Ignoring Humanitarian Pleas, Senate OKs Saudi Weapons Sale
The Senate approval of a new $510 million weapons sale to Saudi Arabia puts arms industry profits over Yemeni civilian lives, says Code Pink’s Medea Benjamin
Aaron Maté: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Maté . The Senate has approved a $500 million weapon sale to Saudi Arabia. Five Democrats joined with the Republican majority to push it through. The sale comes as the Saudi-led war continues to devastate Yemen, and the Trump administration takes aim at the kingdom’s rival, Iran. Joining me is Medea Benjamin, Co-Founder of Code Pink, and author of “Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection.” Medea, welcome.
Medea Benjamin: Thanks for having me on, Aaron.
Aaron Maté: I want to start by playing for you the comments of Senator Rand Paul, a Republican who spoke out against the Saudi arms sale.
Rand Paul: Today we will discuss the involvement of the United States in the Middle East and we will also discuss whether we should engage in a new war in Yemen. Today, we will discuss an arms sale to Saudi Arabia that threatens the lives of millions of Yemenis, but we will discuss something even more important than an arms sale. We will discuss whether should we be actively involved. Should the United States be actively involved with refueling the Saudi planes, with picking targets, with having advisors on the ground? Should we be at war in Yemen? What will war mean for Yemen? 17 million folks in Yemen live on the brink of starvation. I think to myself, “Is there ever anything important that can happen 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 debate today.
Aaron Maté: Medea, it’s striking to me that some of the most forceful criticism of this weapons sale comes from a right-wing Republican.
Medea Benjamin: He’s a libertarian and Rand Paul, like his father, Ron Paul, has been pretty good on these foreign policy issues. But I think he was a real hero in this struggle, as was the democrat from Connecticut, Chris Murphy. The two of them were champions, they were the sponsors of this resolution, and they brought along quite a number of senators. It’s remarkable that we were able to get 47 senators, we lost just by a small amount, but I think what’s the real shame is that there were five Democrats who went along with the Trump administration on this and we reserve our anger at those Democrats because if they had gone along with the party on this one, we would have had a win.
Aaron Maté: Yeah, those Democrats are Mark Warner, Claire McCaskill, Joe Manchin, Bill Nelson, and Joe Donnelly. But Medea, what about the criticism of Democrats here that this was basically for them a partisan vote? Because when similar weapons sales were made to Saudi Arabia by President Obama, many of the Democrats who voted against it this week voted for it when Obama was the one making the sale.
Medea Benjamin: Unfortunately, our system is way too partisan, but now we do have a Republican and we have the possibility of getting more Democrats and some Republicans to peel off, and so it’s important to try, but Obama was the one who made Saudi Arabia the number one purchaser of US weapons, bragged on the White House website that he had sold 110 billion dollars to the Saudi regime, and President Trump is one upping it from that, trying to sell even more to the Saudis. At the end of the Obama administration, he did start pulling back and say that this particular sale, this $500 million of precision-guided munitions, should not be sold to the Saudis because it would be used in Yemen and it was clear that they were using it to bomb civilian targets.
The Trump administration is giving the green light, not only for the sale of those weapons, but for more US support for the Saudi-led campaign that has been so, so devastating to the people of Yemen.
Aaron Maté: You mentioned that this vote this time was close. Can you talk a bit about the lobbying effort that was made from both sides of this issue, those who supported the weapons sale and those who didn’t? Those who didn’t include dozens of aid groups who pleaded to Congress members to block it.
Medea Benjamin: It was a very good coalition that came together to appose the weapons sales. Not only the peace groups, but also the humanitarian aid community that understood that the only way to stop the tragedy unfolding before our eyes, the human-made tragedy in Yemen, would be to stop the fighting. That means stop the bombing. On the other side, there was no constituency. Every room that we went into in the Senate, we asked them, “Are you getting calls on this? Are there calls pro and against?” Basically, the calls were coming saying, “Don’t sell the weapons.” The only ones who wanted these weapons were the weapons industry, of course, the Saudi lobby, and so it was a clear example of how sold out our political system is, where the vast majority of citizens in this country do think that it’s appalling that we are arming this extremist, misogynist, intolerant regime that is spreading extremism around the world.
