clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Europe's call for a Saudi arms embargo exposes America’s hypocrisy

Yemeni men inspect the damage at the site of a Saudi-led coalition air strike which hit a sewing workshop, in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, on February 14, 2016.
Yemeni men inspect the damage at the site of a Saudi-led coalition air strike which hit a sewing workshop, in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, on February 14, 2016.

On Thursday, the European Parliament overwhelmingly voted in favor of a resolution calling on the European Union to impose an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia.

The non-binding resolution encourages EU governments to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, which is accused of targeting civilians in its military campaign in Yemen.

Whether or not European governments obey the resolution, the EU's resolution stands in stark and telling contrast to the United States, which is playing an even larger role in not just arming Saudi Arabia but directly aiding its war in Yemen. It calls attention to just how hypocritical and cynical this US policy looks to the rest of the world — which tells us something important about why the US is doing this anyway.

The European resolution came as the result of something we don't really have in the US: mass outrage over the Saudi war in Yemen.

Some 750,000 European citizens signed a petition calling for the suspension of weapon sales. Human rights groups accuse Saudi Arabia of deliberately targeting civilians, bombing hospitals and schools, and using cluster bombs in residential neighborhoods. Many Europeans, especially Brits, have become increasingly furious over Saudi Arabia's conduct in the Yemen war and are no longer comfortable with their governments selling Saudi Arabia the weapons it's using to commit these atrocities.

As reported by Reuters, the UK and France are the main European suppliers of arms to Saudi Arabia. According to the EU lawmakers who called for the arms embargo, Britain has licensed more than $3 billion of arms sales to Saudi Arabia since Saudi-led forces began military operations in Yemen in March last year. Germany also licensed arms exports of almost $200 million to the Saudis in the first six months of 2015.

Control Arms

But none of this compares to the level of military support the US has given Saudi Arabia for its war on Yemen.

"Since March 25, [2015]," writes Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, "the United States has been providing in-air refueling, combat-search-and-rescue support (including the rescue of two Saudi pilots whose helicopter crashed in the Gulf of Aden), detailing forty-five intelligence analysts to help advise on target selection, and redoubling weapons exports and contractor support" to the Saudis and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in the Saudi-led coalition.

A Congressional Research Service report also states, "Since September 2014, the Obama Administration has notified Congress of proposed Foreign Military Sales to Saudi Arabia with a potential value of more than $21 billion."

Some US members of Congress have raised concerns over these proposed arms sales, but they have not come anywhere close to calling for a complete arms embargo, as their European counterparts just did.

Al-Monitor reported in October 2015 that Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed the sale of precision-guided bombs to the Saudis out of concern over Saudi's actions in Yemen. And Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has even suggested that US support for Saudi airstrikes could violate legislation he authored that makes it illegal for the US to provide assistance to the security forces of a country if the US has credible information that it's engaged in "gross human rights violations."

Having the European Parliament issue a strong call for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia in condemnation of its massive human rights violations in its war on Yemen makes the Obama administration's continued support for that war even more controversial. And maybe it should.

The US does not even have a direct interest in supporting a war on Yemen. And in fact the war has actually strengthened al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the al-Qaeda branch in Yemen that has tried several times to directly attack the US.

But the Obama administration does believe it has a direct interest in supporting Saudi Arabia, as the Saudis are seen by the administration as a crucial ally in the fight against ISIS (though just how useful an ally they actually are in this fight is up for debate), and as an important partner in the Middle East more generally. And the war in Yemen is a huge deal to the Saudi regime.

Thus, despite any increased pressure the Obama administration may feel after the European Parliament's call for an arms embargo, and despite the wider perception (entirely valid) that the US is actively supporting a government that is committing gross human rights violations, it is unlikely that the US will stop supporting the Saudi war in Yemen anytime soon.

"U.S. support for a military campaign that is inflicting extreme hardship on civilians in one of the Mideast’s poorest countries," writes Colum Lynch in Foreign Policy, "provides an awkward counterpoint to the Obama administration’s stated commitment to stand up for the region’s oppressed people."

It's not just awkward. It exposes the Obama administration's hypocrisy — shared by previous administrations — and severely undermines US claims of moral authority. The Obama administration is right to condemn the Assad regime in Syria for barrel-bombing its citizens and the Russians for helping Assad in his brutal campaign. But when the US is backing a country that is also accused of bombing civilians and contributing to a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, these condemnations of Assad ring hollow to a lot of ears, especially Middle Eastern ears.

The Obama administration has faced similar criticism before. For instance, it claimed to back the democratic aspirations of the Arab Spring protesters in Egypt, and did indeed support the country's first democratically elected government. But when military leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi deposed that government in a coup, the US objected and punished Sisi at first, but eventually resigned itself to partnering with the military dictator.

This is not just a problem unique to the Obama administration, either. Rather, it's a longstanding dilemma that has plagued US foreign policy for decades, especially (though certainly not exclusively) in the Middle East.

This stems from the inherent tension between two core elements of America's identity as a nation: the idealistic vision of America as a beacon of freedom and democracy on the one hand, and the vision of America as the leading world power whose job and responsibility it is to maintain order and stability — not just politically, but also economically — around the world. In other words, it's a clash between idealism and realism.

And this tension is what creates the discordant foreign policy that is often (justifiably) perceived as plain hypocrisy.

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration chose realism; it chose interests over values. It chose to provide arms, knowing what those arms would do, because of what it would get in return.

Yes, the Obama administration may very well disapprove of how the Saudis are conducting the war in Yemen. It may see their actions as a violation of the US's stated moral and ethical commitment to defending human rights, and as ultimately not just wrong but counterproductive.

But the administration also clearly sees the Saudis — rightly or wrongly — as a necessary partner in the bigger effort to restore stability to the Middle East by defeating ISIS, ending the civil war in Syria, and ensuring that other parts of the region, such as Egypt and Jordan, remain relatively stable.

As all US administrations — and really all governments in general — have had to do, the Obama administration has made a trade-off: in this case, trading its moral and ethical authority for a chance at stability. History will be the judge of whether that was the right call. Meanwhile, the bombs in Yemen will continue falling.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.