Among Donald Trump’s many unusual characteristics as president is his frankness.
Few world leaders, or former US presidents, would have been so bold as to publicly admit that a Saudi journalist’s life is not worth the loss of arms sales.
However, the president has it wrong when he argues the US would be “foolish” to use these sales as leverage with the Saudis, claiming they could just get their tanks and fighter jets from other countries. In fact, it’s one of the best bargaining chips he has with the kingdom.
An Arms-Buying Behemoth
Saudi Arabia is indeed a major weapons buyer.
But since it doesn’t have an arms industry – like the US and China – Saudi Arabia must import most of that from other countries. That’s why, over the past decade, Saudi Arabia more armaments than every country but India.
That has made Saudi Arabia the top buyer of American arms, with 11.8 percent of all sales over that period. In fact, US defense contractors have made almost $90 billion arms to Saudi Arabia since 1950.
For example, a 2011 contract awarded $30 billion to US defense contractors to produce 84 F-15 jets and other weaponry for the Saudi military. Boeing stands to earn $24 billion of this total, which the company claimed will support over 50,000 US jobs.
A Bargain Over Human Rights
During the trip, he reportedly struck a bargain with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: Trump wouldn’t lecture his kingdom on human rights, and Saudi Arabia would buy more American weapons.
Unfortunately, Trump’s claim to have secured $110 billion in arms sales has not materialised. Although the Saudis signed numerous letters of intent and interest, some of which had been by the Obama administration, no new have resulted, due mainly to lower oil prices and the Saudis’ costly war in Yemen.
So in the Khashoggi affair, it appears that Trump is eager to keep to his end of the bargain.
He has avoided criticising the Saudi government over its alleged role in Khashoggi’s disappearance to curry favour with the monarchy over arms sales.
In defending this course of action, Trump claimed that “if they don’t buy (weapons) from us, they’re going to buy it from Russia or they’re going to buy it from China or they’re going to buy it from other countries.”
US Leverage in Arms Sales
First, once a country is “locked in” to a specific kind of weapons system, such as planes, tanks or naval vessels, the cost to to a different supplier can be huge. Military personnel must be retrained on new equipment, spare parts need to be replaced, and operational changes may be necessary.
To maintain its military superiority in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has opted to purchase virtually all of its weapons from American and European companies.
That is why the US has significant leverage in this aspect of the relationship. Any to retaliate against a ban on US arms sales by buying weapons from countries that have not raised concerns about the Khashoggi disappearance would not be credible. This is probably why, despite worries in the White House, such a threat has not yet been made.
Selling Ideals For Short-Term Gains
But despite these moments, the US managed also to maintain its authority by advocating respect for human rights as a global norm during the Cold War, and within many repressive regimes ever since.
Such a bald-faced strategy, in my view, sells American values short and weakens US global credibility.
(The author is Clinical Professor of International Business, Pennsylvania State University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.)
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