Never Mind Yemen, Biden OKs $1 Billion in Weapons Sales To Saudis

Once upon a time, an administration told a story about how it was going to end a war. Then it erased the distinction between peace and a Saudi victory. 

Never Mind Yemen, Biden OKs $1 Billion in Weapons Sales To Saudis
An Apache helicopter firing during the Northern Thunder military exercises in Hafr al-Batin, Saudi Arabia. Fayez Nureldine, via Getty

Edited by Sam Thielman

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THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION HAS APPROVED more than $1 billion worth of weapons purchases to Saudi Arabia in two months, despite President Biden promising in February that he was “ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”

It started with a $500 million maintenance/support deal to keep a suite of Saudi helicopters flying—including their fleet of AH-64D/E Apache attack helos—that the State Department approved on Sept. 16. Then, on Nov. 4, came approval for Riyadh’s $650 million purchase of Raytheon’s AIM-120C air-to-air missiles, which amounts to 280 missiles total, along with the rail systems for the Saudi fighter jets to launch them.

This is exactly what it looks like. Several senior Biden administration officials, many of them also Obama appointees, had called on Donald Trump to end the U.S.-Saudi-United Arab Emirates war when they were out of power. But the Biden administration’s overriding prerogative when it comes to Riyadh is to preserve the U.S.-Saudi relationship, despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s whole chopping-people-up-and-also-starving-entire-populations thing. Biden has now made that preservation material, to the tune of $1.15 billion.

So much for this January prediction from Rep. Ro Khanna, and I’ll bet the guy who wrote it up feels real stupid. Capital’s favorite theocracy, which floats atop a sea of oil, is not a regime accustomed to experiencing consequences. COP26 proved that the countries pledged to the interests of capital are unwilling to abandon hydrocarbons even in the face of extinction.

The new weapons sale is consistent with a broader pattern over the past year in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Biden’s envoy for “ending” the Yemen war, Tim Lenderking, conducts diplomacy that conspicuously aligns with the Saudi position far more than it diverges. You can read this reported piece of mine from April going into that in detail, but the U.S. position, consistent from Obama to Trump to Biden, is that the Houthis—the Iranian client movement whose overthrow of a Saudi/U.S. client prompted an horrific Saudi reprisal that has lasted six years—are the obstacle to peace.

The longer the administration operates along that position, the more it removes the distinction between peace and Saudi victory. And one thing that is most conspicuous about MBS’s pitiless war in Yemen is that Saudi victory is unobtainable, no matter how much he—backed by Washington—wages it against the Yemeni people through measures like his blockade. In October, Reuters reported that the Saudis were even arguing that the price of lifting the blockade would be… arms sales.

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MY UNDERSTANDING OF the administration’s defense of the missile sales revolves around what Biden said right after the quote I put up top: “Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV strikes, and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries. We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”

Under that framework, the helicopter support and the 280 missiles are defensive weapons. A State Department spokesperson confirms to Forever Wars that the administration continues a pause on air-to-ground missile sales that it emplaced shortly after taking office.

The missile sale “is fully consistent with the administration’s pledge to lead with diplomacy to end the conflict in Yemen while also ensuring Saudi Arabia has the means to defend itself from an increasing number of Iranian-backed Houthi air attacks,” the spokesperson said. “We've seen an increase in cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia over the past year. Saudi AIM-120C missiles, deployed from Saudi aircraft, have been instrumental in intercepting the persistent UAS [drone] attacks on the Kingdom that also put more than 70,000 U.S. citizens living and working in Saudi Arabia at risk.”

But even if the Saudis’ exclusive use of the air-to-air missiles is to shoot down Houthi drones—so-called AMRAAMs are not sensible weapons to aim at civilian targets for a variety of technical reasons, although look out below a successful interception, to say nothing of a miss—that doesn’t change the fact that Biden continues to arm one of the combatants in a war he has formally pledged to end. The war is what led the Houthis to get drones from Iran for reprisal attacks on the Saudis!

Beyond the circular logic of the war, the administration’s These-Are-Only-Defensive-Weapons argument is a porous membrane presenting itself as a solid wall. The “defensive weapons” free up resources the Saudis can route back into the war. Fundamentally, these word games demonstrate that Biden does not seek to impose any cost on Riyadh. The administration merely prefers the Yemen war be less egregious going forward.

The missile sale is not without opposition. On Friday, Rep. Ilhan Omar announced she will introduce a resolution to block the purchase. Her arguments did not stop at the Yemen war, but instead took aim at the terms of the broader U.S.-Saudi relationship that Biden seeks to preserve. “It is simply unconscionable to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia while they continue to slaughter innocent people and starve millions in Yemen, kill and torture dissidents, and support modern-day slavery,” Omar said in a press release.

After the Jamal Khashoggi slaying, Congress was willing to end U.S. support for the Yemen war. That was under Trump. We’ll see if a Democratic Congress is similarly willing to cross Biden.

It’s also conspicuous that in September, the State Department moved forward with an arms sale to Egypt—frustrating human rights advocates—but conditioned some of the money on reforms. Nothing like that basement-level effort is in effect with the Saudi missile sale. I asked the State Department about that but the answer I got wasn’t responsive, dwelling just on Egypt-qua-Egypt rather than the specific discrepancy I asked about.

REMEMBER WHEN I SAID that I would be speaking at MIT in person on Thursday? That’s getting rescheduled to… early next year? I’ll be speaking next, virtually, to UCLA on Dec. 1. Sign up for that here. My next in-person is going to be at D.C.’s Sixth & I synagogue on Jan. 27, where I’ll be in conversation with Wajahat Ali about REIGN and his new book Go Back To Where You Came From. Jenn White from WAMU is going to moderate. Sign up for that here!

DON’T MISS SHOSHANA ZUBOFF’S New York Times op-ed from Sunday about Facebook. With her typical insight, she explains the agony of surveillance capitalism and arrays the terrain of democratic resistance to it—not through adjudicating the truth of what people post, but on the root cause of surveillance capitalism: data extraction. Shoshana wants to regulate it. I wonder what the world would look like if we asserted and enforced ownership of data we create.