President Trump forcefully argued last week that selling weapons to a dictator — the king of Saudi Arabia — is more important for our national security than upholding human rights norms.
This is terribly wrong. Selling weapons to dictators and violators of human rights standards helps to fuel civil war, instability and terrorism around the world. When we embolden dictators, we encourage rogue regimes to act with impunity, jail dissidents and kill those who might hold such regimes accountable.
Saudi Arabia, for one, is using American weapons in its war in Yemen. This means the United States is fueling one of the worst humanitarian disasters in a generation.
Trump has argued for the economic benefit of arms deals, but the reality is that U.S. taxpayers subsidize these sales to the tune of billions of dollars. This is in addition to the $59 billion in weapons we’ve given out for free, including last month’s $1.2 billion in aid to the military dictatorship in Egypt.
And although Trump claims that the weapons industry is an indispensable job creator, this too is untrue. Data show that government investment in education, healthcare and clean energy create more jobs than investment in the defense industry.
The question is not economic, but moral: Who should the United States provide arms to? What conditions must be met before a country gets access to the most deadly arsenal in history? The American government needs a litmus test.
As it turns out, members of Congress already have such a litmus test in place: The U.S. Arms Transfer Code of Conduct. They’re just not enforcing it.
The code lays out criteria, including human rights standards, that states must meet in order to engage in arms deals with the United States. It was passed in 1999 amid concerns that dictators, thugs and terrorist cells were getting American weapons, only to turn them on our soldiers. This was the case in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.
The problem is that the code remains entirely optional, unenforced and largely meaningless if the president bypasses it with a national security exemption waiver.
Congress should enact a new code of conduct to make compliance mandatory, not voluntary, in four key areas.
The United States needs to ban arms deals to dictators and rogue regimes. It is utterly wrong for the blood of political prisoners and dissidents to be on the hands of American taxpayers.
Arms deals should be restricted to countries that respect human rights. Equal rights for LGBTQ people, strong protections for political dissent, laws against human trafficking and robust religious freedoms should all be requisites. States that don’t respect such rights are worthy of neither our trust nor our support.
We shouldn’t be in business with state sponsors of terrorism. Giving weapons to countries such as Saudi Arabia, known for exporting extremism and fostering insurgency across the Middle East, will haunt the United States for years to come. Arming terrorists, however indirectly, has resulted in a boomerang effect in which our weapons are used to kill our own service members.
Finally, American weapons should not go to countries that foment war in their own neighboring countries, as Saudi Arabia is doing now in Yemen. Pouring weapons into regional conflicts destroys our international legitimacy and, as the war in Yemen shows, exacerbates some of the bloodiest conflicts on the planet.
A mandatory code of conduct would be incredibly sensible legislation for Congress to pass. Congress could, for instance, change existing laws to allow it to repeal presidential exemptions and forbid the Departments of Defense and State from authorizing arms sales to any country that violates the code.
Contrary to Trump’s statements, limiting his ability to sell weapons makes good economic sense. It is also a moral necessity.