WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle laid bare their suspicions about U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Lebanon over the countries' supposed links to terror on Thursday, perhaps signaling choppy waters in the alliances.
Days after the Senate vote to block smart-bomb sales to Riyadh narrowly failed, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade Subcommittee grilled the Trump administration's top officials for foreign military sales on the wisdom of a larger $110 billion deal with Saudi Arabia.
How does the U.S. hold Saudi Arabia accountable for civilian casualties in its war against Yemen's Houthi rebels? Democrats pressed Tina Kaidanow, acting assistant secretary for political-military affairs, and Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency's outgoing director, on the question. The U.S. has reportedly been offering logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition in the war.
"I don't have a problem helping Saudi Arabia, but many members of Congress, on a bipartisan, bicameral basis, do have a significant problem when the Saudi-led military coalition is committing war crimes in Yemen," said Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., referencing reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
"It freaked out our State Department so much that last year that State Department lawyers initiated a review to see if U.S. personnel or others would be liable for war crimes," Lieu said. "The [Obama administration's] State Department stopped a sale of precision-guided munitions. The [Trump administration's] State Department has reversed. What changed?"
Kaidanow said Riyadh has acknowledged the problems with its pursuit of the campaign and grown more willing to accept U.S. assistance to change. Congress was recently notified that DSCA approved a $750 million training package that would, in part, help the Saudis avoid civilian casualties, she said.
"In our view, it is better to engage and give them assistance instead of just stand back," Kaidanow said, noting the threat to Saudi Arabia from the Houthis.
Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Scott Perry pressed: Who in the U.S. government would ensure Riyadh had fulfilled its commitment to recall certain textbooks linked Wahhabism, an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam?
"I want to know, because we've been promised before," Perry said. "We are tired of helping this sometimes-ally when they don't seem to doing anything in the United States' best interest. We are going to sell them things that we want them to have; they darn well better uphold their end of the deal."
Kaidanow assured Perry that U.S. embassy personnel, the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and public affairs personnel are all on the case, though she was unable to tell him whether U.S. personnel were inspecting trucks of textbooks.
The Senate on Tuesday narrowly voted 53-47 to approve a $510 million sale of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. The legislation was defeated largely along bipartisan lines in spite of support from key Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben Cardin, D-Md.
Saudi Arabia was not the only target for concern at the hearing. Subcommittee chairman Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, sought assurances U.S. small arms sold to Lebanon would not end up in the hands of Hezbollah. The United Nations earlier this year warned Lebanon's president not to arm the the militant organization after he suggested he would in a conflict with Israel.
The U.S. assists Lebanese government forces to guarantee its sovereignty and protect it against Iran and the Islamic State, Kaidanow said.
"We watch extremely carefully, and we are confident thus far that no weapons have been transferred from the Lebanese government or armed forces into the hands of those who should not get them, including Hezbollah," she said.
Poe also wanted to know how the United States is ensuring U.S.-supplied weapons to Pakistan won't be used against its troops in Afghanistan, echoing a line of questioning from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif.
Rohrabacher had heatedly asked Kaidanow to explain why Pakistan might have scrambled its U.S.-made fighter jets during the U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden. (The U.S. reportedly planned to fight its way out of Pakistan with bin Laden, but Pakistani jets were scrambled too late.)
"We need to go on the record here, in this part of our government, to say that we're not going to be providing weapons systems to Pakistan that we're afraid are going to shoot down our own people," Rohrabacher said, rapping the table. "And we know they're engaged in terrorism."
Kaidanow told Poe that Pakistan is an ally on counterterrorism issues and would be essential in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the table for peace talks. Yet she said Washington continuously pressures Islamabad over its support for the Haqqani Network, an Afghan guerrilla group fighting U.S.-led NATO forces and the Afghan government.
"This has been made clear to the Pakistani government at the highest levels," she said.
The comments come as Congress considers the Trump administration's proposed 2018 budget, which cut Pakistan's allocation of foreign military financing, used to procure U.S. weapons in most cases, from around $265 million to $100 million.
Also this week, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., reportedly said he is disappointed in the relationship and demanded a reduction in the U.S. aid to Pakistan. He was instrumental in blocking the sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan with U.S. aid.
"Pakistan's intelligence services, we know support the Haqqani network," Corker was quoted telling Indian reporters at a fundraiser organized by the US-India Security Council.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.