WASHINGTON ― President Joe Biden’s early months “suggest a change of course” regarding to whom the U.S. decides to sell weapons, according to a new report from the Center for International Policy think tank.
After years of former President Donald Trump’s markedly transactional and jobs-centric approach to arms sales, the report sees the potential for “a change that could elevate human rights, observation of international humanitarian law (IHL), and longterm strategic concerns over narrow economic considerations.”
Trump’s final year saw an “an unprecedented increase” in Foreign Military Sales cases, with Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raytheon Technologies the primary suppliers in deals totaling $87 billion, the report said. Trump’s annual FMS average was $63 billion, with $110.9 billion in 2020. That was up 59 percent from 2019.
“The Trump administration’s arms sales policy prioritized narrow economic concerns over human rights and long-term U.S. strategic interests,” said Bill Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy and a co-author of the report. “By contrast, the Biden administration has launched a review of U.S. arms exports to determine which offers align with U.S. foreign policy interests ― a promising sign that a more balanced approach may be in the offing.”
Biden declared last month that the U.S. government would end its support for “offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” The administration has also paused recent arms sales in order to review them, putting into question the fate of billions of dollars of Trump-era deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
But arms control advocates ― who still want transparency measures and a revamp of Trump’s conventional arms sale policy to prioritize human rights over industry concerns ― aren’t exactly celebrating.
“It’s not quite clear yet where the administration will land on what weapons they deem to be offensive,” said Annie Shiel, of the Center for Civilians in Conflict. “And then of course we’ve seen other sales that indicate the Biden administration may be staying the course on less high-profile, but still very concerning arm sales.”
The Biden administration has faced criticism in recent days for approving a $197 million missile sale to Egypt despite human rights concerns, as well as for not immediately reinstating Obama-era limits on the use of certain antipersonnel land mines, which Trump lifted.
“While the suspension and review of the sales to the Gulf was promising ... that’s why the Egyptian sale was so disappointing,” said Elias Yousif, the deputy director of the Security Assistance Monitor program.
Yousif added that Biden’s deliberation on landmines “undermines the spirit of the commitment that was made during the [Biden] campaign about elevating human rights and considerations about aligning U.S. arms transfers with American values, and doing so quickly.”
Still, advocates see potential for action from Congress as well.
The new Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and the new House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., have both vocally opposed certain Trump-era arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The idea is they could tee up any of the bills aimed at elevating concern for human rights and international humanitarian law in deciding which nations should be eligible to receive U.S. weaponry.
Those bills collectively, said Shiel, “indicate a really strong consensus among members of Congress that the armed transfer system is really broken, when it comes to human rights and the protection of civilians especially and needs to be fixed. Looking forward to this year, we can expect to see probably some of those to be reintroduced and maybe even combined.”
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.