President Donald Trump is suggesting that “rogue killers” may be responsible for whatever happened to missing Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. (Oct. 15)
WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump says he doesn’t want to nix a $110 billion in U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia because it would hurt American companies and zap U.S. jobs.
It’s a raw financial calculation – and experts say an inaccurate one – as the U.S. presses Saudi Arabia to explain the disappearance and possible murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist and U.S. resident.
The possible weapons sale has become a political flashpoint in the escalating debate over how to respond to Saudi Arabia’s alleged role in the Khashoggi case. Whether it goes through, or not, could have lasting consequences on the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
“This isn’t just about military capacity,” said Jonathan D. Caverley, an expert on the global weapons trade with the Naval War College. He said Saudi Arabia has purchased almost all its weapons from the U.S. as a way to cement the U.S.-Saudi alliance and “to bind the United States towards a large forward-operated presence in the Gulf.”
“… It would be weird if we did not take advantage of this (leverage) to execute our national interest, without rupturing our relationship entirely,” Caverley added.
Khashoggi vanished two weeks ago while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials say they have evidence Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the diplomatic compound. Saudi officials have called the allegations “baseless” and have asserted that Khashoggi left the consulate unharmed.
Democrats in Congress say canceling the arms sale would send a signal to the Saudi regime that it doesn’t have carte blanche to murder journalists outsides its borders, particularly those who are American residents. Trump sees it differently.
“I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States,” Trump said last week.
“All they’re going to do is say, ‘That’s okay. We don’t have to buy it from Boeing. We don’t have to buy it from Lockheed. We don’t have to buy it from Raytheon and all these great companies. We’ll buy it from Russia. We’ll buy it from China,” the president posited.
Saudi Arabia is the largest purchaser of American weapons. In 2017, the U.S. delivered $5.5 billion in weapons to its Middle Eastern ally, according to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.
But experts say there are at least two problems with Trump’s reasoning. First, the $110 billion price tag.
“That is a fairly unrealistic number,” said Jennifer Spindel, an international security professor at the University of Oklahoma.
The $110 billion figure includes contracts negotiated by the Obama administration as well as “vague, lofty” promises from the Saudis that are far from signed military contracts, said Caverley.
Secondly, Spindel says, it’s unlikely that Saudi Arabia would turn to China or another U.S. competitor to fill its weapons orders if the U.S. cancels any coming sales. Much of Saudi’s current weapons systems are American-made; any additions from Russia or China would not be compatible.
“These arms don’t talk to one another, so it can be hard to have a wholesale change in who supplies your weaponry,” she said. It would be extremely expensive for Saudi Arabia to switch systems, “so the U.S. actually does have a lot of leverage here,” she added.
But others said the Saudis could turn to another country as a diplomatic slap to the U.S. – and because money is not a real obstacle to the oil-rich country.
“If we canceled, they would buy from the Russians and the Chinese because they can afford it and it would send us a message,” Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank, said Saudi Arabia. “It would decrease our leverage and we don’t have someone else” in the region to partner with on other vital foreign policy matters.
Caverley said there’s a middle ground between canceling all sales and renegotiating the broader U.S.-Saudi alliance.
“Arms deals are part of an overall bargain between two countries,” he said. “You can change the terms of a bargain.”
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