A century ago, as Europe was emerging from World War I, there was a consensus that arms proliferation had been one of the chief causes of the conflict. This is why Article Eight of the Covenant of the League of Nations affirmed that “the manufacture by private enterprise of munitions and implements of war is open to grave objections.” The League was therefore committed to the regulation and curtailment of the private arms industry.
Today, that old consensus has largely been forgotten, and the U.S. arms industry—uncurtailed and inadequately regulated—does a brisk business in every corner of the world, but especially in the Middle East. The effects of this are especially gruesome in Yemen, where since 2015 Saudi Arabia has been engaged in an unremitting air war, supplied and supported chiefly by U.S. arms manufacturers. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) estimates that in the past five years at least 112,000 people have been killed as a direct result of the conflict, including 12,600 civilians killed in targeted attacks. ACLED estimates there were more than 25,000 fatalities in 2019 alone. According to UNICEF, “Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with more than 24 million people—some 80 per cent of the population—in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 12 million children.” Since the Saudi air campaign began, UNICEF reports that Yemen has become “a living hell” for the country’s children. And the scale of the humanitarian crisis has only been magnified by COVID-19.
Saudi Arabia cannot wage war on this scale without Washington’s seal of approval. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Saudi Arabia was the world’s largest importer of arms between 2015 and 2019—the first four years of its war in Yemen—with a whopping 73 percent of those imports coming from the United States. Although U.S. support for the Saudi campaign began under the Obama administration, President Donald Trump has bent over backward to accommodate the Saudis and replenish their arsenal. Three of Trump’s eight vetoes have involved Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen: he blocked two congressional prohibitions of arms sales and a joint resolution directing the removal of U.S. armed forces from hostilities in Yemen.
The Trump administration has been able to fill the Saudi shopping list by manipulating the federal regulatory scheme designed to ensure congressional oversight of foreign-arms transfers. Two federal laws, the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) and the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA), govern foreign military sales and direct commercial sales to foreign consumers. (Foreign military sales are government to government, while direct commercial sales are between U.S. firms and foreign governments or international organizations.)
Generally, under the AECA and the FAA, the executive branch is free to proceed with an arms sale unless Congress passes legislation that prohibits or modifies the proposed sale at any time prior to the actual transfer of arms. Even then, the president may veto this legislation, and then, unless Congress can muster enough votes to override the veto, the sale proceeds. In short, without overwhelming bipartisan opposition to an arms sale Congress’s ability to stop it is relatively modest. In 2019, under the provisions of AECA, Congress passed two resolutions challenging the Trump administration’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Trump vetoed them both in July of that year, and that was the end of that.