Congress Should Nix Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates

After decades of acquiescence to vast expansion of executive power, since at least the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a complacent Congress recently has been stirring to mount at least some symbolic pushback against presidential aggrandizement. After the Trump administration’s declaration of a questionable national emergency to transfer funds from defense programs to pay for its border wall after Congress declined to provide funding for it and the administration’s flirtation with declaring another emergency to impose tariffs on Mexico, Congress is mounting resistance to the administration’s declaration of an emergency to get around required congressional approval for $8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In its notification to bypass the Arms Export Control Act’s normal requirement for a 30-day congressional review period for a sale, the administration cited another questionable emergency to expedite the export—that of Iran’s behavior in the Middle East. The administration needs some opposition to this excessive use of “emergencies” to get what it wants.

To begin with any such presidentially declared emergency, or law allowing it, is constitutionally suspect. The framers of the Constitution, concerned about tyranny by the central government or a rogue executive, provided for no such emergency proviso in the document. In fact, the only “emergency” power provided in the Constitution is listed in Article II–which enumerates congressional powers, not executive ones—and concerns the suspension of habeas corpus (the right of people to challenge their detention by the government in court) during the extreme cases of an invasion or insurrection. The last thing the framers would have wanted was a muscular executive declaring numerous emergencies, especially to circumvent Congress on mundane things like a border wall, import tariffs, and arms sales to foreign countries. 

In addition, if Iran’s behavior supporting friendly proxy groups in the Middle East isn’t exactly stabilizing, the behavior of U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia and UAE, certainly hasn’t been any better. UAE has its Special Forces all over the region and is currently conducting an air war against the Houthis in Yemen, with Saudi Arabia, that has likely committed war crimes by killing many civilians. The regime in UAE has also helped Saudi Arabia impose a trade embargo on Qatar, which has friendly relations with Iran—the regional archrival of those two nations. And Muhammed bin Salman (MBS)–the despotic ruler of Saudi Arabia and a protégé of Muhammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the undemocratic ruler of UAE–seems to have gone rogue. In addition to the failed war in Yemen and ineffectual embargo against Qatar, MBS has led a crackdown against opponents, including the brutal murder overseas of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the lock-up and shakedown of rich Saudis to get money for his regime. 

Thus, the Trump administration’s labeling of Iran as not only a troublemaker in the region, but one of emergency proportions, is curious—given the wildly unacceptable behavior of allies that are even less democratic than its designated villain. The single biggest foreign-policy error of the administration so far was its exit from the Iran nuclear deal, which at least delayed Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon for a decade or more. However, the administration fell victim to allies in the region that wanted to use a U.S. war to cripple their nemesis in the region. The president should avoid completely demonizing Iran and being dragged into war, as his hardline and neoconservative advisers seem to desire.

The president pledged during his campaign to avoid needless wars, especially in the Middle East. However, he regularly uses threats to get countries to the negotiating table—as he has done with North Korea, China, Canada, and Mexico—and seems, in contrast to his hawkish advisers, to want to do the same with Iran. He appears to want to wrap up U.S. reentry into the Iran nuclear deal with an Iranian agreement to curtail its missile program and discontinue aid to proxy groups in the Persian Gulf region. But Congress needs to help Trump toward a more balanced policy in the region–to create more trust in Iran for any such negotiations–by nixing the arms sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE. Such votes will likely will be only a symbolic action because the president will probably veto the resolution of disapproval, as he did with Congress’s negation of his border state of emergency and its vote to discontinue assistance to Saudi Arabia and UAE in their war with Yemen; but it will be another step to a more even-handed US policy in a region of declining importance to U.S. security and a much needed, if modest, pushback on executive power long gone rogue.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include War and the Rogue Presidency, Eleven Presidents, The Empire Has No Clothes, Recarving Rushmore, and No War for Oil.
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