The Buzz

What Will a Trump Administration Mean for U.S. Arms Sales to the Middle East?

As with many other issues, Donald Trump has made conflicting statements that make it hard to determine what a Trump administration might actually do in the Middle East.  This is particularly true on the issue of U.S. arms transfers to the region.  He has made biting criticisms of Saudi Arabia, far and away the biggest U.S. arms client, even as he and his advisors have targeted Saudi Arabia’s main rival, Iran, as the greatest security threat in the region. How this will play out in the realm of the weapons trade remains to be seen, but it’s worth looking at what we know so far.

As background, it’s important to note that it might be hard for a president Trump to outdo the Obama administration’s aggressive sales push in the Middle East in general and the Persian Gulf in particular.  According to data from the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the United States has offered a record $115 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2009, and $198 billion to the Persian Gulf nations as a whole.  Proposed transfers to Saudi Arabia include F-15 combat aircraft, Apache helicopters, combat ships, missile defense systems, armored vehicles, bombs and missiles – virtually an entire arsenal.  Many of these deals will take years to complete, ensuring a steady flow of U.S. arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia well into the 2020’s.

Of particular concern have been recent deals to re-supply the kingdom with bombs and ammunition for its brutal air campaign in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians while involving what Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) has said “look like war crimes.”  It’s hard to overstate the devastating humanitarian consequences of the bombing and a parallel blockade of Yemen’s ports.  According to the United Nations, nearly three-quarters of the population is in need of assistance, and access to food, clean water, and medical care is scarce.  Some aid groups have raised concern about the possibility of widespread famine in Yemen if a ceasefire and resolution to the conflict aren’t reached soon.

So how will a Trump administration fit into this existing pattern of large-scale arms transfers to the Middle East?  Trump’s statements on the topic are confusing at best.  On the one hand, he has had harsh words for the Saudis, accusing them of being behind the 9/11 attacks and threatening to end U.S. oil imports from the kingdom.  And his anti-Muslim rhetoric does not sit well with Arab leaders.  Some analysts have suggested that Trump’s posture and rhetoric might actually lead to a reduction of U.S. sales to the region.  As Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners put it, “President Trump may prove offensive to Muslim states and those countries could seek alternative sources of weapons.”

A countervailing factor that could lead a Trump administration to make ample arms offers to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies is the strong anti-Iran stance of his key advisors.  His appointee for National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, has implausibly described Iran as the “linchpin” of a “working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.”  Flynn’s attempts to demonize Iran have also included a push to blame Iran for the Benghazi attack, an assertion that his subordinates could not confirm despite intense pressure from Flynn to do so. As for secretary of defense nominee Gen. James Mattis, his response to a question about the three greatest threats in the Middle East and South Asia, was “Iran, Iran, Iran.”  And as the Washington Post has noted, while still in government Mattis ““consistently pushed the military to punish Iran and its allies, including calling for more covert actions to capture and kill Iranian operatives and interdictions of Iranian warships.” 

Trump’s attitude towards Iran can be gleaned from the fact that he has called the Iran nuclear deal, a multilateral agreement that capped Iran’s nuclear program while forcing Tehran to dismantle significant parts of its nuclear infrastructure,  “one of the worst deals ever made by any country in history.”  By contrast, Mattis has struck a note of realism on the nuclear deal, suggesting that now that it has been struck the best policy is to seek strict enforcement, not to rip it up.