The Corner

National Security & Defense

Arms Deals Give Leverage to America, Not the Saudis

President Donald Trump holds a chart of military hardware sales as he welcomes Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., March 20, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters )

Of all the talking points justifying American inaction in response to the indescribably brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, perhaps the worst is the idea that the Saudis somehow have leverage over America because of their large-scale arms deals.

The truth is exactly the reverse.

The Saudi military is highly dependent on advanced American weaponry. American F-15s comprise close to half the Saudi fighter force, and the Saudi variant of the F-15E Strike Eagle represents a substantial portion of the air force’s striking power. On land, the Saudi army is dependent almost exclusively on American M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. They can’t just waltz over to a different country and transform their armed forces — not without suffering enormous setbacks in readiness and effectiveness during a years-long transition. A fundamental reality of arms deals is that a major arms purchase essentially locks the purchasing nation in a dependent posture for training, spare parts, and technical upgrades.

Indeed, one of the reasons for engaging in an arms transaction — aside from the economic benefit — is that the transaction gives America enormous power over the national defense of the purchasing nation. You buy our weapons, and we gain power over you. Well, we gain potential power. The question is whether we have the will to exercise that power.

Moreover, Trump’s claim that the Saudis could simply go to China or Russia betrays an odd ignorance about Chinese and Russian arms. Many of their most advanced weapons aren’t quite ready for prime time. If the Saudis are terrified of Iran, purchasing worse weapons that would require new training cycles, new spare parts, and new technical relationships is a terrible option. It’s a recipe for a serious military setback.

For example — as Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin observes — the State Department just approved the sale of Terminal High Altitude Air Defense missile-defense system to the Saudis. The Saudis are rightfully concerned about Iranian missile attack. Is it the position of the Trump administration that the Saudis have leverage over us if they cancel that deal and seek an inferior missile-defense system from a competing country? As Rogin says, Trump’s thinking is “totally and completely backwards.”

Buying a weapons platform is not like choosing between a Honda Accord and a Toyota Camry — where if one dealer ticks you off, you can just walk across the street and immediately get a substantially similar product. Trump is displaying his ignorance here, and his surrogates on television (many of whom know better) are exploiting understandable civic ignorance to push the administration’s line. We can’t expect Americans to know exactly how arms deals work or how F-15s are serviced and upgraded. But we should expect the president to understand these realities.

For all the president’s bluster, he’s demonstrating a surprising timidity in the face of an undeniable provocation from one of our more mendacious “allies.” We hold the cards in this alliance, and it’s time — for once — to stand up to a repressive and brutal regime, even if we do have a common Iranian foe. The world’s strongest nation, with the world’s largest economy, needs Saudi Arabia far less than they need us. End support for the brutal Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen. Impose conditions on continued American military cooperation with Saudi Arabia. It’s time for the junior partner in this alliance to finally learn its place.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Kat Timpf Chased Out of Brooklyn Bar

Fox News personality and National Review contributor Kat Timpf was forced to leave a bar in Brooklyn over the weekend after a woman she had never met became enraged upon learning she worked in conservative media. Timpf, who has twice previously been harassed while socializing in New York City, first described ... Read More
Film & TV

The Dan Crenshaw Moment

Given the spirit of our times, things could have gone so differently. On November 3, when Saturday Night Live comic Pete Davidson mocked Texas Republican Dan Crenshaw’s eye patch, saying he looked like a “hit man in a porno movie” — then adding, “I know he lost his eye in war or whatever” — it was a ... Read More

The Present American Revolution

The revolution of 1776 sought to turn a colony of Great Britain into a new independent republic based on constitutionally protected freedom. It succeeded with the creation of the United States. The failed revolution of 1861, by a slave-owning South declaring its independence from the Union, sought to bifurcate ... Read More

Fire Brenda Snipes

Brenda Snipes, the supervisor of elections in Florida’s Broward County, does not deserve to be within a thousand miles of any election office anywhere in these United States. She should be fired at the earliest possible opportunity. Snipes has held her position since 2003, in which year her predecessor, ... Read More

Florida’s Shame, and Ours

Conspiracy theories are bad for civic life. So are conspiracies. I wonder if there is one mentally normal adult walking these fruited plains -- even the most craven, abject, brain-dead partisan Democrat -- who believes that what has been going on in Broward County, Fla., is anything other than a brazen ... Read More

How Immigration Changes Britain

Almost nothing is discussed as badly in America or Europe as the subject of immigration. And one reason is that it remains almost impossible to have any sensible or rational public discussion of its consequences. Or rather it is eminently possible to have a discussion about the upsides (“diversity,” talent, ... Read More