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Is Trump’s Saudi Arms Deal the Worst Arms Deal Ever?

A. Trevor Thrall

Over the weekend, President Trump inked an arms deal with Saudi
Arabia worth $110 billion — the largest single arms sale in
United States history. Trump’s rationale is that arming Saudi
Arabia will help in the fight against terrorism and help contain
Iran’s negative influence in the Middle East. The deal also fits
Trump’s “America First” vision of a transactional foreign policy
centered on U.S. economic interests.

Sadly, although Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared
helped negotiate
the Saudis a great deal, the agreement will
come with a significantly higher price tag for the region and for
the U.S.

The administration has yet to release all the specifics, but
according to the State Department the deal would
“significantly augment”
Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities
(which were not too shabby to begin with). Land systems in the deal
include tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, artillery,
and counter-mortar radar systems. The sea leg includes four of the
new (and oft-troubled) U.S. Littoral Combat Ships, as well as
patrol boats and associated weapons. The Royal Saudi Air Force will
receive new transport, light close air support, and ISR aircraft.
The deal will also provide missile defense systems like the
Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system and improvements
to cybersecurity and communications networks.

Trump’s decision to sell
billions of dollars of advanced weaponry to a nation with one of
the world’s worst records on human rights is not an example of
foreign policy realism—it is an abdication of American

The biggest losers in the short run will be the
citizens of Yemen
. The U.S. has backed the Saudis from the
beginning of the war, which has been justified by the desire to
root out al Qaeda elements and curb an insurgency believed to have
Iranian support.

But the cure has been far worse than the disease. Last month,
the United Nations
called Yemen
“the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.” In
just three years the war has displaced millions, killed thousands
of civilians, and now threatens most of Yemen’s citizens with
starvation and disease. Human rights organizations
have documented
numerous possible Saudi war crimes throughout
the campaign. Trump’s arms deal will allow the Saudis to escalate
their attacks in Yemen, ensuring American complicity in the
devastation that follows.

Longer term, this deal weakens the ability of the U.S. to
advance the cause of human rights around the world. Though human
rights concerns must sometimes take a back seat to security
concerns, criticism from
both sides
of the aisle makes it clear that this is not one of
those times. By failing to make human rights improvements a
condition of the deal or even to raise the issue publicly, Trump’s
decision to sell billions of dollars of advanced weaponry to a
nation with one of the world’s
worst records
on human rights is not an example of foreign
policy realism—it is an abdication of American

At the strategic level the deal also fails to pass muster. By
empowering Saudi Arabia, Trump believes he is combating terrorism
and containing Iran. In reality, the deal will do little if
anything to lower the risk of terrorism in the U.S. In fact, the
deal rewards a nation that has
worked hard
to support the spread of the radical Islamist views
that underpin Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. What the deal will
do, however, is further destabilize a region already in dangerous
flux thanks not only to terrorism but also to widespread civil and
sectarian conflicts.

In addition to directly fueling conflict in Yemen and creating
future anti-American terrorists, arming Saudi Arabia heightens
tensions with
and raises the likelihood of an arms race with Iran. But
adding more weapons to an already-fragile region won’t be the
catalyst for lasting peace. Only diplomacy can hope to solve the
deeply rooted animosities and security dilemmas that plague the
Middle East. Unfortunately, by taking sides the U.S. loses the
ability to play the role of neutral broker in future diplomatic

Finally, this arms deal will help ensure that the U.S. remains
entangled in the Middle East for years to come. The past 16 years
of experience in the region should have taught us that American
intervention to combat terrorism is of limited value, and that
fighting other people’s battles is a losing cause. In spite of
this, Trump has enthusiastically committed the U.S. to a closer
partnership with Saudi Arabia that will give many people greater
reason to resent the U.S., encourage U.S. leaders to continue
meddling in Middle Eastern affairs, and further destabilize the
regional balance of power.

The Saudis may have given Trump a gold medal for his visit, but
it’s doubtful that history will do the same for this arms deal.


is a senior fellow for the Cato Institute’s Defense and Foreign
Policy Department and an associate professor at George Mason
University”s Schar School of Policy and Government.