Well, now I’ve got answers to some of my questions.
The weapons sale was one of the largest in history, totaling close to $110 billion worth of tanks, artillery, radar systems, armored personnel carriers, and Blackhawk helicopters. The package also included ships, patrol boats, Patriot missiles, and THAAD missile defense systems.
Much of that military hardware will likely be pressed into service in the Saudi fight against its neighbor Yemen, where more than 10,000 people have been killed over more than two years of heavy airstrikes and fighting.
This puts the U.S. in a precarious ethical position, say human rights groups and former U.S. officials. The Saudi-led airstrike campaign has hit numerous schools, hospitals, factories, and other civilian targets, leading to well-documented allegations of war crimes by human rights organizations. The war has also pushed much of the country to the brink of starvation, with more than 17 million people facing famine, according to the U.N.
“There’s a humanitarian aspect that tends to be ignored. This is something that will come back to bite the Saudis as well, and by implication the Americans, because we’re the ones providing the bombs and bullets,” says Robert Jordan, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia appointed by George W. Bush.
Under the Obama administration, the United States supported the bombing campaign from the beginning, including providing tanker aircraft to refuel Saudi coalition jets in midair. As civilian deaths mounted, Obama scaled back support in 2016, halting the sale of cluster bombs and also halting a $400 million transfer of precision guided missiles, citing what one U.S. official called “systemic, endemic” problems with how the Saudi military chose targets in Yemen.
Rights advocates criticized Obama’s decision to stop the deliveries of some weapons as an inadequate gesture. But Trump’s surge in weapons dispenses with any pretense of American disapproval for the conduct of the campaign in Yemen.
The weapons deal has also raised legal questions. In a legal opinion sent to the U.S. Senate on May 19, the American Bar Association’s Human Rights Center argued that continued arms sales are illegal under American laws that ban sales to states that violate international law. The letter, authored by Vanderbilt Professor and retired U.S. Army Lt. Michael Newton, cited “consistent and credible reports of clear violations of internationally recognized human rights” by Saudi Arabia’s armed forces.