On Monday evening, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a secret briefing with representatives of the Trump administration to learn of a planned US $ 23 billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates. When it came to an end, one of the participants blew up what had been going on behind closed doors.
"Just an overwhelming number of unanswered problems and questions that the government couldn't answer," tweeted Democratic Senator Chris Murphy. "However, it is difficult to exaggerate the risk of rushing this."
That comment underscored the growing political struggle over the arms deal announced in early November, a conflict that could severely damage America's relations with its authoritarian ally and the military balance in the Middle East.
President Donald Trump plans to sell up to 50 F-35 fighter jets, nearly 20 Reaper drones, and around 14,000 bombs and ammunition to the UAE – and he wants to do so before President-elect Joe Biden enters the Oval Office and potentially sinks the sale .
The government has specifically linked the massive arms package to Trump's broader efforts to combat Iran and the normalization of UAE relations with Israel in August.
"This is an acknowledgment of our deepened relationship and the UAE's need for advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend itself from increased threats from Iran," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement announcing his approval of the sale. "The UAE's historic agreement to normalize relations with Israel under the Abrahamic Agreement offers a unique opportunity to positively transform the region's strategic landscape."
Some Republicans and Democrats in Congress, as well as certain activist groups, oppose the proposed arms transfer, saying that a country responsible for killing civilians in Yemen and funding Russian mercenaries in Libya does not deserve having even better weapons from the US to be rewarded.
"Selling such advanced military equipment to the UAE now would support these policies and threaten US interests and regional stability," said Seth Binder, advocacy officer for the Middle East Democracy Project, which supports the efforts of arms control organizations and arms control organizations leads human rights groups to stop the sale.
Which means there will be a heated argument going on in the next 50 days prior to Biden's takeover over one of Trump's last major foreign policy initiatives that he is trying to get through before time runs out.
"It's going too fast," said Michael Hanna, Middle East security expert at the Century Foundation in New York City. "Process is important, substance is important, and neither is good here."
Why the UAE want guns from the US
The UAE has long wanted advanced warplanes and world-class drones that would make it a bigger and more powerful player in the region – not just militarily but politically.
"We're not talking about going to war here. We're talking about changes in the Middle East," said Dalia Fahmy, a UAE foreign policy expert at Long Island University. "The UAE are doing well in the region. It is about being able to use this perceived power. "
In other words, the UAE wants the most advanced combat aircraft in the world, the F-35, as well as surveillance and attack drones because then they could throw their weight around in the Middle East. That sounds good in principle – after all, most nations try to increase their power and influence whenever they can. A big question, however, is exactly how – and where – the UAE can attempt to do this.
The sale was "not helpful (for the US) when there is more adventurous spirit in Libya or the Horn of Africa," said a State Department official who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to do so Press to speak. "It may be helpful in a theoretical multilateral framework" against Iran.
Both Trump and Biden would certainly prefer to see the country use its weapons against Iran in the event of a war and not bomb innocent men, women and children in Yemen, where the UAE is waging a war as part of a Saudi Arabia. led coalition.
According to two Senate sources familiar with the discussion, determining the assurances the US received from the UAE prior to the sale took up much of Monday's Senate hearing.
Murphy's tweet made it clear that the senators' responses were unsatisfactory – and now he and others are trying to prevent the broadcast.
There is a five tier case against the arms trade in the UAE
On November 18, three senators – senior Democrat Murphy and Senate for Foreign Relations Robert Menendez, along with Republican Rand Paul – tabled four joint resolutions to prevent the UAE's arms deal.
"Congress intervenes again to prevent the national security of the US and that of our allies from being profitably compromised, and hopefully to prevent a new arms race in the Middle East," Menendez said in a statement at the time.
These resolutions must be voted on and passed by December 11th or they will expire and pave Trump's path to sale. Whether the blocking efforts are working or not, the resolutions help make the five main arguments against the deal clear.
The first, as mentioned above, is that the UAE could use weapons indiscriminately and kill civilians in Yemen or elsewhere. Without clear guarantees that this will not happen, the senators and activists do not want the measure to move forward.
The second concern is that Israel may lose its so-called "Qualitative Military Edge" (QME) in the Middle East. Simply put, US policy since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war has been to ensure that Israel has more powerful forces than its Arab neighbors. Israel and others fear the VA-F-35 and drones could undermine this advantage.
However, this issue has recently "lost its relevance," said Barbara Leaf, the US ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 2014 to 2018. The main reason is that the Israeli government in October raised its objection, particularly against the F-35- Dropped transfers. Soon after the Pentagon promised Jerusalem, its edge would remain intact.
"It's more about the foreign policy dimensions of the proposed sale," said Leaf.
That brings us to the third objection: The United Arab Emirates, with these advanced weapons, could change the balance of power in the Middle East and make the Gulf country an even stronger and more influential regional actor. If that were the case, experts told me, the UAE could use its newfound strength to attack its enemy, Iran, alone and behind other representatives in the region.
But some are not that concerned about this possibility. "This will not change the military balance in the Middle East," said Leaf, now at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC. "Iran's missile and unconventional arsenals are huge and could cause immense damage, even if the UAE gets the F-35."
The fourth problem is the potential for an arms race. If the UAE is getting a lot of advanced weapons, others – like Qatar and Iran, the UAE's opponents – may want them too. At this point, any country can continue to buy more and more weapons until the region becomes increasingly militarized and dangerous. This is a result that many experts hope to avoid, although such a possibility is still a long way off.
The fifth concern is that in a few months the Trump administration will be going through a deal that would normally take years to complete. “That will definitely fall through. It's an unusual and bad practice, ”said Hanna of the Century Foundation.
What usually happens is that an agreement is carefully worked out between the two parties first, then carefully scrutinized by the State Department and the Pentagon, and then long-term consultations with Congress begin. For example, one point up for debate would be the Israel issue, which could take years to eradicate.
In that case, the Trump administration wants to move from an announcement in November to a sale before January 20, the day Biden is sworn in as president. This is only unknown with a weapon package of this size.
Because of this, a Senate assistant told me that they don't want the deal to come about until "they dot the me and cross the T".
Until then, the backlash against the deal is likely to persist.
Are you helping keep Vox free for everyone?
Millions of people rely on Vox to understand how Washington policy choices, from health care to unemployment to housing, can affect their lives. Our work is well-sourced, research-oriented, and thorough. And that kind of work requires resources. Even after the economy recovers, advertising alone will never be enough to support it. If you've already contributed to Vox, thank you. If you don't, you are helping us keep our journalism free for everyone by contributing as little as $ 3 today.