June 18, 2019

Trump Circumvents Congress to Sell Weapons to Middle East Allies

Trump Circumvents Congress to Sell Weapons to Middle East Allies


WASHINGTON — President Trump circumvented Congress on Friday by declaring an emergency over Iran and moving forward with arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan that had been blocked by Congress since last year.

Mr. Trump also announced on Friday that he would order about 1,500 additional troops to the Middle East to increase protection of those American forces already there. The new deployment is less than what hard-liners in the Trump White House were said to have wanted, and below what commanders in the region were considering.

With the pending arms sales, Mr. Trump is back in a comfort zone of viewing diplomacy through a lens of economics and business deals, and the action reinforces White House support for the Saudis despite congressional pressure to punish Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the killing last October of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

The weapons sales decision immediately drew criticism from lawmakers, who are also furious over the civilian death toll from the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen.

[Read more: Iranian officials responded on Saturday with a threat of “two new secret weapons.”]

With the two decisions, the Trump administration is rewarding allies like Saudi Arabia and arming them to counter Iran and its partner Arab militias, even as the president himself remains reluctant to more significantly increase the number of military personnel on the ground in conflict zones across the Middle East.

Both moves will almost certainly be seen by Iran’s clerical leaders as further escalations by Washington one year after Mr. Trump withdrew from a 2015 nuclear containment deal, to which Iran was adhering, and reimposed harsh sanctions on the country.

The troop increase is far less than had been anticipated; American commanders in the region initially proposed asking the White House for an increase of 20,000, officials said. In the end, the actual troop increase will be 900 because 600 of the troops are already there and will simply see their deployments extended.

“We want to have protection,” Mr. Trump said to reporters as he left the White House to travel to Japan for a state visit. “We’ll see what happens.”

The move on arms sales drew strong condemnation.

“I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the Trump administration has failed once again to prioritize our long-term national security interests or stand up for human rights, and instead is granting favors to authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia,” said Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator Jim Risch, Republican of Idaho and the chairman of the panel, was more muted. In a brief statement, he said he was “reviewing and analyzing the legal justification for this action and the associated implications.”

American companies will now be able to sell $8.1 billion worth of munitions in 22 pending transfers to the three Arab nations. The two gulf countries are waging an air war in Yemen that has come under sharp criticism from Congress and human rights organizations. Some of the munitions would take years to produce and deliver, so it is not obvious how those sales are consistent with the argument that the exports are to address an immediate crisis with Iran.

A part of the arrangement involves a transfer of munitions from the United Arab Emirates to Jordan that has nothing to do with Iran, said one person briefed on the decision.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had pushed hard for the move, over the objections of career Foreign Service officers and legislators. “These sales will support our allies, enhance Middle East stability and help these nations to deter and defend themselves from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Mr. Pompeo said on Friday afternoon.

The acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, described the troop deployment as a “prudent defensive measure and intended to reduce the possibility of future hostilities.”

In a statement, he said the deployment would consist of a Patriot missile-defense battalion — which is already there and will see its deployment extended — additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft; an engineer element to improve protection measures for military personnel; and a fighter aircraft squadron. The warplanes are able to carry out offensive as well as defensive operations.

The president reached his decision after a meeting on Thursday at the White House with top national security aides, and concluded that a small increase would be sufficient.

During a Pentagon briefing on Friday, Defense Department officials for the first time publicly accused Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of attacks on four oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Vice Adm. Michael Gilday, the director of the Defense Department’s Joint Staff, said American intelligence has attributed the attacks to Iran. But he disclosed no supporting evidence.

Officials said that Mr. Shanahan rejected a request by the military’s Central Command for a larger troop request because he feared that Mr. Trump would reject it. But Admiral Gilday insisted during a news conference that 1,500 was all that Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the Central Command head, ever wanted.

The Defense Department notified Congress of the new deployment on Friday, shortly before a State Department official told legislators in a call about the emergency declaration over Iran and arms sales to the gulf nations.

Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that he would soon offer bipartisan legislation with the panel’s top Republican “to ensure that Congress plays its rightful role ensuring that arms sales are prudent and consistent with U.S. law and protection of civilians.”

Members of Congress from both parties have been holding up arms sales from American companies to gulf nations and trying to end American military support for the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has resulted in what the United Nations calls the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster.

“This is not the time to further escalate tensions with Iran, and certainly not for the sake of pressing through arms sales that might run up against bipartisan opposition in Congress,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a Middle East analyst at RAND Corporation, a research group.

Lawmakers are furious with the Trump administration over its weak response to the grisly death of Mr. Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Virginia resident. They have also blamed the administration for aggravating the Yemen crisis and for the killing of civilians there in the four-year-old civil war. Last summer, Mr. Menendez blocked the sale by Raytheon of $2 billion worth of precision-guided munitions to gulf nations.

Members of Congress usually have a review period during which they can pass legislation modifying or prohibiting a prospective arms sale. But a provision in the Arms Export Control Act allows the president to bypass congressional review if he deems “an emergency exists that requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States.”

Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the administration’s overall Iran strategy “ill conceived,” saying in a statement that it increases the odds of confrontation. But Mr. Reed added that “we have an obligation to protect our personnel and facilities in the Middle East.”

A State Department official, R. Clarke Cooper, who was confirmed last month by the Senate as assistant secretary of political-military affairs, told members of Congress and their aides about the arms sales in a conference call.

People on the call pressed him on the rationale behind the administration’s declaring an emergency over Iran. In briefings on Tuesday on Iran to the full House and Senate, administration officials did not mention an “emergency.”

Mr. Cooper was also asked about the role of Charles Faulkner, a deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Legislative Affairs, in pushing for the arms sales. In a previous job as a lobbyist at BGR Group, Mr. Faulkner represented Raytheon. Mr. Cooper responded that he did not have knowledge of Mr. Faulkner’s involvement.

The move on the arms sales comes only weeks before the White House is expected to unveil a plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and main Middle East adviser, Jared Kushner, is seeking support from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and other Arab nations for the plan, which is expected to include economic aid for the Palestinians but not help in their goals for nationhood.

The preparations for the arms sales first emerged in public on Wednesday, when Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, criticized it on Twitter. Republican legislators have also denounced it.





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