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Senate bid to block UAE arms sales falls short

Two votes seeking to block $23 billion in U.S. sales of stealth fighter jets and advanced drones to the United Arab Emirates fizzled in the Senate on Wednesday.
Image: Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-35 jet is unveiled in Fort Worth,
Lockheed Martin Corp.'s F-35 jet is unveiled in Fort Worth, Texas, on July 7, 2006.Mike Fuentes / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — An effort to block $23 billion in U.S. sales of stealth fighter jets and advanced, weaponized drones to the United Arab Emirates fizzled in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, with a pair of resolutions failing short of a majority despite concerns about the sale from Israel advocates, human rights groups and lawmakers from both parties.

Both resolutions — one focused on the F-35 jets and the other on Reaper drones — narrowly fell short of a majority. The resolution opposing the F-35s failed on a 47-49 vote. The drones resolution failed 46-50, with both of Arizona’s Democrats Sens. Krysten Sinema and Mark Kelly voting against it, ensuring the resolution would fail in the closely divided Senate.

Yet President Donald Trump had already indicated he plans to veto the resolutions, raising the bar for opponents of the arms sale, who would have needed a veto-proof majority to overcome Trump’s veto pen.

Still, the votes come as President Trump faces the likelihood that his veto will be overridden for the first time in his presidency on another national security-related matter, after the House passed the annual National Defense Authorization Act with veto-proof margins despite Trump’s threat to nix the bill if it reached his desk.

The votes Wednesday on the Emirati deal came shortly before a 30-day window closes on Friday for Congress to step in to block the sale. By law, foreign military sales cleared by the administration are able to proceed unless Congress acts to block it within 30 days of being formally notified of the proposed sale.

Wednesday's measures were opposed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who on the Senate floor Tuesday called the timing “baffling” and added: The strategic realties dictate that Congress should not stand in the way of this sale.”

On Wednesday, the White House made clear it would be poised to veto the resolution if it reached the president’s desk. The White House’s Office of Management and budget said the administration “strongly opposes” the resolutions and asserted that the arms sales “directly support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States.”

The Trump administration has been readying the sale of as many as 50 F-35 jets, up to 18 Reaper drones and munitions to the UAE over bipartisan congressional opposition, as Trump’s time in office draws quickly to a close.

“We continue to work with the UAE on the letters of offer and acceptance that, if concluded, would finalize any deal,” Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper said Tuesday.

The State Department has said the arms sale to UAE and others in the region will help Gulf allies defend against Iran and bolster Israel’s security. Critics argue it will start an arms race with Tehran. The proposed agreement followed shortly after Abu Dhabi formally recognized Israel as a state.

In August, even as Israel and the UAE signed a landmark U.S.-brokered peace agreement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said publicly he had opposed the sale of F-35s to the UAE, which could weaken his nation's “qualitative military edge” over its neighbors that the U.S. has long committed to preserving. Netanyahu said at the time that the F-35s weren’t part of the peace deal.

But Israel’s government has since lifted its opposition, and in a joint interview with the Emirati ambassador this week on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer downplayed the issue.

"What keeps me up at night is actually not the proposed F-35 sale to the Emirates," said Dermer. He added, in a reference to the incoming Biden administration: "What keeps me up at night is the idea that somebody would return to the nuclear deal with Iran."

International human rights groups have also called for a halt to the sale, pointing to the Emirates’ record for targeting and killing civilians in Yemen, selling U.S. weapons to extremists and even violating an international arms embargo in Libya.

“These U.S. drones could be responsible for UAE attacks that violate international humanitarian law and kill, as well as injure, thousands of Yemeni civilians already bearing the brunt of the one of the world’s most devastating humanitarian catastrophes,” Philippe Nassif, the advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA, has warned.

A key question for lawmakers was whether the UAE could be trusted to safeguard the F-35’s coveted stealth technology and prevent it from falling into the hands of adversaries, said Brad Bowman of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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“Are we confident that the technology associated with the F-35, which is the most advanced in the world, will be sufficiently protected? Would the UAE do what is necessary to protect the technology to make sure it doesn't leak to others, primarily the Russians and the Chinese?” said Bowman, a former GOP national security advisor in the Senate.

Cooper said the effect of the sale on humanitarian crisis in the region was an ongoing consideration but noted that the UAE “have proved themselves over and over again,” to be a “partner that we could count on.”

“The United States definitely takes these obligations seriously. We engage with all of our allies and partners when and where reports of any unauthorized use, applications, or transfers are alleged to occur,” Cooper said. “We are committed to protecting civilians.”

“Ask yourself whether what the Middle East is missing today is weaponized Reaper drones that can shoot Hellfire missiles with zero risk of human life loss to the operator of that drone?” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., one of a number of senators who put forward resolutions to disapprove of the sale, said in an interview last week.