falling short

Senate effort to block F-35, drone sales to UAE fails

The sales are anticipated to proceed without further interruption

Mark C. Olsen

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez speaks at a ceremony at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., Feb. 4, 2019.

The Senate rejected a push on Wednesday to block the Trump administration’s plan to sell $23 billion in advanced military technology to the United Arab Emirates — a package that includes F-35 stealth fighter jets and MQ9 Reaper armed drones — clearing the way for the sale to proceed.

Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) led the push to halt the sales with a series of resolutions aimed at stopping various elements of the transaction. The resolution to stop the F-35 sales failed by a vote of 49 to 47 and the resolution to halt the UAV sales failed by a vote of 50 to 46 late Wednesday afternoon.

Paul was the only Republican to vote for either resolution. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Mark Kelly (D-AZ) joined the bulk of Senate Republicans in voting against the resolution to block the UAV sales, but Kelly voted for the resolution blocking the F-35 sales.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), David Perdue (R-GA) and Mike Rounds (R-SD) did not vote. With their absences, 49 votes would have been required for the measures to pass.

Paul acknowledged to reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday that it was “a long shot to win” and successfully block the sales, given that the Senate rarely intervenes in such matters.

The Israeli government and the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC both supported the sale. Once completed, the UAE will be the first Arab nation to have the F-35 jets in its arsenal.

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), who voted against the resolutions, emphasized on the Senate floor Wednesday, “this sale continues to allow even more interoperability between the United States, the UAE and Israel,” and would be a boon for American companies and workers as well.

The senators leading the push against the sales had argued that a range of unaddressed questions and concerns pertaining to the deal remained unanswered, including the UAE’s defense relationships with Russia and China, the potential for a Middle East arms race, the Emirates’ human rights record, the UAE’s involvement in the Yemen conflict, past incidents in which U.S. weapons sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE ended up in the hands of Al Qaeda and Iranian-linked fighters in Yemen and the UAE’s violation of a U.N. arms embargo in Libya.

“It’s as if we intentionally don’t want to consider all of these issues,” Paul said on the Senate floor Wednesday prior to the vote, emphasizing that the U.S. was moving “at warp speed” to complete the deal.

The legislators also argued that the administration had failed to articulate how the arms sales would serve to protect U.S. interests or U.S national security.

“We have yet to understand what military threat the F-35s or armed drones will be addressing vis à vis Iran… As recently as last year the UAE continued to host companies who facilitate Iranian financial transactions in violation of various U.S. sanctions,” Menendez said. “Arming partners with complex weapons systems that could take years to come online is not a serious strategy to confront the very real and timely threats from Iran.”

Paul added his concern that sending advanced weaponry to the UAE and other countries in the region would undermine Israel’s qualitative military edge and create a perpetual arms race in the region, with Israel scrambling to stay ahead of other regional powers, and those nations subsequently demanding the same equipment as Israel.

The senators further criticized the administration for bypassing the longstanding informal precedent of allowing Congress 40 days to review arms sales before providing a formal notification, including briefings for members of Congress and their staffers.

“The administration was so desperate to rush through the sale before the end of their administration that they blew through the consultation process. It just didn’t happen,” Murphy said. “This would be yet another chip away at Congress’ participation in the setting of U.S. national security policy. I’m not sure we’ll get it back.”

Murphy also warned Republicans that they were handing future Democratic administrations a blank check to avoid consulting with Congress on future arms sales.

“If you vote against these resolutions, you are essentially saying the Biden administration does not have to consult with Congress,” he said. “Anybody who votes against these resolutions is essentially endorsing an end [run] around… Congress by any administration.”

Similar legislation that aimed to block the sale was introduced in the House by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY).

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