Iran the victim of American and Saudi policy rather than the regional aggressor to whom the U.S. and it allies are reacting. The Senator made no mention of how the war started. Yet, its origin rests with the Houthi, who had mounted insurgencies for over a decade. They took advantage of an "Arab Spring" transition that removed a long time dictator to seize control of the northern Saada province and neighboring areas to the west coast where sits Hodeidah. The Houthi then seized the capital in 2014, prompting Saudi intervention to save the internationally recognized government. The Houthi are a Shia minority in a Sunni-majority land, making this conflict part of the larger civil war within Islam. The U.S. is aligned with the Sunni, the majority sect in the region and the world.

Sen. Paul's role as an apologist for Iran is inherited from his father. Retired Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) was a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee when I served on the committee staff. I remember watching with dismay his defense of Iran's "right" to a nuclear program and his criticism of America's interference in Tehran's business at hearings on sanctions policy. He had apparently fallen for Tehran's claim that its nuclear research was only for peaceful energy production, not bombs.           

Sen. Paul did not mention in his speech Iran's nuclear weapons program, but did mention its ballistic missile program. He claimed this was a defensive effort to deter a feared invasion by the U.S. or an attack by Saudi Arabia. The senator's attempt to portray Iran as a weak victim does not square with the facts. Iran has over 82 million people compared to Saudi Arabia's population of 28 million. This gives Iran more than triple the potential military manpower. For a historical comparison, Iran has a larger manpower pool than did Imperial Germany in the First World War. Iran's active military numbers 545,000 compared to 235,000 in Saudi uniforms. The Saudi's do have a nearly 2-1 edge in airpower and its army has more armored vehicles, though less artillery. Its qualitative edge is what gives Saudi Arabia a fighting chance; but this can only be maintained by continued U.S. and other foreign supplied arms and by sanctions that keep Iran from being able to reach its full military potential.

Iran is not behaving as if it were weak. Besides its own regular forces, it can call on the Hezbollah insurgent army based in Lebanon and on Shiite militia groups it has been arming in Iraq and Syria. Tehran's forces (regular and irregular) are in combat across the region. Yet, Sen. Paul opposed President Trump's policy of helping America's allies defend themselves by arguing that Iran will not like it and will use it as an excuse to increase their own armaments. Again, the "arms race" is the fault of the U.S. and poor Tehran is only trying to keep up! Of course, Tehran can be expected to expand its capabilities after President Barack Obama released billions to the regime and lifted sanctions in the ill-conceived "nuclear deal." And Iran's closer ties to Russia due to Moscow's intervention in the Syrian civil war will open wider a conduit for advanced weapons. Sen. Paul made no reference to these linkages.

The narrow GOP majority in the Senate is not just threatened by Democrat filibusters. There are more than enough Republicans suffering from the malignant pre-condition of libertarian isolationism to flip the balance in the chamber when national security issues are at stake. It is thus imperative that the Trump administration work to create a bi-partisan coalition for support on matters of vital national importance. There will always be disputes over domestic policy as groups struggle for their share of the pie; but there ought to be unity when it comes to understanding who our foreign enemies are and in acting to thwart their plots. No American can expect to live a better life in the long run if those who would do us harm are gaining strength overseas.  

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William R. Hawkins is a consultant specializing in international economic and national security issues. He is a former economics professor and Republican Congressional staff member.


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