60 U.S. Lawmakers Seek Delay of Billion-Dollar Arms Sale to Saudi Arabia

August 30, 2016
In The News

In a sign that frustration is growing in the U.S. Congress over Saudi Arabia, a bipartisan group of 60 lawmakers has signed a letter seeking to delay the Obama administration’s planned sale of $1.15 billion in arms and military equipment to Riyadh.

The letter, addressed to President Barack Obama, cites the growing number of civilian casualties in Yemen caused by the Saudi-led military coalition and the Obama administration’s failure to rein in its Arab ally.

“This military campaign has had a deeply troubling impact on civilians,” wrote the lawmakers in a draft obtained by Foreign Policy. “Just in the last several days, a Saudi airstrike on a school in Yemen killed 10 children — some as young as 6 years old — and a Saudi airstrike on a [Médecins Sans Frontières] hospital in Yemen killed 11 people.”

In a statement, the California Democrat who helped lead the letter campaign, Rep. Ted Lieu, said the “multiple, repeated airstrikes on civilians look like war crimes.”

The missive is expected to be sent to the White House on Tuesday.

The proposed sale, approved by the State Department on Aug. 9, includes up to 153 tanks, ammunition, hundreds of machine guns, and sundry other military equipment. Congress has 30 days to block the sale, but the lawmakers appear irritated that notification of the sale came in the middle of their summer recess.

“Any decision to sell more arms to Saudi Arabia should be given adequate time for full deliberation by Congress,” wrote the lawmakers. “We are concerned, however, that the timing of this notification during the August congressional recess could be interpreted to mean that Congress has little time to consider the arms deal when it returns from recess within the 30-day window established by law.”

The 18-month conflict in Yemen has killed at least 6,000 people and displaced 2.5 million more as Saudi Arabia and its Sunni-majority allies battle Houthi rebels for control of the country. The chaotic fighting has also allowed Islamist militants to deepen their foothold in the country. On Monday, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a massive suicide truck bomb attack that killed 54 people in Aden.

A State Department official declined to comment on whether or not the executive branch would delay the proposed sale, saying he hasn’t yet seen the lawmakers’ letter. The official said the United States remains committed to confronting “any external threat” to the territorial integrity of its Persian Gulf allies, like Saudi Arabia, but added that Riyadh and Houthi rebels “should cease all military action.”

Co-signers of the letter include a mix of Republicans and Democrats, including Reps. Lieu, Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), and Jared Polis (D-Colo.). 

“This is a first step, which shows that members of Congress are increasingly ready to move from expressing private concerns to the administration to taking public action to reduce U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen,” said Robert Naiman, the policy director at Just Foreign Policy, a nonprofit organization focused on reforming U.S. foreign policy.