WASHINGTON ― The Senate narrowly rejected two measures Wednesday to block President Donald Trump’s plan to sell roughly $23 billion in weapons to the United Arab Emirates.
The sale of 50 Lockheed F-35 aircraft, 18 General Atomics MQ–9B Reaper drones and Raytheon-made munitions sparked pushback from lawmakers who argued that the administration rushed the vetting of sales that could touch off an arms race in the region.
Votes to pass the measures failed mostly along party lines. The first vote concerned the drones and munitions and failed 46-50, while the second concerned the F-35s and fell 47-49.
It’s an open question whether President-elect Joe Biden, once in office, will try to retool the deal; opponents have voiced fears that Trump may finalize them quickly and box Biden in. Biden’s transition team declined to comment Wednesday, but secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken has said he would examine the deal.
The White House and Senate GOP leaders argued that the sales were justified in the wake of the normalization agreement, brokered by the United States, between the U.A.E and Israel, the Abraham Accords. The weapons, they said, are intended to help UAE deter Iran ― and that the UAE could turn to Russia or China if the U.S. doesn’t answer its needs.
“This is not any kind of gift from the United States to the UAE. This is the UAE making a purchase totaling in $23.5 billion dollars for equipment that is made by American companies and almost always by American workers,” Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a Senate Republican leader, said in a floor speech ahead of the vote.
The White House on Wednesday issued a veto threat arguing that the sales will encourage other nations to normalize relations with Israel. Administration assessments, “express confidence that the UAE is capable of protecting the technologies involved and of using them in a responsible manner,” said the White House memo.
Abu Dhabi also defended the deal on Wednesday through the Twitter account of its U.S. embassy, saying:
“The UAE has purchased & operated some of the most advanced US defense systems including F-16s, Patriot & THAAD. @usairforce F-35 squadrons are based in the UAE. The UAE has never compromised or shared this technology with an adversary or without US knowledge & approval.”
Though opponents have raised fears the F-35 sales could tilt the balance of military power in the region, Israeli officials have said the deal would not violate America’s commitment to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge.
The legislation was proposed by Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.; Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who argued that the Trump administration bypassed the Congress’s informal arms sale review process to get a deal that could harm American national security.
The administration, they argued, appeared to be taking it on faith that the UAE, which has complex defense relationships with Russia and China, would safeguard the F-35′s sophisticated technologies.
“If these arms sales move forward, including the most sophisticated stealth jet fighter that we have, how do we work to safeguard U.S. technology?” Menendez said.
Selling the F-35s and the MQ-9s to the UAE, they argued, would fuel demand from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran to build up their militaries.
Murphy said it was unwise to make the UAE the first Mideast customer for the Reaper when it was violating the UN arms embargo on Libya’s civil war and gave US-made equipment to extremist militias in Yemen’s civil war. (The UAE contends it provided US-made armored vehicles to protect local Yemeni forces fighting in Yemen and kept the Pentagon informed.)
“Anybody who votes against these resolutions is essentially endorsing an end around of Congress by any administration, Republican or Democratic,” Murphy said. “But it’s also important to say that on policy grounds, it’s not time to do the sales. There are too many outstanding questions.”
In the House, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., introduced corresponding resolutions, but there’s been no announcement on the timing there. It’s unclear whether it will proceed given the Senate vote.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.