WASHINGTON — The chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee said Monday he expects the Trump White House to approve F-16 fighter jet sales to Bahrain that were blocked by the Obama administration over human rights concerns.
The Obama administration reportedly told lawmakers it would not complete the sale until the Gulf kingdom, which hosts the US Navy's 5th Fleet, reverses moves to suppress its country's nonviolent opposition. Lockheed Martin has said the sale, reportedly for 19 F-16s worth $2.8 billion, is vital to the survival of its production line.
"I'm hoping the Bahrain deal is going to roll out without the restrictions," Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said. "I think it could happen soon."
The Obama administration advanced some $32 billion in fighter jet sales to the region late last year after a 10-year, $38 billion aid package to Israel was signed. The long-delayed jet sales included as many as 72 F-15 Strike Eagles to Qatar and 32 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to Kuwait.
But in late September, the Obama administration reportedly told Congress it would not give final approval on the Bahrain deal until progress was made on human rights. The small Arab monarchy has been cracking down on its opposition since the Arab Spring uprising of 2011.
At the time, Corker called the caveats "rather vague" and said the details were to be fleshed out between the Bahrain goverment and then-US Ambassador William V. Roebuck. On Monday, Corker said the stipulations had no place in the arms deal and suggested lawmakers had rejected them.
"I don't think those are the kinds of things that belong in an arms sales agreement, there are other ways of dealing with it," Corker said. "I think it was going to, had we accepted it that way, set a very bad precedent."
While the Obama administration has made good use of foreign military sales, setting records for foreign weapons sales in 2015 and coming close in 2016, Trump's approach — particularly before his Cabinet is in place — is as yet unclear.
Corker, at one time considered for Trump's secretary of state, said he did not have an indication of the new administration's approach to foreign military sales other than a sense the Bahrain sale would proceed without caveats.
Its unclear whether the Bahrain sale would, if it came to Congress for approval, see opposition. In June, a bipartisan group of senators led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., called on the Obama administration to press Bahrain to protect the rights of its citizens.
Murphy said Monday he had no immediate reaction, but noted: "I've raised a lot of concerns about [protecting] political dissent in Bahrain."
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.