by Brian Garvey
Joe Biden said he would stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia. He didn’t. On December 7th the entire US Senate weighed in, exposing their positions on the US-Saudi alliance and the war in Yemen.
Considering a privileged Joint Resolution of Disapproval (SJRes31) two-thirds of the of the Senate decided to allow the sale of 280 Raytheon air-to-air missiles and missile launchers to Saudi Arabia. Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced the resolution to block the sale of these weapons to Saudi Arabia, approved by the Biden Administration. He was immediately joined by Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey not only voted to stop the sale, they cosponsored the legislation. Representatives Jim McGovern and Ayanna Pressley were among the few members of Congress to cosponsor the House version.
This vote should not have been necessary. There was supposed to be a stark difference between Joe Biden and Donald Trump on the issue of Yemen. Donald Trump openly and repeatedly used his power to give support to Saudi Arabia. In contrast, during his campaign candidate Joe Biden said he would make Saudi Arabia “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are,” and that there was “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”
In his first foreign policy speech as president Biden started to backtrack, but he still pledged to stop assisting all offensive operations and all relevant arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Though at the time it was viewed as a victory for Yemeni-American activists, peace advocates, and Congressional progressives there was serious cause for skepticism. In the very same address, President Biden committed the United States to “support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty.” Needless to say this was far more ambiguous than his campaign promise.
Seeking clarification, progressive members of Congress led by Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon asked for straight answers. What did the President mean exactly by relevant arms sales? What is the difference between offensive and defensive weapons according to the administration? In Defazio’s words they received a “disappointing non-answer.”
On November the 4th the Biden Administration finally provided Congressman DeFazio an answer when the State Department approved the sale of $650 million in missiles and missile launchers made by Raytheon Technologies. These weapons, air-to-air missiles to be fired from Saudi Royal Air Force planes, are described by the Biden Administration as “defensive weapons,” but it just isn’t so.
These air-to-air missiles, made by Massachusetts headquartered Raytheon Technologies, are offensive weapons in the hands of Saudi Arabia. Why? Because Saudi Arabia is currently blockading Yemen by air, land, and sea. The airport in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a has been shut since August of 2016. Humanitarian aid can’t be flown in. Patients needing urgent medical care can’t be flown out. The air blockade is maintained by threatening to shoot down aircraft. The missiles that the Biden Administration and Congress just approved are exactly the weapons used to conduct an air blockade.
“Saudi Arabia threatens any plane or ship that tries to end the blockade with bombing,” said Dr. Aisha Jumaan, public health expert and president of the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation to InTheseTimes reporter Sarah Lazare. We were joined by Dr. Jumaan on November 29th for a webinar designed to promote phone calls and letters to senators. In the program she described her recent trip to Yemen. Unable to fly directly into Sana’a because of the air blockade Dr. Jumaan was forced to travel by land across war-torn Yemen, through dangerous checkpoints to get to the capital.
The weapons that put her in unnecessary danger are not defensive. While it commits war crimes in Yemen there are no “good” weapons in the hands of Saudi Arabia.
With the approval of these weapons sales to Saudi Arabia President Joe Biden has revealed that he has no intention of treating Saudi Arabia as a “pariah,” as he said during his campaign. His argument just doesn’t make sense.
An argument could be made that a handgun is a defensive weapon. Handguns are commonly carried by law enforcement agents and security guards. They’re also commonly used in murders and armed robberies. Whether a weapon is defensive or offensive depends on who’s holding it and who it’s being pointed at. There’s a reason why handguns are not sold to convicted felons. Selling missiles to Saudi Arabia is like selling a Colt .45 to a violent criminal. In this case the buyer has a rap sheet that’s a mile long.
To borrow a term from President Biden himself, his argument is malarkey. You just don’t sell missiles to pariahs, plain and simple.
But the fault doesn’t just lie with the president. Congress is letting it happen and partisan politics play a major role. When Donald Trump was in the White House every Democrat in the Senate opposed both the war in Yemen and weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Only about half of them voted to stop the recent weapons deal. In a 67-30 vote on December 7th the US Senate failed to block the sale. Even Senator Chris Murphy sided with the administration, abandoning his partners on the Yemen War Powers Resolution Mike Lee and Bernie Sanders.
President Biden has shown that his campaign promises were not serious. He isn’t going to use the considerable leverage of the United States to end the war in Yemen. He’s not going to punish the leadership of Saudi Arabia for their crimes. Before the vote the White House released a statement “strongly opposing” the effort to stop the weapons sale. Democratic leadership allowed passage of a defense policy bill that not only increased the military budget to $770 billion, it also stripped out any language that would end US complicity in Saudi’s war on Yemen.
Now the ball is back in our court. Peace and antiwar activists cannot accept the status quo, facilitation of crimes against humanity in Yemen. Senators and Representatives of conscience need to use their own leverage to hold President Biden accountable. They can publicly criticize a president of their own party. They can force votes on arms sales and War Powers Resolutions. As always, constituents will have a major role. Because of profiteers like Raytheon Technologies, Massachusetts continues to bear greater responsibility to oppose this war. The strength of our representatives on the issue provides us an opportunity to do so.
Brian Garvey is Assistant Director of Massachusetts Peace Action. He is also an active member of the Raytheon Antiwar Campaign.