Displaying a Yemeni starving under Saudi siege, Sen. Rand Paul clamored for the cancellation of Trump’s arms package to Saudi Arabia
Five Democratic senators joined hands with Republicans to push through the Trump administration’s sale of $510 million in precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia, in a narrow 53-47 vote.
Three of these Democrats have received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the arms industry, which will be reaping an unprecedented windfall profit from Trump’s record-breaking $110 billion weapons deal with the Saudi monarchy.
The Saudi regime will likely use these weapons to continue waging a brutal U.S.-backed war on Yemen, which has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people and created what the United Nations has repeatedly warned is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.
Senators from both sides of the aisle proposed the bill S.J.Res.42 in late May to try to block this $510 million portion of the larger arms deal. Lawmakers voted on the legislation on June 13, and it was defeated with 47 votes for and 53 against.
Voting fell largely on partisan lines, with most Republicans for it and Democrats in opposition. However, Democratic senators Mark Warner (Virginia), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), Joe Manchin (West Virginia), Bill Nelson (Florida) and Joe Donnelly (Indiana) crossed to the other side and gave the GOP the majority it needed to shoot down the legislation.
AlterNet contacted the offices of all five Democratic lawmakers with a request for comment as to why they voted in support of arming Saudi Arabia. None replied.
The weapons and military technology industry have given three of these Democratic senators large campaign contributions.
Among Bill Nelson’s top ten donors from 2011 to 2016 was the arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin, with nearly $40,000 in contributions. Lockheed will not only reap at least $6 billion from the $110 billion deal with Saudi Arabia, selling the kingdom warships and advanced military hardware; it will also extend its contract to train the Saudi army.
Senator Mark Warner received tens of thousands of dollars in donations from defense contractors Northrop Grumman, Huntington Ingalls Industries and the Harris Corporation between 2011 and 2016, according to the transparency group OpenSecrets.
Similarly, one of the top donors to Claire McCaskill is Boeing, which gave tens of thousands of dollars between 2011 and 2016.
Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian-leaning Republican from Kentucky and one of the few outspoken opponents of interventionism, delivered an indignant floor speech on the resolution he sponsored. He pointed the finger directly at his colleagues who had cynically defended the arms deal as a job creating initiative.
“I am embarrassed that people are out here talking about making some money and making a buck while seventeen million people live on a starvation diet and are threatened with famine, I am embarrassed,” Paul thundered. “I am embarrassed that people would bring up trying to feather the nest of corporations in order to sell these weapons.”
Four Democratic senators — Chris Murphy, Al Franken, Jeff Merkley and Elizabeth Warren — joined Paul in co-sponsoring the legislation.
Bloodshed in Yemen
A Saudi-led coalition backed by the U.S. and the U.K. launched a bombing campaign in March 2015 in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East. Since then, the U.S.-Saudi coalition has launched at least 90,000 airs raids in yemen, more than one-third of which have hit civilian areas.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have for well over a year called for an immediate halt in U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, citing its atrocities in Yemen. The United Nations has likewise accused the U.S.-Saudi coalition of committing apparent war crimes in the conflict.
Without support from the U.S. and the U.K., Saudi Arabia would have been unable to wage the war. Saudi Arabia is attacking Yemen with U.S. planes, U.S. weapons, U.S. fuel and intelligence from U.S. military officials, who have physically been in the command room with Saudi officials.
The U.S. military has also joined Saudi Arabia in imposing a crippling blockade on Yemen, which has prevented critical food aid and medicine from getting to the civilian population, fueling mass starvation in what has become the worst food insecurity emergency on Earth, and exacerbating a cholera epidemic.
As of January, at least 10,000 civilians had been violently killed in Yemen, in a conservative estimate. This figure does not take into consideration the tens of thousands of children who have died from nonviolent causes, such as malnutrition and preventable diseases, because of the war.
Dozens of hospitals and medical centers have been destroyed or damaged by U.S.-Saudi bombing. The World Health Organization warned in November that more than half of the impoverished country’s health facilities were out of operation or only partially functioning.
Defending the Arms Deal
Republican lawmakers bent over backward to portray the arms deal as a way to prevent civilian casualties in Yemen, not cause more.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky defended the vote, paying lip service to civilians in Yemen and claiming that “blocking this arms sale will diminish Saudi capability to target with precision.” He also noted the sale could help weaken Iran.
Senator John McCain, the senate’s standard bearer of neoconservatism and the powerful chairman of the Armed Services Committee, insisted it would be “crazy” to oppose the package, The Hill reported.
Finally, Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, proclaimed, “It’s hard for me to understand why people would oppose the selling of precision-guided missiles.”
Praise for Progressive Opponents of the Sale
Human Rights Watch and the humanitarian group Oxfam praised lawmakers who tried to block the arms deal.
“The U.S. has no business providing weapons that will further fuel one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, with 7 million Yemenis on the brink of starvation and with cholera spreading rapidly,” said Scott Paul, Oxfam America senior humanitarian policy advisor, in a statement.
Paul applauded the members of Congress for “voting to block the sale of U.S. precision bombs that have been used by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen to destroy farms, factories, schools, hospitals and Yemen’s most important port.”
Largest Arms Deal in U.S. History
The $510 million precision munitions deal is just one part of the massive $110 billion package Trump signed with the Saudi regime — the largest single arms deal in U.S. history.
Trump solidified the deal during a visit to the Saudi regime in May, in which he demonized Iran — a Shia-majority country that is leading the fight against ISIS, al-Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadist groups.
Saudi Arabia, a theocratic absolute monarchy that shares the same extremist Islamist ideology of genocidal groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, has also armed and supported violent Salafi-jihadist groups, internal U.S. government documents have acknowledged.
Extending Obama’s Arms Deals
Partisan opposition to massive U.S. arms deals with the Saudi regime is a relatively new phenomenon.
President Barack Obama sold more than $110 billion in arms to the Saudi regime during his two terms in office. Congress let these deals — including a massive $60 billion package — go through with little opposition.
A small pocket of members of Congress from both parties, led by the lawmakers who proposed the newly defeated bill, also unsuccessfully tried to block past weapons deals, raising concerns over Saudi Arabia’s war crimes in Yemen.
When Sen. Paul concluded his floor speech, he displayed harrowing photos on the senate floor showing the emaciated victims of the US-Saudi siege and bombing campaign. “Seventeen million folks in Yemen live on the brink of starvation. I think to myself, is there every anything important in Washington? Is there ever anything I can do to save some of the millions of children that are dying in Yemen? This is it. This is this debate today.”
Ben Norton is a reporter for AlterNet’s Grayzone Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.