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Trump's arms sale to Saudis undermines US values

Updated 3:05 PM ET, Tue May 28, 2019

Editor's Note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors; view more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) - It's hard to see much benefit in President Donald Trump's recent decision to make an end run around Congress and push through billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. And it's pretty easy to envision the downsides, particularly regarding munition sales to the Saudis. Once again, Trump has come up with a solution to a problem that doesn't exist and in doing so has, in fact, created a problem -- needlessly tethering America to a reckless and authoritarian regime and undermining US interests and values in the process.

Where's the emergency?

Under the Arms Export Control Act, the President can bypass the congressional approval process if he feels an "emergency exists which requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States." But, as the President found out when he tried to circumvent Congress to fund parts of his border wall, declaring a questionable emergency can be a frowned-upon decision, met with great pushback.

To defend the sales, Trump summoned up the "I word" -- Iran -- to make the case that the United States must help equip its Middle East allies to counter Tehran and its partner militias. Yet, when briefing Congress on the situation with Iran, administration officials didn't even use the word "emergency." Even if the Iranian threat did constitute an emergency, the $8 billion in weapons sales -- some of which are offensive munitions -- seem ill-purposed to respond to Iran's reported sabotage of tankers in the Persian Gulf, support for Houthi rebels who recently used a drone to strike Saudi oil facilities and possible pro-Iranian militia plans to attack US forces in the region.

Indeed, the Saudis are either unprepared, ineffective or irrelevant in dealing with these contingencies. One can be forgiven for thinking that the purpose here was to use the Iran "crisis" to justify these sales because Congress had impeded administration's efforts to go through regular channels.

Following a terrible precedent

As far as relations between the administration and Congress go, these sales can only add to the already-existing tension. Sidestepping Congress on one of the few checks it has in the national security space follows the dangerous precedent that Trump has set of attempting to do as he pleases, regardless of what Congress says. This could likely see a congressional reaction in the form of pushback on future nominees that Trump tries to appoint in his administration.

Some aspects of the sales -- such as refitting F-18 fighter aircraft -- aren't emergency sales at all, as the aircraft are not used by the kingdom but rather sold to countries such as Israel and South Korea. And if, in fact, we are entering a highly fraught period with Iran that could lead to significant military action, now is not the time to sow further mistrust and suspicion with Congress.

Even one of the President's strongest supporters, Sen. Lindsey Graham, made clear that he had a real problem with Trump's decision, largely because, as the CIA concluded, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is believed to have ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia has denied the crown prince's involvement in the killing, but lawmakers' firm beliefs that he was behind it was a key reason for the congressional block on the arms sale.

What's the real downside?

Both the President and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo keep talking about Saudi Arabia as if it were a vital strategic US ally. There's no doubt that the United States has a stake in keeping the Saudis afloat, if only to ensure that there's no disruption in the flow of oil. But the idea that Saudi Arabia -- now led by a crown prince who, while introducing significant social reforms has been accused of running a veritable police state -- shares America's values and interests strains credulity to the breaking point.

Saudi Arabia's economic and political war against Qatar has expanded, not contracted, Iran's influence there, while its human rights violations, not only regarding Khashoggi's killing but also its operations in Yemen that have caused countless civilian deaths, have undermined America's own credibility.

And the munitions in this sale could very well be used to support a Saudi air campaign in Yemen that either through carelessness, incompetence or willful disregard could claim still more innocent lives. The Houthis that Saudi Arabia opposes in Yemen are human rights violators, too, but the Saudi air campaign allows them to do it on a much broader scale.

It may be understandable that an administration that has invested enormously in a maximum pressure campaign against Iran wants to demonstrate solidarity with its Saudi client and show the world that there is at least a power or two that supports it. Or maybe Trump is trying to incentivize the Saudis to work harder to pressure the Palestinians to attend the "economic workshop" that Trump has scheduled as part of his peace plan next month in Bahrain. But clearly, Trump's in his comfort zone when it comes to selling US weapons to wealthy countries, particularly if a national security justification can be deployed.

The only problem is that national security is a weak excuse for the arms sales. Selling weapons without congressional approval to a human rights-violating nation, which has yet to demonstrate full accountability for Khashoggi's death or for its part in a bloody and unwinnable war in Yemen, isn't a policy -- it's a travesty.

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