Yet, on the other hand you have the 1%, the military industrial complex, that is making literally billions and billions of dollars off of these sales. It is unfortunate that there were 53 senators who decided to vote against not only their constituents, but I would say against the national security of the United States, but to vote in favor of the corporate lobbies.
Aaron Maté: Yeah, Medea, on that point, there’s a piece today on Alternet by Ben Norton which points out that three of those five Democrats that you mentioned, who voted in favor of the weapons sales, three of those five have received tens of thousands of dollars from the weapons industry.
Medea Benjamin: Well yes, and when we went into their offices after the votes to give them a message that the blood of the Yemeni people were on their hands, we did mention the money that they were taking from the weapons industries. Of course, if we looked at the Republicans, we would see a lot and perhaps even more money that they’re taking from these industries. Though, I think it’s important to call them out and to show how absolutely disgusting this is. Every 10 minutes, there is a child in Yemen who is dying from the effects of this war. This is a catastrophe of biblical proportions, as one of the aid workers has said. Yet, to put the profits of the weapons industry over the lives of these Yemeni children is so atrocious and 53 of our members of the Senate did that.
Aaron Maté: Medea, to coincide with this vote and I don’t think it was a coincidence, you had this announcement from the US and Saudi Arabia that Saudi Arabia has agreed to this new multi-year, 750 million dollar training program to improve Saudi targeting with the aim of reducing civilian causalities in Yemen. The Trump administration billed this as a tangible example of Saudi Arabia taking actions to reduce civilian causalities. What do you make of that?
Medea Benjamin: If it were not so tragic it would be really laughable. The idea that the problem is training is ludicrous. The problem is the Saudi intervention in the internal affairs of Yemen. The United States has no business training the Saudis, equipping the Saudis, giving them any kind of support. The US should pull out and should force the Saudis to go to the negotiating table, and to let the Yemenis go to the negotiating table, and find a political solution to the problem in Yemen. Training has nothing to do with it. It is a question of a neighboring bully coming in and trying to dictate who will be in charge of a country that it has no business interfering in.
Aaron Maté: Yeah, Medea, I just want to say that one of the details that the New York Times revealed on this is that instead of American officials working in a separate room at the Saudi military command center, now they’ll be in the same room, as if that’s going to improve things.
Medea Benjamin: Well, we should look back at the history of US training, whether it’s at the School of the Americas, training generals in Latin America how to torture, or whether it’s the 17 years of training we’ve done in Afghanistan, or in Iraq, that have left the most corrupt, atrocious governments in place. I don’t think the US training does anything to help targeting or help bring more democracy to the country where we’re training.
Aaron Maté: Let me ask you about this weapons sale in the context not just of Yemen, but also Iran. There have been so many developments on the Iran front recently, the Trump administration opened up a new CIA mission center, run by someone known as the “Dark Prince,” aimed at Iran. The Dark Prince formerly was involved in the drone program. You had this ISIS attack last week in Tehran. Today, you had the Senate voting to impose new sanctions on Iran, along with Russia. Every single senator, except for Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul approved that, and just this week, Rex Tillerson was testifying before Congress, and he was asked if the Trump administration supports regime change in Iran. This is what he said.
Rex Tillerson: Our policy towards Iran is to push back on this hegemony, contain their ability to develop obviously nuclear weapons, and to work towards support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government. Those elements are there, certainly as we know.
Aaron Maté: That’s Rex Tillerson endorsing effectively regime change, or as he described it, a “transition of government.” Medea, can you talk about the message that the Trump administration is sending right now to Iran, in the context of comments like that, and also with this weapons sale this week to its arch enemy, Saudi Arabia?
Medea Benjamin: First, let’s recognize that the last time the US was involved in regime change in Iran, in 1953, overthrowing the government of Mossadegh, is what led to so many of the problems in Iran, and in the Middle East today. The US has no business trying to change the government of another country. Look at all the hoopla in the United States about Russian interference in US elections, and yet, we want to do it in countries overseas. Now, in the case of Iran, at least they do have elections, unlike Saudi Arabia that has no elections. While the US government is talking about regime change in Iran and Tillerson has said right after the elections, the reelection of Rouhani, a moderate in Iran, he said he hopes one day that the Iranians get to have free elections and the government they deserve.
