WASHINGTON – A push to block the Trump administration from selling billions of dollars in weapons to the United Arab Emirates failed in the Senate on Wednesday, despite bipartisan opposition to the transfer of high-tech military drones and stealth F-35 fighter jets to the Arab nation.
Those items were part of a broader $23 billion weapons deal, which the administration is trying to finalize before President Donald Trump leaves office.
The push to halt the weapons deal highlights an ongoing rift between Congress and the White House over the Trump administration’s aggressive push to sell U.S.-made arms to its allies in the Middle East. Last year, the House and Senate passed a similar measure aimed at blocking an $8 billion weapons sale to Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, but Trump vetoed it.
Wednesday’s Senate vote came after the White House helped clinch a historic agreement normalizing relations between the UAE and Israel, negotiated in part by Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner.
Kushner and other Trump administration officials have refused to say whether, as part of the deal, they promised to push through the weapons sales to the UAE.
Although the Senate measure to block the deal fell short, it’s not clear if the White House can complete the arms deal before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
Trump and his GOP allies have argued that the UAE needs American weapons to confront Iran, which the White House has cast as the most dangerous force in the region.
“A vote for this resolution is a vote to give Iran, China and Russia more power and influence in the region, and will make our world less safe,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said ahead of Wednesday’s debate.
Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., said the weapons are “critical to the UAE’s defense” and will ease America’s burden of protecting its allies in the Middle East.
“We would rather have the best US-equipment or we will reluctantly find it from other sources, even if less capable,” he wrote in a statement posted on Twitter. “The US is the UAE’s security partner of choice … In the world’s most dangerous neighborhood, it is critical for our protection and for our shared interests and values w/ the US.”
But Democrats and a handful of Republicans have expressed concern about how the UAE and the Saudis have used American weapons – particularly in Yemen, where the two countries have led a horrific bombing campaign that has left thousands of civilians dead and sparked a humanitarian disaster. Critics also fear the weapons deal will spark an arms race in an already dangerous part of the world.
“Why on earth does the Middle East need Reaper drones, never mind F-35s, especially when the recipient of these drones has been regularly participating in the killing of civilians, either by accident or on purpose inside of Yemen?” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said during a podcast interview last week.
He said it’s “crystal clear that the administration is rushing this sale through” as part of an undisclosed element of the so-called Abraham Accords, the formal name of the UAE-Israel normalization agreement, which also includes Bahrain.
Murphy, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the incoming Biden administration may be able to stop some of the weapons from being transferred or at least impose conditions on the UAE’s purchase.
“It’s just impossible to get this large of a sale actually done and completed before January 20,” he said in the podcast interview. “And my hope is that … (Biden will) take a fresh look at whether there’s wisdom in giving this level of arms to a country that has a history of violating arms embargoes, transferring weapons to Salafist militias inside the Middle East” and killing civilians in Yemen.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said the deal would reward the UAE for its conduct in Yemen and could also jeopardize Israel’s military edge in the region.
“It’s a bad idea to reward them for bad behavior in Yemen,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill last week. “It’s a bad idea to give weapons that are our qualified military advantage over the rest of the world to countries who may or may not always be with us, that are autocracies or monarchies that don’t share our values.”
” … But I think it also leads to an arms race in the Middle East,” Paul added.
Contributing: Jeanine Santucci
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Senate fails to block controversial Trump weapons deal with the UAE