Obama Shouldn’t Trade Cluster Bombs for Saudi Arabia’s Friendship

When President Obama visits Saudi Arabia this week for a meeting with representatives from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, he should avoid doing what he did at Camp David last May, the last time he met with them: promise more arms sales. Since Mr. Obama hosted that meeting, the United States has offered over $33 billion in weaponry to its Persian Gulf allies, with the bulk of it going to Saudi Arabia. The results have been deadly.

The Saudi-American arms deals are a continuation of a booming business that has developed between Washington and Riyadh during the Obama years. In the first six years of the Obama administration, the United States entered into agreements to transfer nearly $50 billion in weaponry to Saudi Arabia, with tens of billions of dollars of additional offers in the pipeline.

The Pentagon claims that these arms transfers to Saudi Arabia “improve the security of an important partner which has been and continues to be an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.” Recent Saudi actions suggest otherwise.

A prime example of what’s wrong with unbridled American weapons transfers to the Saudi government is the Saudi-led war in Yemen. According to the United Nations, more than 3,200 civilians have been killed since Saudi bombing began last March. A majority of these deaths have been a result of airstrikes, many of which have been carried out with aircraft, bombs and missiles supplied by the United States and Britain, including United States-supplied cluster bombs.

The use of cluster bombs is of particular concern. These munitions are banned by an international treaty — a treaty that neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia has signed. The United States also provides logistical support to the Royal Saudi Air Force for its airstrikes in Yemen.


President Obama with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, center, and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in May 2015. CreditManuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

The Obama administration says that it has urged restraint from the Saudis, but that doesn’t appear to have worked. Human Rights Watch has reportedthat two Saudi strikes on a market in the Yemeni village of Mastaba in mid-March killed at least 97 civilians, including 25 children. This was just one in a series of Saudi strikes on marketplaces, hospitals and other civilian targets, attacks that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have said may constitute war crimes.

But American arms transfers to Saudi Arabia are questionable not only on human rights grounds. They also have negative strategic consequences. The Saudi-led incursion against Houthi rebels in Yemen has opened the way for jihadist groups to gain territory and influence. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is now firmly entrenched in the Yemeni city of Mukalla and has reportedly used its position there to raise over $100 million by looting banks and charging fees for the use of the local port.

Mr. Obama seems to understand that uncritical support for the Saudis will only make the security situation in the Middle East worse. In an interviewwith Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, the president acknowledged that competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran “has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen,” and he said that Riyadh and Tehran should “share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.” This isn’t going to happen if billions of dollars worth of American arms continue to flow to Saudi Arabia with no effective conditions on how they are used.

One justification that has been put forward for the continued flow of weaponry from the United States to Saudi Arabia is that it provides reassurance to the kingdom’s leadership that Washington won’t tilt toward the Iranians in the wake of the deal reached last year over Iran’s nuclear program. But if demonstrating a commitment to the Saudi government entails supporting deadly and reckless initiatives, like the war in Yemen, the policy is not worth the price.

Another reason the arms deals with Saudi Arabia keep coming is that they are a bonanza for American arms makers that need foreign markets to make up for a leveling off of Pentagon procurement. But domestic economic concerns should not be allowed to override American security interests in the Middle East.

Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, and Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, have introduced legislation that would stop transfers of air-to-ground munitions to Saudi Arabia until the kingdom focuses its efforts in Yemen on attacking terrorist organizations and takes “all feasible precautions to reduce the risk of harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure.” This is a good start.

Mr. Obama should also use his trip to press King Salman to adhere to a newly imposed cease-fire in Yemen and agree to permanently end his country’s indiscriminate bombing there as part of United Nations peace talks. And the president should make clear that transfers of bombs and missiles to the kingdom will stop until King Salman does so. That should be the first step in a much-needed re-evaluation of the security implications of open-ended arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

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