When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared emergency conditions allowed him to override congressional objections and approve 22 US arms sales — together valued around $8 billion — to three members of the Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen’s civil war, his department failed to adequately consider how many innocent civilians those weapons would be used to kill.
So concluded a report from the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG), released in a redacted version last week. Pompeo didn’t violate the letter of the law, the report said, acknowledging his “considerable discretion in determining what constitutes an emergency,” a circumstance the Arms Export Control Act neglects to define. But that doesn’t mean his actions were ethically — or strategically — defensible.
Under Pompeo’s purview, the OIG found, State has made a habit of approving sales below thresholds that would trigger congressional review. The department even sells components of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) this way, skirting the holds Congress has placed on PGM sales specifically because of their use in high-profile Saudi strikes on civilian targets in Yemen, like the infamous school bus bombing of 2018 that killed dozens of children. And throughout this practice of technical compliance, the OIG said, Pompeo’s State “Department did not fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties.”
In plainer terms, State bypassed Congress to sell unsavory governments weapons that will kill more children in a nation already suffering the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth.
In plainer terms, State bypassed Congress to sell unsavory governments weapons that will kill more children in a nation already suffering the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth. And why? Because the Trump administration has time and again showed itself committed to the US-Saudi relationship no matter the damage to US interests or conscience.
The administration defends the relationship by painting Saudi Arabia as an important supplier of oil, purchaser of US weapons, and “ally” against Iran. But the United States is a net energy exporter and the largest producer of oil; we don’t need Saudi oil. A few billion in weapons sales is not the great boon to our economy Trump seems to imagine, while the regional chaos and suffering to which these arms contribute undoubtedly costs Americans far more than the profits a few military contractors accrue.
And Saudi Arabia is not a US ally (we have no mutual defense treaty with Riyadh), nor should it be. All the major allegations the administration makes against Iran — human rights abuses, oppression of religious minorities, links to terrorism, fraught relations with Israel, a questionable nuclear program — may be equally levied against the Saudi regime. Taking sides in this regional conflict by tying ourselves to Riyadh and facilitating its troublemaking does not serve US interests.
That is particularly so in Yemen, where US intervention does not serve any American interests — if anything, the anger it engenders may make us less safe. The Saudi-led air war in Yemen, which would not be possible on such a scale without US enablement of the Saudi air force, has consistently been responsible for high levels of civilian casualties, which the OIG report indicates continue to this day. The coalition also continues to blockade Yemen’s air and sea ports, creating artificial famine, and it has destroyed important water treatment facilities, fostering a cholera epidemic before the arrival of COVID-19, which also thrives in unsanitary conditions. Like the Obama administration before it, the Trump administration has helped make these horrors possible even though Yemen’s civil war is a local matter with little connection to US security half a world away.
The arms sales the OIG report reviews were legal. That does not mean, as an unnamed State official told reporters Monday, there was “no wrongdoing.” Legality should be the baseline of our foreign policy choices, not a singlehanded justifier. Adding fuel to the fire of regional violence at the cost of innocent lives might comply with our laws, but that doesn’t make it smart or right.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.