The Senate on Wednesday defeated a pair of Democrat-led measures to block the Trump administration’s proposed sale of advanced military weapons to the United Arab Emirates, a crucial victory for President Donald Trump as he seeks to solidify his foreign policy legacy.
The twin votes — centering on the transfers of F-35 stealth fighter jets and Reaper drones to the Gulf nation — fell largely along party lines, with Republicans backing Trump’s aggressive posture toward Iran that involves, in part, arming strategic allies in the region.
On a vote of 46-50, the Senate failed to advance a resolution disapproving of the Reaper sales, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) joining Democrats and Arizona’s Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema joining Republicans. The second vote, on blocking the F-35 sale, failed 47-49, with Kelly splitting his votes.
The proposed sale, valued at $23 billion, includes 50 F-35 aircraft, 18 Reaper drones, and a massive stockpile of missiles. It is among a flurry of hasty eleventh-hour foreign policy moves by the outgoing administration, including a significant drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. It also comes on the heels of the UAE’s agreement to normaize relations with Israel, which the Trump administration helped negotiate.
While the UAE is a critical security partner of the U.S., critics have said selling these advanced weapons to the Gulf ally threatens to accelerate an arms race in the region and could jeopardize Israel’s security. Democrats in particular have decried the move as an effort to box in President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office in 42 days.
“There are far too many outstanding questions and very serious questions about long-term U.S. national security interests,” said New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the leading sponsor of the disapproval resolutions. “Voting against these resolutions sends a message to the executive branch … that we are willing to give up our congressional responsibilities. It’s hard to bring that back once you let it go.”
Despite the failed votes on Wednesday, Biden could likely ax the sales when he takes office in January using his executive authority. 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.
Lawmakers have said the Trump administration is seeking to rush the sale without considering the implications, including human rights concerns as well as the UAE’s deployment of its proxies across the Middle East — and whether the weapons could end up in the wrong hands.
“It’s as if we intentionally don’t want to consider all of these issues,” Paul, who supports a noninterventionist foreign policy, lamented on the Senate floor Wednesday. “This is not a country we should be giving our most sophisticated weaponry to.”
Leading up to the votes, the Trump administration was mounting a feverish pressure campaign against the resolutions. Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, joined a Senate GOP conference call on Tuesday to make the case for the arms sales, and a week earlier, top State Department and Pentagon officials briefed key senators on the proposed transfer.
The White House has argued that the sales are critical to deter Iranian aggression in the region. Officials have also said the UAE would buy their weapons from China or Russia if not from the U.S.
In a statement Wednesday, the Trump administration defended the proposed weapons transfer and said the president would veto the measures if they reach his desk. Specifically, the statement contends that the sales “will not adversely affect” Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in the region, a top priority for lawmakers.
Senate Intelligence Chairman Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) initially expressed concerns about the sale’s impact on Israel, but told POLITICO this week that “I’ve been assured by the Israelis that they feel good about it.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), a leading supporter of the arms deal, noted that Israeli leaders support the sale and that Israel and the UAE recently normalized their relations as part of the Trump-brokered Abraham Accords.
“The UAE is worthy of this sale because it is strongly aligned with the United States in the Middle East,” Inhofe said. “It is a vital counterterrorism partner. The UAE has fought alongside our troops in Afghanistan and against ISIS. It is also vital to U.S. efforts against Iran — both Iran’s ambition of regional dominance and its support for terrorist proxies.”
The group leading the push to block the sales — Menendez, Paul and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) — had initially introduced four resolutions that addressed each aspect of the weapons sale, but decided to force votes on just two of them: one on the F-35 and another on the Reaper drones.
The trio was bearish on the prospects of the resolutions passing in the Senate, noting that previous votes to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia succeeded only because tensions between Washington and Riyadh were high due to the kingdom’s targeted assassination of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi.
By law, Congress has the authority to cancel a proposed foreign weapons sale within 30 days of being notified by the administration.