The chairman of the House panel that oversees U.S. defense spending last Saturday suggested that U.S. sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia that the Kingdom is using in its war against Houthi rebels should be cut off on moral grounds.

Asked during a panel discussion if she supports halting or reducing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, in particular weapons that the U.S. is selling to the country that are being used against the rebels, Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) replied, “I think it’s hard to say yes until we have the full picture of it but if we have the full picture already I would say no, we should not sell.”

Granger was part of a panel discussion on security cooperation and international arms sales at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California. She pointed out that through arms sales the U.S. builds relationships and “friendships” that are long-term commitments but also noted that the situation in Yemen is “horrendous.”

Graphic model of the Saudi Multi-Mission Surface Combatant (MMSC). (Image: Lockheed Martin)
Graphic model of the Saudi Multi-Mission Surface Combatant (MMSC). Lockheed Martin is building four of the ships for sale to Saudi Arabia. (Image: Lockheed Martin)

The House Appropriations Committee also funds some sales of U.S. weapons to foreign partners. Granger chairs the committee’s defense panel until January when Democrats take charge of the House.

Saudi air strikes against the rebels, who have fired ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia, have led to numerous civilian casualties, bringing condemnation from some in the U.S. Congress and concern from some government officials. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in August warned Saudi Arabia that U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition war in Yemen isn’t “unconditional.”

However, President Trump last month maintained his “America First” support for Saudi commitments to purchase $110 billion in U.S. arms, some of which are already contracted for although with most of the orders still to come. Trump is concerned that if U.S. companies don’t get the weapons business, Russia and China will. He also said Saudi Arabia would withdraw from the conflict in Yemen if Iran would end its support for the Houthis.

Granger said that there is a “moral obligation” that comes with international arms sales, adding, “I think that’s what the American people are reflecting and we will have to say, ‘if there is a country that is a semi-ally, let’s say, but they thumb their nose at us, it does change the relationship.’”

According to the State Department, Saudi Arabia is the largest customer of U.S. foreign military sales with over $114 billion in active cases. In May 2017, Saudi Arabia agreed to $110 billion in U.S. weapons purchases, a deal the State Department says is expected to result in a “significant increase” in further foreign military and direct commercial sales.

Andrea Thompson, the undersecretary of state for Arms Control and International Security, said during the panel discussion that Congress has held up some of the sales to Saudi Arabia for more than a year, adding an “incredible amount of equipment” is on hold by Congress.

Thompson noted that the U.S. has partnered with Saudi Arabia for more than 40 years and over seven presidential administrations. Arms sales to the Kingdom protect U.S. citizens passing through the region and U.S. troops in the region, and help the country counter Iran’s “malign” influence in the region.

Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for Policy during the first half of the Obama administration, pointed out that one risk that comes with arms sales is that how they are used—as in the case of Saudi Arabia using U.S.-made precision guided weapons that have killed Yemeni citizens—“reverberates back to us in terms of how things are perceived.”

The panel was moderated by Josh Rogin, a columnist for the Washington Post’s Global Opinions section, who displayed a slide put together by the International Institute for Strategic Studies showing a about a dozen countries that China has sold armed drones to versus just two countries that are approved to arm unmanned aircraft systems after they’ve been delivered by the U.S. He asked Thompson why China is ahead of the U.S. here.

Thompson said the Trump administration has begun to implement policy changes to existing U.S. regulations to allow armed drone sales to certain foreign partners and allies. Rogin said that despite the policy changes earlier this year there hasn’t been any change in U.S. armed unmanned UAS sales. Thompson pointed out those discussions with allies take “years” to turn into orders and sales and that from fiscal years 2017 to 2018 U.S. international arms sales increased 13 percent.

Industry and foreign partners are saying the policy changes have led to more efficiency and transparency in arms deals, she said. Thompson also said that once foreign military sales packets reach her office for a decision, they don’t languish for “days, weeks and months.”

Authority for these approvals used to be at the secretary level but Thompson said that earlier this year it was delegated to her.

“It seems like a small decision,” she said. “It carves weeks and months out of that process and I’ve told my industry partners and partners and allies, when a foreign military sales packet gets into my inbox it does not spend the night there, and I guarantee you that.”