Senate defeats measure to ban precision weapons from Saudi arms deal

In a close vote, the Senate beat back an effort to partially derail the arms deal with Saudi Arabia.  The bill would have denied the kingdom access to American precision-guided weapons.  Four Republicans voted against the measure, but five Democrats crossed the aisle to vote with the GOP majority.

Opposition to the deal was based on the bloody Saudi war against Houthi rebels in Yemen that has resulted in thousands of civilian casualties. 

The Hill:

The vote broke down mainly along party lines. Four Republicans – Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Todd Young of Indiana, and Dean Heller of Nevada – voted against the sale. Five Democrats broke with their party and assured Trump's victory: Virginia's Mark Warner, Missouri's Claire McCaskill, West Virginia's Joe Manchin, Florida's Bill Nelson, and Indiana's Joe Donnelly. Activists denounced the Democrats who broke ranks and accused them of caring more about contributions from weapons makers than the lives of Yemeni children.

In anticipation of the vote, a coalition of peace and humanitarian aid groups launched a vigorous campaign to support the anti-weapons resolution sponsored by Sens. Chris Murphy, Rand Paul and Al Franken. Thousands of activists around the nation emailed, called, and visited their senators. Among the more clever tactics was a teach-in on Saudi Arabia in the D.C. office of Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) by activists who refused to leave until the senator released a public statement against the sale.

On the other side were lobbyists for the Saudi government and the weapons industry. Officials from the Trump administration also lobbied extensively, spending hours before the vote frantically making phone calls and holding briefings with lawmakers when they realized the vote would be a close one.

The vote reflected an unprecedented level of opposition in the Senate. Murphy and Paul tried to pass a similar resolution of disapproval during Obama's presidency last fall, but the measure failed by a 71-27 vote. "Today's vote total would've been unthinkable not long ago, but Congress is finally taking notice that Saudi Arabia is using U.S. munitions to deliberately hit civilian targets inside Yemen," said Murphy. The more cynical interpretation would be that Democrats are more willing to criticize Saudi weapons sales under a Trump administration than under a Democratic one.

The Israelis have expressed concern over the arms deal but have not unleashed a full court press against it.  That's because the Saudis are a front-line state against Iranian hegemony in the region, and while the two countries remain enemies, the Israelis realize that Saudi Arabia need to protect itself.

As for the war in Yemen, the Iran-backed Houthis are well supplied by Tehran and receive weapons and training from the Revolutionary Guards.  The Saudis need the precision-guided munitions to maintain a qualitative advantage over the enemy. 

Senator Paul said it would be "counterproductive" to support the arms sale while supporting Israel.  That would have been true a decade ago, when the potential for conflict between Israel and Saudi Arabia was much higher.  Today, both countries recognize a tacit alliance against Iran – the real enemy of both Sunni Muslims and Jews in the region. 

The Saudi war against the Houthis will continue whether the Saudis get the weapons or not.  Also, there are other sources for precision weapons than the U.S. that the Saudis have access to.  The opposition to the deal is a case of moral posturing that would have little or no impact on civilian deaths in Yemen.