When he was asked by a reporter if he thought the Saudis should have elections, he didn’t answer that question. The hypocrisy is astounding. Certainly the Iranian government has been involved in neighboring countries where it shouldn’t be involved, just like the Saudis shouldn’t be involved, the Russians, the US, the Turks, there’s too many outsider countries being involved. But if you want to look to the main source of extremism, it is Saudi Arabia, not Iran. If you want to look at the country that is the least democratic, it is Saudi Arabia, not Iran. If you want to look at the country that has done the most damage to the causes of peace and stability in the region, it is Saudi Arabia.
The United States is just on the wrong side on this, not that we should be taking sides. We should not be doing that, but indeed, we have picked the one that is by far the most extremist, the most dangerous player in the Middle East, and that is Saudi Arabia.
Aaron Maté: Medea, as someone who’s studied Saudi Arabia, your book is of course, “Kingdom of the Unjust,” about Saudi Arabia. Can you explain briefly what you think is behind the Saudi/Iranian rivalry? Do you think the sectarian narrative we hear, Saudi Arabia being Sunni, Iran by Shiite, that that’s a sufficient explanation for why these two are so at odds?
Medea Benjamin: Well, it is a rivalry that goes back a long time in history, but they have also lived together well for many periods. Just like the sectarian Shia/Sunni division in Iraq was blown up with the US invasion, these are divisions that can be exploited. I think the US is exploiting the divisions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. I think Israel is exploiting those divisions, and I think Israel sees Iran as an existential threat, and wants the US to see that as well. The AIPAC lobby in the United States has been the strongest lobby against Iran. It tried to quash the Iran nuclear deal. Fortunately not successful, but still trying to overturn that deal now.
The most recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel is tied into coming together against Iran. The Saudis see Iran as their adversary in the region and they are doing everything they can to carry out proxy wars. That is indeed what we’re seeing in many countries in the Middle East today, and especially Yemen right now. The Houthis who are a local indigenous group in Yemen, who rose up against the government, were seen by Saudi Arabia as Iranian proxies. They are not Iranian proxies. That was the excuse that Saudi Arabia used to get involved. I think these sectarian differences are being used as a justification for military involvement when really, the United States rather than exacerbating these divisions, should be involved in trying to bring the nations of the region together.
It’s been way too many years of war. The US has been involved in now seven wars in the region. It’s time for us to demand that our government stop exploiting these tensions, and instead push for political solutions.
Aaron Maté: That’s really interesting, in terms of this not just being an organic rivalry, but one that is fueled by external powers and interests. Let me finally end with this question, Medea. You’ve been involved extensively in activism around raising awareness about US/Saudi ties and warning of the dangers of those ties. Can you talk briefly about the challenges you faced in getting the word out? Trying to get the media to care about the issues that you’re so involved in, like the civilian death toll in Yemen, and Saudi Arabia’s involvement, as you say, in helping fuel extremism around the world.
Medea Benjamin: Saudi Arabia does not let independent journalists into the country. It’s very hard for people to go in and get firsthand views and bring them out from Saudi Arabia. The same is true in Yemen right now. It’s Saudi Arabia that’s controlling the access of journalists to get inside Yemen, so it’s very difficult to get the firsthand pictures. Saudi Arabia also employs 10 different lobby groups right here in the United States, gives money to universities, to think tanks, to foundations, from the Clinton Foundation to the Jimmy Carter foundation. It throws a lot of its petrodollars around to try to buy complicity or silence among policymakers, think tanks, academics in the United States.
For those Saudis who want to speak out against the regime, they either have to flee the country and when they do flee the country, they find they’re not even safe there, because their families back home are threatened if they speak out. It’s very hard to get firsthand accounts, to get Saudis, to get people who can speak out about these issues, and that’s why it really is up to us. We have the ability to do it and we must use that ability to get out the word, to make people understand that the US alliance with Saudi Arabia is a toxic alliance, and that we have to cut those ties if we want to see some peace in the region, and some security for ourselves and the people around the world.
Aaron Maté: Medea Benjamin, Co-Founder of Code Pink, and author of “Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection.” Medea, thanks.
Medea Benjamin: Thank you.
Aaron Maté: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.