Congress May Have to Act to Punish Saudi Arabia
By David M. Wight, Washington Post
While President Biden enjoyed widespread praise for releasing an intelligence report concluding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he also received criticism for not sanctioning Mohammed. On March 1, Rep. Tom Malinowski [D-N.J.] introduced a bill denying the prince entry into the United States and conditioning any future US arms sales to Saudi Arabia upon the White House certifying that the kingdom was no longer intimidating its critics in the United States.
That fits with a recent trend: Both Biden and members of Congress have vocally supported curbing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, in part because of the killing of Khashoggi. Their willingness to follow through, however, will face the same challenges that confronted, and ultimately torpedoed, President Jimmy Carter’s resolve to reduce arms sales to the Saudis. In fact, several key developments in US-Saudi relations transformed Carter and members of Congress from advocates of arms-sales restrictions to promoters of expanding sales.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, the United States, Saudi Arabia’s primary arms provider, limited the size and scope of the weapons it sold to the Saudis so as to conserve its limited budget and restrain potential arms races in the Middle East.
During the 1970s, however, oil prices skyrocketed, and Saudi Arabia, at that point the largest oil exporter in the world, enjoyed a windfall. Suddenly, the kingdom had unparalleled influence over the global oil market and enormous revenue with which to buy imports, including weapons. Conversely, the United States experienced rapidly rising energy import costs and fuel shortages. These problems compounded when Saudi Arabia led an Arab oil embargo against the United States in retaliation for its massive arms resupply to "Israel" during the 1973 Arab-"Israeli" War.
The administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford worked strenuously to repair Washington’s tattered alliance with the Saudi monarchy and obtain its help in restraining oil prices, in large part by offering the sale of advanced US weapons. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger offered Saudi King Faisal the US government’s “cooperation in the military field … to strengthen our friendship on a long-term basis.” Faisal and his successors responded positively, ending the Arab oil embargo in 1974 and subduing demands within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries for even higher oil prices. In exchange, US arms and military construction sales to Saudi Arabia soared from $300 million in 1972 to $7.1 billion in 1976.
Yet this provoked increasing opposition within the United States, including in Congress. An array of factors drove this opposition, including a desire to protect "Israel’s" military superiority, to curb costly arms races, to reduce the potential for war and to prevent powerful weapons technology from falling into hostile hands through theft or a coup. Accordingly, in 1974, Congress passed a law empowering itself to veto major arms sales approved by the president. In 1976, a bipartisan coalition used that new tool to compel Ford to reduce missile sales to Saudi Arabia.
That year, Carter, as a presidential candidate, declared that the rise in US arms sales to the Arab world constituted “a deviation from idealism … from a commitment to ['Israel']” and “a yielding to economic pressure … on the oil issue.” Once president, while seeking to preserve Saudi-US cooperation, Carter worked to steadily reduce weapons and military construction sales to Saudi Arabia. In 1977, during his first year in office, they dropped by more than two-thirds.
But Saudi leaders relentlessly pressed for more US weapons, saying they needed to defend themselves against Soviet-armed countries such as Iraq and what was then South Yemen. They especially desired to purchase advanced F-15 jet fighters. Saudi Crown Prince Fahd, for example, told the US ambassador that “the F-15 issue was a basic, crucial test of our relationship” and threatened to obtain comparable weapons from France, Britain or even the Soviet Union, countries that had ignored Carter’s entreaties for shared restraint in global arms transfers.
To preserve the Saudi-US relationship and obtain Saudi cooperation on oil and the Arab-"Israeli" ‘peace’ process, Carter shifted course and agreed to the F-15 sales in 1978. Activists and members of Congress mobilized to block the deal, however, including a young Sen. Joe Biden. Carter, along with Saudi-hired PR firms and corporations doing business in the kingdom, spent significant political and monetary capital in making the case to the American public and Congress that the sale served US interests. In a concession to Congress, Carter provided written assurance that the Saudis would not be given certain missile capabilities for their F-15s. Even then, Carter barely won — the House voted to block the sale, and the Senate fell short of a veto only by six votes after an acrimonious debate.
Two events the following year shook Saudi and US leaders. The 1979 Iranian revolution ousted the US-aligned Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and replaced him with the hostile Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Iran’s massive stockpile of US-made weapons now threatened Saudi Arabia. The Soviet Union subsequently invaded Afghanistan, further inflaming the fears of Saudi royals that the Soviets aimed to encircle and conquer them. These two events generated new urgent pleas from Saudi Arabia for additional US arms.
For Carter and many members of Congress, these events made the Saudi kingdom appear even more vital to US interests. In response, they approved $10.2 billion in arms and military construction sales to Saudi Arabia to reassure its leaders of Washington’s commitment to their security. This decision ended presidential efforts to meaningfully restrain Saudi arms purchases for four decades — until now-President Biden entered office.
In the first weeks of his presidency, Biden declared an end to US support for the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen, where the use of US weapons has inflamed anti-American sentiment and exacerbated a conflict that has killed more than 200,000 Yemenis. He likewise ordered a halt and review of last-minute arms agreements for Saudi Arabia authorized by predecessor Donald Trump. This has raised the hopes of some activists and politicians that Biden might continue to restrict arms to Saudi Arabia so long as its rulers endanger US interests and human rights. But the experience of the Carter administration cautions against assuming this is inevitable, as does Biden’s refusal to sanction Mohammed.
Some of today’s circumstances are quite different from those of the 1970s. Saudi Arabia’s influence over US oil supplies and prices is significantly less now than it was during the Carter years, lessening the pressure on Washington to satisfy arms requests. Conversely, however, the contemporary alliance between “Israel” and Saudi Arabia against Iran means pro-“Israel” lobbyists, a major force against arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, now present, at most, a diminished hurdle.
But the basic bargain established by Nixon and Faisal, and ultimately retained by Carter, remains on the table: The United States sells arms to Saudi Arabia in exchange for Saudi cooperation on issues prioritized by Washington. Whether this arrangement persists depends on the calculations of leaders in both countries.
Saudi Arabia will continue to argue that the threat from Iran necessitates increased weapons imports and threaten to acquire arms elsewhere if US offers are not forthcoming. That would be costly for the Saudis, because their armed forces are heavily reliant on US weapons technology and training, and it would inevitably weaken the Saudi-US relationship. Yet Saudi leaders may reluctantly attempt such an undertaking if they determine Washington has abandoned the alliance or attached too many strings to it.
The Biden administration seeks to maintain the Saudi-US partnership but expects greater Saudi cooperation on human rights and US strategic concerns in exchange for more US weapons. How demanding Biden will be on these points remains to be seen. But just as for Carter, the more Biden believes vital US interests in the Middle East are threatened by Iran or another power, the more likely he is to abandon other objectives and turn to arms sales to secure the Saudi-US alliance.
Congress could prove to be a wild card: It will weigh the same issues as the White House, but historically it has shown more appetite for restricting arms sales to Saudi Arabia. This raises the possibility that it could step in if the administration proves too acquiescent.