Congress will soon have its final chance to rein in President Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda, with lawmakers preparing to force votes to block a massive new weapons sale to the Middle East.
Trump’s most contentious foreign-policy decisions have often drawn bipartisan rebukes; now the Trump administration’s 11th-hour proposed arms transfer to the United Arab Emirates is coming under scrutiny from members of both parties. Critics say it’s not just harmful policy — threatening an arms race in the region and jeopardizing Israel’s security — but an unfair gambit to box in the incoming Biden administration.
“I think there’s a lot of things that simply they don’t have answers for — things that are critical to be considered,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is leading the effort to overturn the weapons sale alongside Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
At issue is a $23 billion sale of advanced weaponry to the Gulf nation, a strategic ally of the United States that recently signed a peace accord with Israel that was brokered by the Trump administration. Senior defense officials have already started lobbying lawmakers to oppose the series of bipartisan measures which could soon come to the floor, according to congressional aides.
Top Pentagon and State Department officials also briefed senators Monday night about the arms sale, which includes 50 F-35 aircraft, a massive stockpile of missiles, and 18 Reaper drones — a significant upgrade for the country’s military capabilities as it deploys its proxies around the Middle East. It’s one of several major foreign-policy moves the Trump administration is setting into motion during the presidential transition period, including a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan that has drawn bipartisan fire.
A Senate aide familiar with the classified briefing said there were “major issues” left undecided about the transfer, including specific obligations that the UAE will have to honor as part of the deal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo previously said the goal of the transfer was to “deter and defend against increased threats from Iran.”
Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Monday’s briefing “unsatisfactory” and said he plans to move forward with the effort ahead of the Dec. 11 deadline set by the statutory 30-day review period. The four resolutions, each of which addresses a specific munition sale, are “privileged” in the Senate, meaning they can be brought to a vote without the consent of the majority party’s leadership. Menendez said it was possible that he would only call up “a few” of them.
But both time and odds of success are not on their side. Even if the resolutions pass through both chambers of Congress, Trump is certain to veto them and a two-thirds majority to override the president’s veto is highly unlikely. Moreover, Congress is working feverishly this week and next week to pass a government funding measure and the annual defense bill.
President-elect Joe Biden may not be totally stymied. He likely could halt the sale when he takes office in January using his executive powers. Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee to be secretary of state, said in October that the Biden team has “concerns about what commitments may or may not have been made to the UAE” as part of the deal for the F-35 aircraft.
Among the unanswered questions, according to senators who attended Monday’s classified briefing, is whether the weapons sale was a reward for the UAE agreeing to normalize relations with Israel. They also said the U.S. risks seeing the sophisticated technology eventually end up in the wrong hands.
“I want to make sure that there are some ironclad protections,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a top Foreign Relations Committee member. “We can’t give that technology to the UAE if we’re worrying about jeopardizing the security of that technology.”
Though most Republican senators are expected to oppose blocking the arms sales, some are hinting at concerns with the framework, including how it would affect Israel’s security.
“I’m interested to make sure the qualitative advantage that we’ve assured Israel of is preserved by the sale,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “We’ll wait to learn more about that.”
Trump’s presidency has been marked by several battles with Congress, but few have grown more contentious than ones involving the president’s foreign-policy decisions — many of which have been executed without consulting with Capitol Hill, where there is deep skepticism toward the Trump administration’s strategy of deterrence with respect to Iran.
“I don’t think you buy peace with guns,” Paul, the lead GOP sponsor of the resolutions, said in an interview. “I don’t think it’s advisable to send sophisticated military weaponry into the powder keg that is the Middle East. I think that it makes it more likely that Iran will continue to develop its weaponry.”
Other concerns include the UAE’s shaky record on human-rights issues, the potential that the munitions land in the wrong hands, and a possible arms race in the Middle East that endangers Israel.
“Do you think selling these armed drones and F-35s to the UAE makes Iran say, ‘we probably don’t need any more missiles’? No, it makes them think they need more,” Paul said.
Senators also expressed reservations about the timing of the deal, with some suggesting that the Trump administration was rushing the transfer in order to undermine the incoming Biden team’s efforts to forge a new path in the Middle East — specifically with Iran.
“I have real concerns about that kind of a deal, especially this late in an administration when we have a new administration coming in,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a top member of the Foreign Relations panel.
Most senators aren’t weighing in on the matter for now, including those thought to be inclined to support the Menendez-led effort. Sens. Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), for example, said they were still studying the issue and declined to say which way they were leaning.
Paul predicted it will be more difficult to attract GOP support to overturn the UAE arms sale than it was for recent proposed sales to Saudi Arabia. Last year, the House and Senate passed resolutions blocking similar sales to Riyadh, which came in the wake of the government’s targeted assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and amid bipartisan opposition to U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s civil war.
Seven GOP senators, including Young and Murkowksi, voted with Democrats to block those sales — which eventually went through when Trump vetoed the measures — partly because “passions were more inflamed” after the killing of Khashoggi, Paul said.
“I think it’ll be tougher to get to 50 votes than it was on Saudi Arabia,” he added. “But the debate is still worth having.”